Excess Toys May Cause Decision Fatigue in Childhood

If you’ve ever looked in your closet and thought “I have nothing to wear,” but you really have a hundred different options, then you’ve experienced decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue – it’s a phrase you may have heard before, but did you know that it also applies to children? If you are unfamiliar, the research surrounding decision fatigue says that if we have to make too many choices, then it sucks our willpower. As a result, the more choices we make in a day, the worse the choices become. In other words, we have a limited amount of willpower and it’s being zapped away every time we need to make a decision.

The same thing happens with children, especially with toys.

Research has shown us that having too many toys reduces creativity and negatively impacts a child's ability to focus. When your children enter the playroom and are faced with 100 different toys, how do they react? Depending on the child and the energy level, the reaction could go several different ways:

  1. Apathy: This child could be overwhelmed, just like you were in your closet. They think, “Ugh, I don’t have anything to play with.” It may be too hard for them to even make a decision when they are faced with too many choices. They just don’t know where to begin and they leave the play space unengaged.
  2. Recklessness and Impulsivity: Research shows that when you have too many decisions to make you can be reckless and impulsive. You may see this reflected in your child’s behavior when they throw toys across the room or run around haphazardly dumping bins of trucks and/or dolls.
  3. Lack of Care: When there are too many toys, they are not as valued and respected. Ten matchbox cars? If one of them breaks or gets stepped on, it’s no big deal--there are nine more. When a child has too many choices, the value of every toy decreases. And as the items continue to accumulate, the value becomes less and less.
Looking for a short, well-curated list of toys for the holidays this year?

So, how do you solve this? It’s simple: less toys.

When I shared how I got rid of the toys, I explained how I created a tranquil space for my son (and now my daughter) to play independently and creatively. With fewer toys available, they not only take care of their toys, but cleanup is a breeze. And, believe it or not, they actually play better when they have fewer toys.

To do this, I make sure my children have a small selection of open-ended toys that can be used in different ways by different ages at different times. While I do have a few toys that I rotate in and out, depending on my kids preferences, basically, what we have out, stays out.

For me, rotating toys on a regular basis is one of those ideas that sounds great in theory, but in practice it’s one more thing to keep up. If I tried to rotate toys weekly, I’m pretty sure two months would pass with the next rotation still sitting in the closet.

If you’re wondering about what I do with all of the toys my children receive from their birthday parties or at holidays, the answer is simple: We don’t do gifts for birthday parties and we have very few tangible gifts during the holidays. Instead I’d prefer my children focus on the reason for the season and gathering. I want them to celebrate the year we’ve had, our relationships, and the true meaning of the holidays. Too many tangible gifts can distract from the reason that the event is even happening.

It’s not that I won’t buy my children toys as they grow, it’s simply that there is great value in having a small collection of toys. We know that children learn through play, and I want their play space to be an area that facilitates engaged learning and fun. I want to choose the toys that are appropriate for my children based on their age, interests, and development.

For adults, decision fatigue can be minimized by structuring our lives in a way to conserve our willpower. Instead of going to an all-you-can eat buffet, we can remove the stress of what to eat by creating a weekly meal plan. Or, instead of deciding what to wear each morning, we can create a capsule wardrobe that limits our choices to a few favorite items.

Our children are the same way. Decision fatigue can affect all children, regardless of age, when presented with an overwhelming amount of choices. By limiting the toys, we can help set them up for success. We can help prevent decision fatigue by allowing our kids to store their willpower so they can make good choices when they are the most important. 

Looking for a short, well-curated list of toys for the holidays this year?

Denaye Barahona

Dr. Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She partners with families to tackle the challenges of raising children. Denaye is a minimalist who claims to be a decluttering expert (don't let her near your closet). She loves to travel, talk health-and-wellness, and give unsolicited advice. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Minimalists, Motherly, Becoming Minimalist, and numerous other media outlets. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Clinical Social Worker with a specialty in child and family practice.