March 3, 2014

Room to Play. ~ Erika Kleinman

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I’m not saying we shouldn’t buy toys for our children—I’m saying that they don’t need 99% of them.

My family and I recently moved to Monteverde, Costa Rica. The plan was to stay for a year, then see if it felt like home.

In order to move there, we had to get rid of nearly all of our stuff. Storage and shipping options were explored and dismissed as too pricey and not worth it, even for the year.

We sold our furniture, gave away the trinkets, half-finished projects and other items we had been lugging around for years. It was painful. I imagined it would be even harder for our daughters.

We were allowed eight suitcases on the flight. We gave them a maroon Samsonite and said, “Fill it up with the toys you want to take. Everything else is going to be given away.”

Do you know what? They didn’t care at all. They thought it was fun. Our oldest daughter was five years old, our younger one was two. They gleefully threw things in the Goodwill tub and they danced around the driveway while other people came to buy our stuff at garage sales.

The Melissa and Doug toys I spent so much money on? Didn’t make the cut. The contents of their suitcase included two baby dolls, five Barbie dolls, a set of miniature safari and farm animals, a bag of marbles, magnets, tiny little plastic figures with big eyes, a pillow pet, arts and crafts items, Hot Wheels, a purple and pink doll jeep, and a wooden set of Matrioshka dolls.

In Monteverde, toys were not very accessible. The best bet was to go to Chuncha’s, a little book store/gift shop in the nearest town, Santa Elena. Barbies cost around $25. Melissa and Doug toys were rare and priced as such.

I worried they would miss their Loving Family doll house, the one with all the cool furniture. I worried they would miss their play kitchen, their Duplo, their My Little Ponies.

Most of all, I worried that they would bother me all day long.

They did bother me, of course. They did get bored, but not nearly as much as I’d feared. Living in Monteverde was harder than we anticipated, with the vigorous hikes into town and the lack of dishwashers. Sometimes we were just too tired and didn’t have the energy to entertain them. Sometimes, they were bored.

Something wonderful evolved from that boredom.

They truly played with everything they brought. When they got bored of little figurines and cars, they moved out to the yard. Logs and boards actually make an excellent playground, and we were amazed at their ability to make their own teeter-totter with very little guidance. They collected sticks, leaves, colorful beetles.

Pieces of dried bamboo and a hole in the ground were used to make potions with mud, torn up leaves, flower petals.

In the evening, they played out complicated scenes using marbles and plastic bottle caps. Felt scraps were food for the little purple plastic bowls and green plates we brought along. They carried tiny things around in boxes. String was discovered and wrapped around some furniture. Rolls of scotch tape and string together? A little bit of heaven and at least two uninterrupted chapters of a book for me.

I never heard a word about the toys they had left behind.

When we decided that Monteverde wasn’t for us, we decided to stick with the idea. We didn’t want to acquire a bunch of crap. Christmas, we decided, would be simple. One present from Santa from each girl. Clothes they really needed from us. One present from her grandparents.

At the time, my older daughter and I were reading Little House on the Prairie. For Christmas, the girls in the book received cakes, a peppermint candy, and fancy buttons. My daughter said, “Wow, that’s not very much!”

“Things were hard to get back then, so people really appreciated what they had.”

She looked at me with her eyes wide and said, “Well I don’t! I like to have things that are nicer than that.”
It struck me that she didn’t appreciate what she had, but she wanted more of it. It struck me that this view was not unique to her.

For Christmas, the girls had a total of six gifts.

My husband and I wondered if the oldest would be unsatisfied. After all, her Christmases used to have a lot more glitz. Shouldn’t we get a few more things for her, just to make it special?

Then I thought about what had made holidays special for me as a child. It wasn’t the presents. It was decorating the tree, eating with my family, looking at the lights, playing in the snow.

There were a few presents that I did remember receiving (a walking doll, a Cabbage Patch Kid? Or was that a birthday?), but I didn’t look back on that as fondly as I looked back on holding my dad’s hand while looking for the perfect Christmas tree.

On Christmas morning, we ate French toast and sat down to open our presents. My daughter beamed when she got a fancy sticker book, the Elsa doll from Frozen, and her new dress and shirts. Santa got her a little glass-blown owl she’d spied in Costa Rica and begged me for relentlessly. She was holding it carefully in her hand.

I said, “Did you like Christmas?”

“Yeah,” she said slowly, still looking at the owl. “We didn’t get very much stuff.”

“You’re right,” I said. I waited. “And it seemed like you liked the things you did get.”

“I do,” she said. And she didn’t say another word about it. And she’s not the type to hold back when she’s unhappy about something. She played with the play-food my mom had borrowed from a neighbor, and her new doll.She played with some of the stickers. In the bathtub that evening she spent about forty minutes pouring water into measuring cups with a plastic water bottle while she sang a soft song that made sense only to her.

Now that we’re back in Austin, I expect us to acquire toys here and there. Unlike before, I’ll never be afraid to cull them. The toys we do buy will be the kind that allows improvisation and creativity. Friends passed along some wooden blocks, some more Duplo and a wooden train set.

I don’t intend to acquire more than that anytime soon.

It didn’t change us as a family to discover that they didn’t need toys. Like anyone else, we still have great days, arguments, ice cream, financial problems, and repetitive discussions about screen time. It did cause a shift as we saw for ourselves that they didn’t need the carefully selected and beautiful toys we gave them. They didn’t need overflowing bins of toys. They needed us to create a space for them to invent, to create, and to explore.

All they really needed was room to play.

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Editorial Assistant: Bronwyn Petry/Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: now_is_LOOKMELUCK.com; bio photo: Bart Nagel


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