Kids shouldn't have toys

When we first got back from West Africa a few weeks ago, my three kids flung themselves around the house in a state of almost delirious excitement. "I'm so happy to be home Mommy," they each kept saying to me over and over again. For a few days it was like nonstop Christmas in our house as they opened carton after carton of toys and stuffed animals they hadn't seen for so long &

getting presents by the boxful.

They were thrilled, but I wasn't. We'd been living for a year in Niger, the poorest country in the world, with just a handful of books and the few toys we brought in our suitcases, and I had forgotten about the excess in America and, especially, in my own house.

As I watched my kids open box after box I kept wondering, how did we ever accumulate so much stuff?

Toys are in the forefront of the news right now because of the recall of millions of Chinese-made toys for safety concerns, a scandal so big that the head of Mattel in China, Zhang Shuhong, committed suicide. Now China, in a tit-for-tat retaliation, is recalling U.S. goods as well.

Like every other American parent, I've been brainwashed into thinking my child will grow up lacking if he doesn't play with _______ (insert name of the brand-name toy here). But a year in the poorest country in the world has helped me know better.

I learned this past year that kids don't need toys.

My children did just fine without all the colorful plastic junk made in China (probably in factories where workers are mistreated) that invades our lives here, and they did just fine without the fancy hand-painted wooden toys made in Germany (probably in factories where workers have better health insurance than we do). They did better than fine. They did so well that I'd venture to say that my kids shouldn't have toys.

In Niamey, Niger they tore around our yard making potions and soups with tree leaves, sticks, and flower petals; inside they used the sofa cushions, chairs, and blankets to design elaborate forts; they lined up the dining room seats to create a passenger train; and they played complicated pretend games that sometimes lasted for several hours or even several days, with the few stuffies and dolls they had. Practically every object in the house &

from cloth napkins (perfect for flat hats) to black olives (with one stuck on each finger they're terrifying) &

could double as a toy.

Instead of being bored in a toyless house, my kids were actually motivated to be creative. I noticed even in Ashland when we were moving and all their toys were packed in boxes that the quality of their play had started to improve. Empty boxes were perfect hiding places, filled ones became tables for tea parties, and without all the distractions in the hous,e our backyard was suddenly a more interesting place to explore.

We try not to overdo it on buying our children toys, but somehow we still have a house full of rubbish masquerading as educational toys &

workbooks with TV characters on the covers, plastic figurines, grow-in-water dinosaurs.

A lot of these things are gifts from well-meaning relatives and friends, but in my post-Niger curmudgeonly frame of mind I see them for what I suspected they were all along: clutter.

Kids need to have experiences, to go places, to play creatively, to spend time lingering over lunch and talking under trees. They don't need all the stuff we buy them that advertisers spend billions of dollars trying to convince us our kids can't live without. All these toys are counterproductive. They're suffocating. And toe-stubbing.

Most children in Niger have few toys because they're so poor, not because they've decided not to have them. I'm glad in this country we have the option to choose, but I hope in the future my husband and I will be better at giving our children happy memories of time together instead of buying them more crap.

lives in Ashland. She's the editor of the award-winning book "Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent Tiny People We Love" (Seal Press), which includes a story, "Playing with Potatoes" about the "toys" toddlers really love.

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