When I was little, my dad once got annoyed at my brother for not cleaning his room. So he took all the toys, announced he was donating them to the Salvation Army--and drove around with them in the trunk of his car for a few days as a lesson.

My dad eventually gave them back, and it's now a family story that gets told decades later with a laugh. But now a new study suggests my father might well have been on to something. In fact, it suggests that giving your kids less might actually lead them to be more creative and successful.

Here's what the researchers found, what it leads them to suggest--and how it might affect parents' behavior.

"Better focus to explore and play more creatively"

Researchers at the University of Toledo divided 36 kids between the ages of 18 months and 30 months into two groups. Each child in each group was observed alone as they played with toys, during two separate one-hour sessions in rooms at the university and in a private home.

The difference between the groups was that the kids in Group 1 were given a total of 16 toys to play with, while Group 2 kids were only given four toys.

The conclusions? Researchers said the kids in Group 2, with only four toys:

  1. Were much more creative, showing an ability to come up with far more games and activities to play with each individual toy, and 
  2. Were much more focused and less easily distracted than the kids who were given 16 toys to play with.

"During toddlerhood, children develop, but may not have mastered, higher level control over attention. Their attention, and therefore, their play may be disrupted by factors in their environments that present distraction," study author Carly Dauch said last year, adding, "When provided with fewer toys in the environment, toddlers engage in longer periods of play with a single toy, allowing better focus to explore and play more creatively."

So, just buy them less?

I'm fortunate as a parent: One of the benefits of having become a dad later in life is that I'm more financially secure than I was at a younger age. And as my wife will attest, this manifests itself sometimes in an urge to buy my 2-year-old daughter basically anything I think she might like.

I don't think I'm alone in this. We live in a culture that, as much as we try to fight back, often tells us that the more money you spend on someone, the more you show you care about them. (And as for parents, kids, and toys, just witness the collective angst that broke out with the apparent demise of Toys "R" Us.)

Of course, I don't always give into this impulse, largely out of concern that I might accidentally give her an outsized sense of entitlement that could come back to haunt her later in life. However, after reading this study (which, by the way, I first found through Quartz and Britain's Telegraph), I'm realizing there's another benefit to showing a little restraint.

But where's the line? Should this concern lead you to actually deprive your kids of toys?

Actually, no--not exactly. (That sound you hear is the $27-billion-dollar U.S. toy industry breathing a massive sigh of relief.) Instead, the researchers suggest that parents of young children rotate their kids' toys to improve focus.

Rotate, focus, and repeat

For example, my daughter was playing with Play-Doh at 7 a.m. today while I sat with her before work, drinking my coffee. The researchers might suggest I make sure that if she's focused on that play activity, we make sure that her crayons, toy food (a favorite), Legos, blocks, and Fisher-Price Little People toys are put away and out of sight.

It makes sense: She was at what we call her "little table," which faces a window and keeps most of her other toys out of the line of sight. Given the adorable 30 minutes that she played intently, it would seem to me that we did this pretty well without even realizing it.

And while the researchers don't go too far out on a limb suggesting broader application, I think it probably makes sense to most of us that limiting distractions will often lead to greater concentration and creative output.

Extremely meta example: I started writing this article last night, when I had five other things going on at home. But it wasn't until I was alone and on the commuter train this morning, devoid of other distractions, that I was able to focus and really get it together.

The study was published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development.

Published on: Apr 18, 2018