Most kids find that having their toys removed is a sign of punishment, but for many children in Europe, this move signals a prompt to create their own entertainment. Educators in Germany have been taking toys away from children for years and the results are promising.
A German study on addiction in the 1980s found that many adults who suffer from substance abuse could link their habit-forming behaviour back to childhood. Researchers expanded upon this idea, with a decision to reduce things in kindergarten and ‘kita’ (daycare) that produce negative feelings, namely toys.
Aktion Jugendschutz, or Action Youth Protection, is a Munich-based organization spearheading the movement to reduce toys in kita classes, which include children ages 3 to 6. Teachers meet with parents and children before removing the toys from the classroom to explain what is going to happen. Once the toys are removed, usually for a period of three months, the teachers no longer instruct their students on how to play, instead observing the children as they work together to create new activities with classroom items like chairs and blankets. The children must address their own feelings of boredom, in turn learning how to get creative and use their imaginations to keep themselves occupied.
Elisabeth Seifert is the managing director of Aktion Jugendschutz. “Without any toys, children have the time to develop their own ideas,” Seifert told The Atlantic. “In toy-free time, they don’t play with finished toys. They develop their own games. They play more together, so they can better develop psychosocial competencies.” Seifert lists life skills such as “understanding and liking oneself, having empathy for others, thinking creatively and critically, and being able to solve problems and overcome mistakes” as the result of the toy-free move, reiterating that the sooner children learn these skills, the better off they will be in the long run.
The program is not without its critics, with some psychologists worrying about the negative effects of depriving children of their toys. Seifert says that while the three-month model is favourable, some schools have adjusted to a schedule that includes one toy-free day per week.
While no long-term studies on toy-free kitas have been finalized, preliminary studies have found that children in toy-free classes have shown, as per The Atlantic, “increased social interaction, creativity, empathy, and communication skills.”
The toy-free initiative has spread throughout Germany since the 1980s, expanding to Switzerland and Austria. Whether it will hit Canada remains to be seen, but it’s probably just a matter of time.