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A Less-Is-More Toy Strategy + 10 Toys Even Minimalist Parents Can Get Behind

Day after day ended the exact same way: me, exhausted and longing to climb into bed… but instead walking around our apartment, gathering the random toys our kids had pulled out, played with for two seconds, and left in the middle of the floor. 

For way too long I accepted this as part of my life, one of the responsibilities that came with parenting small children.

But eventually, it dawned on me that I was in charge of my grown-up life (crazy, huh?), and if I didn’t want to finish all of my days collecting Tonka trucks and toy telephones, I didn’t have to!

What We Did Next

So for the next few days, I watched my boys (ages 1 and 3) more carefully, trying to really notice how they engaged with their toys.

I asked myself—What toys capture their interest for more than a few minutes? What toys are dragged around the house and discarded, and which ones do they actually play with?

Then one night while they slept, I hid any toys that didn’t meet my new criteria. They woke up to an apartment containing a third of their toys and a mom biting her nails, wondering how soon they’d notice what was missing and how many tantrums she’d have to weather that day.

How It Turned Out

Crazy thing? They barely noticed. 

If anything, they acted like the few toys I’d left out were new. To my surprise, it was a little bit like Christmas morning.

After that epiphany, I realized that the only toys I’d kept out were our building & imaginative sets. The toys that paid off for me as a mom were the ones that my kids could come back to over and over again and engage differently with every time.

The Toy Strategy that Unfolded

I started keeping our toy sets in the top of the boys’ closet, leaving one set down at a time. Whenever they were ready for a new set, I’d tell them we could switch it out as soon as they had their current set picked up.

I went from cleaning up armfuls of toys every night to cleaning up barely any toys—ever.

I found that owning a handful of sets was really all we needed, and rotating them regularly helped keep their interest. As they grew and became ready for new challenges, at Christmas or birthdays we’d donate one set to make room for a new one.

We’ve since added a daughter to our family (and become even more minimal in other areas of our house!), and we’ve followed suit with her (small) toy collection. Our kids are now 9, 7, and 4, so we’ve cycled through a good number of toy sets over the years and have honed in on our very favorites.

If you’re looking for a new idea for your little ones this holiday season, I hope my toy strategy and these toy suggestions give you some inspiration!

I believe that less is more in nearly all areas of life… toys included. 🙂

10 Toys Even Minimalist Parents Can Get Behind

Roughly in order of toys for younger kids to toys for older kids. 

Marble Runs

My boys loved their marble run when they were younger. They’d build it a million different ways and get giddy when sending the marbles down. I did have to pack it up when their little sister became mobile (so she didn’t swallow any marbles), and years after I donated it, my boys still bemoan the fact that I did so without their permission. (Hazards of having a minimalist mother!) I call that a toy that made an impression! PS. This one is very well reviewed on Amazon.

Magnatiles

All three of our kids currently play with these almost every day. It’s easy for them to create new things out of the instruction booklet it comes with, and then they always elaborate from there. Bonus: I swear the fact that they’re magnetic makes them super easy to clean up. The pieces practically jump together when you go to scoop them up. 🙂

Watch for sales of these on Amazon during the holiday season, and splurge for more pieces than you might initially plan to buy. You won’t regret it.

Wooden Blocks

These are a classic that I plan on buying for my grandchildren someday! (My husband always thinks it’s so weird when I talk about grandchildren. Admittedly, that IS a ways off…) The Melissa & Doug set is beautiful and holds up great to a ton of use (5 stars, 1,650 reviews).

To keep their imaginations working different ways, I keep a small bag of hot wheels, toy soldiers, and princess figurines that my kids can choose to combine with the blocks. Over the years they’ve built army encampments, haunted houses, royal castles, pony stables, and much more out of these simple blocks.

Lite Brite

Did anybody else adore their Lite Brite as a kid? I bought one for my daughter partly out of nostalgia, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much she plays with it! It’s a lifesaver when I need just 20 minutes of quiet time from my otherwise suuuuper chatty little lady. 😉

Roominate Building Kits

Have you ever heard of these sets? They’re opened-ended, STEM building and design sets geared toward girls. I’ve heard great things about them and will definitely be getting one for my daughter once she’s a bit older. We’ll probably start with the townhouse set, but this RV (at a lower price point) is pretty darn cute!

Snap Circuits

I like that this set is small and doesn’t take over their bedrooms (I’m looking at you, Legos!), and I love what it teaches them and how it feeds their curiosity. I swear my kids know more about electricity than I do at this point! Start with a basic set (30-piece, 60-piece), and then you can always add a supplemental kit for a future holiday! (The light kit looks fun!)

K’NEX

Goodness, you can build SO MANY THINGS with K’NEX. Last Christmas we got one of the basic sets, and I’ve put in a good word with Santa about adding to our collection with this roller coaster set. 😉

The Lego Ideas Book

Like I’d guess most moms do, I have a love / hate relationship with Legos. Leaning more toward love, though, because of how well they occupy my boys. I didn’t officially put Legos on this list because (a) they’re kind of a given, and (b) some minimalists might die at how thoroughly Legos can take over a space. (They’re so little they just creep everywhere!) Regardless, I still think they’re worth it, and one thing that’s helped us get more bang for our buck is The Lego Ideas Book. It’s a fun way to get kids to stretch their creativity expand their Lego skills!

Oh and for my fellow neat freaks, train your kiddos to keep their Legos contained on a Lego mat (like this one that turns into backpack), making it easy to cinch up when they’re finished!

Educational Subscription Boxes

You may have heard of Kiwi Crates or Little Passports… Subscription services that send monthly boxes with themed activities for kids. Whatever your passion is, you can find a subscription service that will help you share it with your kids. I love the idea of these because parents and kids can connect through them, and you can explore totally new topics or skill sets. For ideas and sources, check out my friend Kerry’s post, 20 of the Best Education Subscription Boxes for Kids. (This would be an amazing gift from the grandparents!)

The Mini Kick Scooter

Heaven knows I love outdoor equipment because it doesn’t clutter up my house! Plus, you know, exercise. 😉

In particular, my minimalist self loves these scooters because they’re three-wheeled, meaning they always stand upright. So instead of having a tangled heap of scooters hanging out on my porch, we have three scooters standing neatly upright and in a row. (It’s the little joys in life, right?)

What the kids love about them is how they glide. AKA, like a dream. They can take a bit for little ones to master, because you have to lean your body to steer, instead of physically turning the handlebars like you do on a traditional scooter. But this also makes them super fun, and the kids in our neighborhood are always ditching their razors and grabbing my kids’ scooters for a turn.

As far as I can tell the ones made by Micro Kickboard are the name brand, but other companies (like Rimable, Voyage Sports, Vokul, and Globber) make them at slightly lower price points. They also come in several different sizes, so watch the weight guidelines to get a feel for that.

(In case it’s helpful, we own this one for our 4yo ($60) and this one for our 9yo ($180), because my husband wanted one that he could ride too!)

Best wishes as you and I both try to strike that tricky balance between enough toys to keep our kids curious and engaged but not so many that collecting them and cleaning them up takes over our lives! 😉

I’d love to hear—How’s the toy situation at your house? 


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14 Comments

  • Reply
    Missy
    November 19, 2017 at 6:37 am

    Hi Erica,

    I don’t have littles in the house anymore, but I keep a toy closet for the grandkids. I have done exactly what you are talking about – the Magnatiles and the Legos are perennial favorites, along with classic board games, art and craft supplies, and a few remote control cars. Grandma’s house is a no-device zone.

    One of my favorite memories from way back when I was in grade school in the 1960’s… I had a box full of small action figures, trinkets won at school fun fairs, leftover pieces from discarded games, a few little cars and trucks, a ball of string (necessary for my figures to scale the heights of the dining room chair), marbles, scraps of cloth, and other interesting odds and ends. I spent hours and hours with that box of stuff, creating imaginary worlds and adventures. I don’t remember many of the other toys I had over the years, but I do remember lovingly curating and playing with my box of treasures.

    I also remember that my parents rotated toys – We knew there was stuff on the top shelf of the closet that we couldn’t reach, and when they were brought down and swapped out it was like a bonus Christmas morning! That usually happened when my parents had friends come to visit for an adult evening of card games and conversation. It kept us out of their hair and busy with our “new” stuff so they could have their grown-up time.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      November 20, 2017 at 7:56 am

      I love all of these, Missy. The closet with toy sets for the grandkids, the memories of what you played with as a child, the trick your parents used to keep toys interesting. Thank you for sharing!

  • Reply
    Naomi
    November 23, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    Your suggestions are mostly what I’ve come to realize after a few kids. I had a daycare at home and once I closed it, I got rid of a lot of toys without regret. Here wood blocks/train tracks, Legos, nerfs, cars and kitchen toys are what they use most and my favorite. My kids that still play with toys are between the age of 1-13 !

  • Reply
    April U
    November 25, 2017 at 11:37 am

    We have had Picasso Tiles (similar to Magnatiles, from Amazon.com) for over a year now and they are definitely a favorite. Combine them with dinosaur and/or sea creature figures and my 5 year old boy (and sometimes 8 year old girl) is happy for hours. Now that the Playmobil Nativity set is also out for them to play with the stories and situations are getting even more imaginative! Need to check out those scooters as my 5 year old has no interest in riding a bike.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      November 26, 2017 at 9:10 am

      Love these, April! Thanks for sharing! And I hope the scooter is a good in-between step for him! 😉

  • Reply
    Lisa Hamel
    November 25, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    I love these suggestions–they’re perfect for my son who LOVES to build.

    FYI on the KNEX roller coaster set–it takes forever to build (even for an adult) it takes up a lot of space, and your children may never let you take it down. We LOVE KNEX, but that particular kit drove me a bit crazy for all of those reasons.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      November 26, 2017 at 9:06 am

      This is SO good to know, Lisa! I might downgrade to one of the smaller roller coaster sets then… Sounds like those would be a bit more manageable! (And heaven knows we don’t have a ton of floor space in their room!)

  • Reply
    Vijay Bhabhor
    November 26, 2017 at 7:04 pm

    Hi Erica,
    I like to wooden blocks, Where I can shop this? I did not seen any wooden blocks in India. Let me know the best place where I can purchase, Online shopping will be better for me.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      November 27, 2017 at 11:06 am

      I link to a Melissa & Doug set in the article, Vijay! Sold on Amazon. Good luck!

  • Reply
    Lori
    November 28, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    Thank you for the ideas! I’ve been thinking of getting my daughter a scooter for awhile, so it’s nice to have a recommendation of one to try.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      November 29, 2017 at 4:37 pm

      This design is really just the best. Like I said, it may take your daughter a bit to get the hang of it, but once she does, she’ll be gliding all over the neighborhood! 😉 Great to hear from you, Lori! Hope you and the fam are well!

  • Reply
    Katie Emanuel
    November 30, 2017 at 9:48 am

    Girl, this post made my day! You just made Christmas shopping so much easier! Each of these gifts offer opportunities for open-ended play (which I love!) Putting this list together for others allows us to spend less time on shopping and more time with those we love this holiday season. Thank you!

  • Reply
    Betsy
    December 1, 2017 at 1:34 am

    I was just reflecting on our favorite toys and ended up writing a post about our favorite wooden blocks sets.
    http://www.eco-novice.com/2017/11/our-favorite-wooden-blocks-open-ended.html?m=1
    I am a firm believer in rotating toys but don’t always do it…. And I need to work on my minimalism.
    Hope you and your family have a great holiday season! We miss you guys.

  • Reply
    Linda Sand
    December 8, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    If you buy your daughter the Friends line of Lego blocks they fit right in with regular blocks to expand everyone’s horizons while offering lots of play value once assembled even if only built as directed.

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