The Day I Threw the Play Food Away: The Case for a Simple Childhood

I’m sure you’ve read about, or at least seen the headlines, promoting simple childhoods and minimal toy rooms. I always liked the idea of this, but experienced the benefits for myself a few years ago. Right before Christmas, I received a hand-me-down toy kitchen for my toddlers. After a few minor repairs, a coat of paint, and some chalkboards, they looked brand new. I then asked the grandparents to have lots of play food ready for them to unwrap on Christmas morning. My kids had a blast playing with their new kitchen and all the play food. But after about two days, my dreams were crushed. They stopped pretending with the play food and started dumping it all over the floor and then complaining they were bored. 
After a few weeks of this, I was DONE cleaning up play food multiple times a day that they never actually played with. So one night in a moment of exasperation and desperation I threw all the play food away (not really, I donated it, but you get the idea). 
The next day something miraculous happened. 
Play Kitchen
For the first time in weeks, they played with their kitchen. Not only that, they served me the most amazing imaginary breakfast a mom could ask for including mommy’s “hot coffee” and banana pancakes. I strategically only left pots, pans, plates, cups, and utensils and their imagination took care of the rest.
It was amazing to watch. And guess what? My now preschoolers, cook themselves breakfast or dinner in their kitchen on a regular basis, no play food required.

Becoming Choosy with Toys

My son has always been fascinated with vehicles. And many times people will offer to get him a motorized train or a rocket that makes noise. And more often than not, I say no thanks. The times that we’ve owned these toys, I watch the way he plays change. When the toy does all the work, he is not forced to use his imagination. He stops building a rocket with his legos or pretending a stick is an airplane or using his voice to make the sounds and his arms to fly it. He goes from engaging in play, to simply watching a toy do it all…from being creative to being entertained.
I’m no psychologist, but I think this might have a lasting impact. The way they play as a child is most definitely shaping the way they’ll interact with the world as adults. I want my kids to engage in life and not sit back and watch it happen. 

Opting for Simplicity

Please understand that I’m not making the case for no toys. I still think we have a few too many. But often times my kids just don’t play with their toys in favor of sitting at our kitchen table with paper, scissors and glue sticks. New toys entertain them for a few days, but the stuff they gravitate towards long term requires more creativity and imagination. And I wouldn’t change that.
Plus my kids GET ALONG the most when there are minimal toys to play with (and fight over). They build a fort with the couch cushions. Tickle each other. Put on costumes and race around the house together. Create art projects. Imagination games. Read books. Play hide and seek. Dance. 
Watching my kids do this has convinced me that it’s truly okay, if not better, to be careful about what toys we own and to keep things intentionally simple and unstructured. Boredom is the gateway to creativity.

How to get started

Start by rotating toys out. Take a box of toys they haven’t played with in a while and hide them in your closet. After a month or two, swap ‘em out. Your kids will be so excited to play with the forgotten toys. 
Start noticing the toys that create more mess than fun and hide them for a while, see if they notice and if they don’t, donate them.
Clean up earlier than normal and see what happens with all the extra toy free space! If they seem confused, add some fun music.
If you have preschool aged kids like mine, I’ve noticed how much my kids simply want to help. So, I’ve been trying to change how I view chores: tasks to check off my to-do list versus fun activities we can do together. They WILL take longer when my kids are helping, but it’s a simple mindset shift that my kids enjoy.

Below are some of our favorite toys and activities that take minimal effort that my kids enjoy daily or multiple times a week.

  • White Board Easel – my kids use this daily. 
  • Helping me cook
  • Coloring/Craft projects (supplies: craft cart full of construction paper, glue sticks, crayons, markers, pom poms, foam stickers, and scissors)
  • Cars that they can build and re-build (These cars from The Grommet are FABULOUS!)
  • Riding bikes into town
  • Dress up clothes
  • Kitchen and cooking utensils
  • Trains with buildable tracks (trains that are not motorized)
  • Diggers in the mulch or a sandbox (more for toddlers)
  • Playing Go Fish
  • Keyboard
  • Nerf Guns
  • Trails/Hiking

Tell me! What would you add to this list?

Further Reading

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Kim is a native Northern Virginian. She married her high school sweetheart and they have two children, Leland (2014) and Christy (2015). She is a foster & adoptive mom and a pastor's wife and is passionate about advocating for exploited women & children and going green without breaking the bank. You can find her educating and empowering women to live consciously and take care of their health by switching to safer and ethically produced products over in her Facebook community ( She LOVES: Jesus, her husband’s cooking, snuggling her kids, taking naps, talking about the Enneagram, and the beach. She could do without: humidity, bugs, winter, and writing thank-you notes.


  1. Thanks for this post! I have been picking up toys daily, and it’s interesting to see which toys my son will go out of his way to find and play with again. We also have toys in different areas of the house to keep things interesting for him. When he’s downstairs, he gets excited to see the toys he’d forgotten about. But I constantly find myself looking for toys to donate. There are always too many!!

  2. Blocks! My 5 and 2 year old are building something new each day or revisiting yesterday’s structure. My son built New York City after our visit there and now he’s building an obstacle course for one of his Lego people! A unit block set or just old school cube blocks are a must for any home or classroom with young children!

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