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A Toy-Free Learning Experiment

A Toy-Free Learning Experiment
By Saira Siddiqui

“Out of clutter, find simplicity.
From discord, find harmony.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

~ Albert Einstein

Last year, a friend of mine went on a road trip with her two small kids. When I asked her what she took to keep them busy she replied, “Nothing really, just some crayons. The trip itself was enough entertainment.”

Umm... I’m sorry, come again?

Traveling can be rough, and when you throw little ones into the mix, the disaster that can strike can be of epic proportions. From trying to keep them occupied on plane rides so they don’t disturb other passengers, to managing tantrums over missed nap times and unfamiliar food offerings, traveling with small kids can push any parent to the brink of insanity – it’s all we can do but go prepared!

Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling with my little ones. For a life learning family like ours, which focuses on learning through real world experiences, travel takes on a new sense of importance. We push ourselves to get out on the road so that our children can see and experience as many new things as possible. And because of this motivation, we find ourselves enjoying the fruits of lessons learned that go beyond the world of academia.

But the idea of going “unprepared” – without the usual array of what I refer to as “time fillers” to smooth over the difficult moments on the trip – that terrified me!

Our Toy Fast at Home

Fast forward several months and our family found itself in the midst of a toy fast. For almost two months, I rid our home of any and all toys. The result was an amazing show of self-reliance and creativity on the part of the kids. Every day, they walked downstairs and began discussing different role play ideas or games that would busy them for the better part of the day. Interestingly, I also benefitted tremendously from the fact that I no longer stepped on tiny camouflaged landmines hidden in the carpet, nor did I have to do a daily house cleaning of massive proportions.

The toy fast taught me the lesson I feared the most: That without all that stuff, without the time fillers to smooth out the rough moments, the kids would be fine. And not just fine, they would be thriving!

Toy-Free Road Trip Here We Come!

I felt ready, at that point, to try this new lifestyle out on the road. Our impending road trip to New England seemed like the perfect place to test it out. The trip would begin with a plane ride to New York, and would then involve driving though all the New England states, for a total of about two thousand road miles logged. I began packing for our trip in our usual manner: each child carrying a backpack filled with items to meet his or her needs. Only this time, aside from some granola bars and water, they had nothing more than a pencil case and a journal. There were no toys, no sticker books, no craft kits. I carried no Hot Wheels for my three-year-old. Nothing. Just some good old-fashioned pencils and paper. And with a small prayer, we were off!

From the start, I realized this experience was going to go much more smoothly than I had anticipated. Just as I had been shocked at how self-reliant the kids became during our toy fast at home, it didn’t take long for them to blow me away with how quickly they adapted to having no toys on the road. From that initial plane ride, it seemed that the pocket in front of them carried enough “toys” to satisfy even my little one’s interest. And that brings me to the first or many lessons I learned through having no toys.

Lessons Learned Through Being Toy-Free on the Road

1. Children don’t need us to provide them with toys because they are pretty good at creating their own. It’s an interesting thing about kids: They know exactly what they need. And they’re good at creating it for themselves. When my kids were without toys, they had no difficulty in creating their own. The seat front pocket on the plane was like a library of reading material and interesting things to learn. The hotel room carried toiletries that doubled as action figures and cups that became caves and hideouts. It seemed that everywhere we went there was enough stuff to play with. Being able to witness the magical world my children created when left to their own devices was reason enough to do this!

2. It’s amazing what children will learn when you stop trying to teach them. I never realized it, but providing my children with a specific set of toys was similar to designing a curriculum for them. I was outlining exactly what they would be playing with, and in some cases, the toys even dictated how they would be playing with them. The car bingo game we brought previously was actually a pretty close-ended activity. I was blown away at how many open-ended activities they created for themselves when left alone. And each came with unintentional learning I never planned for. Without the time fillers on the plane, my six-year-old son read through every safety brochure he found, and discovered where all the equipment was hidden, from the life vests to the air masks. And if that wasn’t enough, his reading segued into a conversation about personal versus communal responsibility as he realized there are some on the plane who have to do more to help the group. What valuable life lessons came about when there were no time fillers to distract us!

3. One of the biggest benefits of traveling with no toys is that it was an exercise in living in the moment. We were no longer consumed with planning for the future, we were fixated on making the most of the present. Our energy was poured into trying to find a way to make now work. And living in the moment forced us to appreciate the little things. Instead of back-to-back excursions, my husband and I were forced to slow down and have spontaneous park days where we dropped everything and ran to the nearest playground. Looking back, those slow motion days were among the most memorable and enjoyable days from our trip. We paid attention to our children’s needs, as well as our own, and came up with solutions that worked for us in each moment.

4. We learned to be patient. I wish I could tell you we had no hairy moments. The truth is, we had a few. Not as many as I had feared, but enough to make me nuts sometimes. But the thing is, we got through. And in the getting through, we all learned to be a little more patient. Yes, there were times when the kids were over playing with the toiletry men, or moments in a restaurant where laps were run around other, overly nice, customers. Yes, there were moments of delayed gratification. Where the children didn’t get exactly what they wanted, when they wanted it. And in those moments, when I had no time fillers to assuage their frustrations, I believe they grew the most.

I remember a moment, during our time in Maine, that showed me just how much my three-year-old had grown on this trip. We were on a moose safari, and had yet to see much of anything, let alone a moose. The kids were disappointed, it was cold, and it was wet. We were trekking from our jeep, through a wooded area, to get to our canoe. My husband and I were nervous about whether the kids would be able to manage the treacherous path, which was not just muddy, but full of puddles. The littlest one set out after his dad, with me close behind. My heart dropped as I watched him fall. Over, and over again. I knew it was only a matter of time before I would have to pick him up, which would make my own trek nearly impossible. But not once did he turn around and ask me to carry him. Not once. He just kept picking himself back up. Patience. He learned it on this trip. I can’t tell you where or how it happened. But it happened. This was one of those life lessons you can’t teach.

5. By far, one of the greatest benefits that came out of our toy-free vacation was the closeness it gave our family. Without any distractions, we spent more time talking, playing, and listening to each other. We were able to share our passions, our thoughts, and our feelings. The travel, itself, became a shared experience that bonded us in a deep way. And these are the building blocks to having a more respectful, empathetic relationship with each other. The value that that gave to our family is priceless.

Whereas once the thought of being toy-free terrified me, there is such a comfort in knowing that my children can thrive with very little. Living more simply, both at home and while we travel, has helped us extract the richness out of our experiences and relationships. We are not against having material possessions, but we do believe that the things we possess must enhance our lives in some way; otherwise what is the point of having them?

Will I travel toy-free again? Yes, please, sign me up! 

Saira Suddiqui is a freelance writer/online instructor who holds a Masters in Education. Prior to having children, she taught for several years in the public and private sector. When she is not writing for others, she enjoys writing for her own blog Confessions of a Muslim Mommaholic. She currently lives in Texas with her husband and three never-been-schooled children.

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