With fewer toys, children engage in more role play, pretend and imagination — the secret ingredients of early learning.

Maybe the Grinch and Marie Kondo were on the right track despite different intentions. Whether stealing toys from children or keeping only the things that “bring us joy,” we could probably benefit from having less stuff.

But accumulation starts early. And according to research, many young children now have almost 100 toys by the time they start walking.

“Toys come from everywhere. Birthday parties give out favors, restaurants give them stuff, then there's grandparents and holidays,” Dr. Alexia Metz said.

She was among the researchers at the University of Toledo who studied groups of 2-year-olds during play sessions and observed the effects of the number of toys on their quality of play.

In some sessions, the kids had four toys to play with, in others, 16.

The research agrees with the adage “less is more.”

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“No matter how many toys were in the room, they seemed driven to play with all of them,” she said, meaning that when given 16 toys, the toddlers didn’t spend the time it takes to expand on play with any one of the toys in particular.

When given four toys, the toddlers played with each for twice as long, engaging in more role play, pretend and imagination — the secret ingredients that help play build early learning.

“If they hang in for a few minutes, they start testing their own little hypotheses about the toy, and we want to give them the time to get into that play. If there’s another toy, they might be distracted,” she said.

Claire Lerner, a psychotherapist who specializes in families and children, made similar observations through home visitations,

“If the environment feels chaotic and there’s too much visually, young children reach their stimulation threshold. Sometimes auditorily too, especially with toys that have bells and whistles,” she said.

“Play is the work of children. It’s how they learn, and we don’t want to impede that,” she added.

In parenting, there’s a desire to gift things because it may feel like providing, and it naturally brings a child joy in the moment, but Lerner also pointed to what kids really want: time.

“What kids remember are the things that had the most emotional feeling for them. They remember relationships,” she said.

When an elementary teacher shared what she hears from her students after the holiday break, it’s more about the experience and relationships than about the toys they receive.

“Other kids are sharing toy stories so the kids want to connect with the group and share about toys. But if you ask them the next year what they got last year, they don’t remember. They remember who they spent it with.”

There’s no magic number of toys to keep to make the most of play, but Lerner suggested less than 10 and more than two.

Because families know all too well a child’s impassioned reluctance to purge toys from a home and to understand that gifts will still come, Mertz suggested rotating them out to keep them interesting and engaging.

One way to roll time and gift-giving in one is to make a coupon packet gift of activities that include items like a walk to the park, a hand massage, a singalong or reading a book together.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging's 100 Million Healthier Lives and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.