Children love toys, and many parents love buying toys that can entertain and potentially educate their children. My favorite toys when I was a child were a miniature barn that had real hay, Lite Brite, and any type of putty or dough that I could squish into my parents’ carpet. While there are many great toys on the market for children, researchers have questioned whether the environment in which children play with toys or other learning tools affects their learning. Can the physical space that children are in – like a playroom or classroom – affect their learning and play?
One group of researchers at the University of Toledo were specifically interested in whether having too many toys available to be played with reduces the quality of play. In one study, toddlers played in a room for 15-30 minutes where either 4 toys were present or 16 toys were present. The toys included educational toys like shape-sorters, pretend toys like dolls, play vehicles like cars or trains, and exploration toys like blocks. They found that children played with toys longer and in a greater variety of ways when there were only 4 toys in the room compared to 16 toys in the room.
For example, when there were 4 toys present, each play incident lasted about twice as long as when 16 toys were present. The researchers suggest that children play in more advanced and creative ways when fewer toys are present, which has significant implications considering parents often have more than 16 toys in their children’s play space. In fact, the parents in this study reported having nearly 90 toys in their children’s environments.
Even a more subtle distraction, like a television playing in the background, can divert children’s attention during play. One famous study had children aged 12 months, 24 months and 36 months play with a variety of toys in a lab that was set up to look like a living room and included a television. Children played for 30 minutes. Half the time the television was turned on to a gameshow; the other half it was turned off. Although children only looked at the television for a few seconds at a time when it was turned on, the researchers found that the background television disrupted the length of children’s play and their attention during play. In a way, the “background” television was not background at all but rather an important influence on children’s play.
Perhaps I’ve convinced you that playrooms and living rooms are sometimes distracting environments for children, but now consider the typical kindergarten classroom. Many have multiple, brightly colored bulletin boards filled with fancy scalloped boarders and other posters of animals and planets on the wall, all of which can potentially distract young children during play or during lessons. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University investigated this possibility by having Kindergarteners learn six science lessons in a sparsely decorated or a typically decorated Kindergarten classroom. After two weeks of lessons, the researchers found that children were more distracted and learned less in the typically decorated (i.e., highly decorated) classroom compared to children who learned in the classroom with no decorations. Therefore, the visual environment of classrooms may affect children’s learning, with overly decorated classrooms distracting children from learning during lessons.
The results from these studies are important because many parents want their children to learn from play. If certain objects or environments are distracting to children, then children may not be benefitting as much from play as they could be. When creating play spaces for children, consider how the environment may be potentially distracting – including the toys you put in it. Creating an engaging but not overly stimulating environment may be the best for helping children play and learn.