The Friedrich-Engels-Bogen nursery in Munich, Germany decided to initiate children’s imaginations by removing all of their toys and allowing their imaginations to run wild. Depriving children of their toys may seem cruel or unnecessary, but a number of nurseries and schools around Germany are following “Der Spielzeugfreie Kindergarten”(The Nursery Without Toys) project. For one quarter of the year, educators pack up every kind of stimulating distraction including crayons, building blocks, finger paints, stuffed animals, and cars. Children are left with the classroom’s bare’s necessities: tables, chairs, and a small pile of blankets. The idea is that without the physical stimulation of toys, children will be encouraged to use more of their own imaginations.
The Nursery Without Toys project was founded by Rainer Strick and Elke Schubert, public health officers who began their research with adults who suffered from various addictions. Strick and Schubert found the root of many of their patients addictions began with early childhood. In order to counteract addictive behavior in the future, they hope to get to the root of the problem by allowing children to play openly and creatively without toys. Even children’s engineering toys and construction toys are forbidden during this time.
“In these three months we offer the children space and time to get to know themselves and because they are not being directed by teachers of toys, the children have to find new ways to master their day in their own individual way…the aim is to make the children self-confident, able to bear conflict and frustration, able to say ‘yes’as well as ‘no,’and also aware of their weaknesses and strengths.”—Gisela Marti, educator at the Friedrich-Engels-Bogen nursery.
Children’s days are “deliberately unstructured as one of the basic beliefs of the project is that children spend too much time being rushed around from one activity to another” according to Gisela Marti. She explains that the first day of the toy-free project, children were hesitant and nervous. Nursery teacher Gudrun Huber claims: “The children didn’t know what to do but we left them alone, even if they were bored, because sometimes things in life are boring and you have to learn to cope.”
On the second day of the project, the children became resourceful. They made a fort out of blankets and chairs and weighted the ends with their shoes. After a few days of not being able to play with toys, the children began inventing their own games. They pretended to be putting on a theater show, a circus act, and they even pretended the classroom was a train, one student at the forefront acting as the conductor. Most importantly, the children were learning to socialize with each other.
Gisela Marti explains that The Nursery Without Toys project dramatically improved the behavior and concentration of the children who participated. “Before the pens and paper were taken away from them, the children used to do one little squiggle on a piece of paper and then throw it away. But when paper was given back to them they drew or painted all over it until there was not a patch of white paper left.”
Other childcare centers like Beyond the Walls Outdoor Nurseryrestrict children from playing with toys as well. The children at Beyond the Walls are encouraged to play with sticks and rocks, to climb trees, and to rest in their sleeping bags if they need a short nap. Children are given the freedom to roam around the wilderness, though members of Beyond the Walls ensure parents and guardians that each camp sets boundaries. They have a small flute that children have learned to listen for throughout the day. When the flute is played, the children know they need to return to camp.
“Through the changing of the seasons we embrace each new challenge with a determination to fully and wholeheartedly take advantage of all that nature provides; in spring, the fascination of a spider web wet with dew, sun breaking through the canopy of the trees in the summer, the crunch of fallen golden autumnal leaves and the enchanting beauty of a cold crisp winter’s day, hunting for hidden treasure.”—Naomi Suggett, co-founder of Beyond the Walls.
While removing toys from children’s classrooms has proven successful for some schools, we believe everything is good in moderation. Challenge yourself to remove household toys and devices for one day and see how well your children fair when they have only their imaginations to rely upon. Try introducing one toy at a time so your children aren’t overwhelmed with toys. Introduce STEM toys that propel engineering concepts for boys and girls but still allow for open-ended play. Or you might try to remove your children from indoor settings like Beyond the Walls and urge them to use their imaginations combined with nature. You might be surprised to find that your children imagine their own toys, using logs as motorbikes or sticks as the support system for a shelter. These forms of open-ended play will not only spark your children’s creativity, but it will also help them cope in a world that necessitates social interactions.