Some daycare centers have decided that the best thing they can do for their little preschoolers is to take away their toys. Every day. All of them. Instead, when the littles get dropped off, they go into a completely empty room.
Because that empty room is good for them.
It's not that the directors are trying to be mean or that the teachers have called some kind of large-scale timeout. The goal of the toy-free center is long-term: to prevent the kids from becoming addicts in the future.
Sara Zaske wrote about her 5-year-old son's experience at a Berlin kita, where part of the program includes periodically packing up everything and storing it away for three weeks.
At the school, Zaske writes, "the toys would disappear, and the teachers wouldn’t tell the children what to play. While this practice may seem harsh, the project has an important pedagogic goal: to improve the children’s life skills to strengthen them against addictive behaviors in the future."
Absent of toys, the kids have the chance to create their own games and pursue their own ideas. Entertain themselves. Be in their own brains, explained Elisabeth Seifert, managing director of the youth non-profit that's pushing this project, Aktion Jugendschutz.
“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," she said. The competencies are understanding and liking oneself, developing empathy for peers and the be-all, end-all creative and critical thinking. Kids who don't have toys with a preset goal or purpose then are more challenged to solve program and overcome mistakes.
And the sooner they learn all these skills, the better. And, presumably, the less likely the are to veer off into addictions.
Though the toy-free classrooms are cyclical and don't last forever, evidence shows they may be doing what they're intended to do.
Wow, that's kind of mind-bending for modern parents, whose homes are crammed with toys everywhere you look. Schools, too, are filled with "manipulatives" and miniaturized versions of things like kitchens and work benches and libraries and everything.
The program grew out of an addictions study group that worked directly with adult addicts. They determined that habit-forming behaviors started in childhood, and that these adults used toys to distract themselves from negative feelings. As they got older, they turned to other things.
Though the toy-free classrooms are cyclical and don't last forever, evidence shows they may be doing what they're intended to do. Zaske points out, however, that it hasn't really caught on in the U.S., where, she points out, her child is more likely to be encoruaged to "just say no" when it comes to drug prevention programming.
But it does make one wonder whether we can set up our homes to copy this idea. What mom or dad hasn't had the thought, "Man, this is too much! I'd just like to set all this on fire!" Now there's a research-based reason to do so. (Well, not the fire-starting, but the clearing out of closets, drawers and toy boxes.)