At a Berlin day-care center, the children packed away all the toys: the cars, the tiny plastic animals, the blocks and Legos, even the board games and most of the art materials. They then stood in the empty classroom and looked at their two instructors.
“What should I do now?” my son, then 5, asked.
He did not get an answer to this question for a long time. His day-care center, or kita, was starting a toy-free kindergarten project. For several weeks, the toys would disappear, and the teachers wouldn’t tell the children what to play. While this practice may seem harsh, the project has an important pedagogic goal: to improve the children’s life skills to strengthen them against addictive behaviors in the future.
“Without any toys, children have the time to develop their own ideas,” said Elisabeth Seifert, the managing director of Aktion Jugendschutz, a Munich-based youth nonprofit that promotes this project. “In toy-free time, they don’t play with finished toys. They develop their own games. They play more together, so they can better develop psychosocial competencies.”
According to Seifert, these competencies include understanding and liking oneself, having empathy for others, thinking creatively and critically, and being able to solve problems and overcome mistakes. And the sooner children learn such life skills, the better, according to Aktion Jugendschutz.
The toy-free kindergarten is not a new idea in Germany. It grew out of an addiction study group in the Bavarian district of Weilheim-Schongau that started meeting in the 1980s. The group included people who had worked directly with adult addicts and determined that, for many, habit-forming behavior had roots in childhood. To prevent these potential seeds of addiction from ever being planted, the researchers ultimately decided to create a project for kitas and kindergartens, which in Germany typically serve children ages 3 to 6, and remove the things children sometimes use to distract themselves from their negative feelings: toys.
The rules of the toy-free kindergarten are simple: For a period of three months, all the toys are removed, leaving only furniture and things like blankets and pillows. The teachers meet with the children and the parents before the toy-free time starts so they know what to expect, but once the project begins the teachers observe, rather than direct, the children’s play. They let the children learn how to deal with their own boredom and frustration.
A kindergarten in the Bavarian city of Penzberg was the first to try out a toy-free time in 1992. Aktion Jugendschutz published information about the project shortly thereafter, and the project quickly spread. Today, toy-free projects can be found in hundreds of kindergartens throughout Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Other countries have also shown interest. In an article marking the project’s 25th anniversary, the Mercur newspaper reported that the Penzberg kindergarten had received calls from interested groups as far away as China.
The project has not, however, made much headway in the U.S. In the 1990s, while toy-free time was gaining momentum in Germany, American drug abuse-prevention programs were still dominated by the “just say no” message first introduced by Nancy Reagan in 1986. One of the most popular programs was Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., which brings police officers into schools to educate students on the dangers of drugs. Yet, despite strong backing and widespread implementation, D.A.R.E. has produced no measurable impact on drug use. “There’s been a tremendous amount of research done on D.A.R.E. None of it has found positive effects, and some of it has found deleterious effects,” said Elizabeth Robertson, the professor and associate dean of the College of Human Environmental Sciences at the University of Alabama.
Robertson, who authored an early-childhood substance-abuse prevention guide for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said that most “information-only” programs do not work. “Explaining, for example, what drugs do to the body or the brain, gives people information but it doesn’t deter them,” she said. “In fact, a lot of children who are given that kind of information get more interested in drugs.”
Instead, according to Robertson, schools would benefit more from programs that help students develop social and academic skills. The NIDA prevention guide highlights many evidence-based programs that do just that. One, called “The Good-Behavior Game,” trains teachers to encourage children’s positive behaviors and extinguish negative ones—and Robertson said that changing those behaviors has been shown to have long-term effects on children’s lives, lasting well into their twenties and early thirties.
When my family returned to the U.S., I found none of the NIDA-recommended programs at our elementary school. Instead, my children had Red Ribbon Week, which encouraged them to wear crazy socks one day to “sock it to drugs” and put on sunglasses the next to “shade out drugs.” To make sure the message was clear, organizers hung a large “just say no” sign at the front of the school.
Little research has been done on the effectiveness of Red Ribbon, yet every year about 90,000 schools across the country participate in the drug-awareness week. That’s proof enough for Peggy Sapp, the president of the National Family Partnership, which sponsors the Red Ribbon Campaign.
“The bottom line on all this is: If nobody is participating, then I don’t care how many little control studies and groups you have, that’s research for research’s sake,” Sapp said. “A huge part of the measurement of ‘Does Red Ribbon work?’ is people wouldn’t be participating in it if it didn’t work.”
By this measure alone, the toy-free kindergarten could also be considered a success in Germany. The project is well-known, and its widespread use is partly due to the fact that, like the Red Ribbon Campaign, it’s free. Aktion Jugendschutz makes all the necessary materials for implementing a toy-free kindergarten project available without cost on its website.
Yet, the project’s popularity has not come without controversy. In 1997, the conservative magazine Focus quoted several psychologists criticizing the toy-free kindergarten project as lacking scientific evidence and causing children unnecessary stress. Hans Mogel, a psychology professor from the University of Passau, went so far as to call it a form of child abuse. “To give children no toys is toy deprivation,” he said in an interview with Focus. “This is a form of child abuse. Deprivation comes at the expense of feeling secure and developing a healthy self-esteem.”
While it’s true there is no long-term research on the project, several independent studies of toy-free kindergarten have been conducted, including one by the psycholinguist Anna Winner published in 1997 in the journal Prävention and another in 1998 by the Austrian Institute ÖIBF. These studies indicated that children who had participated in toy-free time showed increased social interaction, creativity, empathy, and communication skills.
Despite this evidence, critics of toy-free time remain, and among the most skeptical are parents. They worry the project will bore their children so much that they won’t want to go to kindergarten. The parents at the Berlin kita my child attended were divided over toy-free time, and after one particularly bleak winter with three months of no toys, the complaints grew so loud the project was canceled for the next year. After some discussion, the kita brought it back with a compromise: The time without toys would be cut to six weeks and moved to spring so the kids could spend more time outdoors. They also added a weekly forest field trip.
Such adjustments are not uncommon. Seifert noted that some kindergartens now have one day every week without toys. While she stands by the three-month model, Seifert emphasized that it is critical to address parents’ concerns. Aktion Jugendschutz has even put together a video so parents can see how well children can cope without finished toys. “They do a lot of role-playing … They collect stones and sticks, and make their own toys,” she said. “The children are playing. They are just playing differently.”
I saw a lot of this kind of play as first my daughter and then my son went through toy-free time at our kita. I came in one day to see the children playing “train” using a line of chairs. Another time, they built a huge blanket fort and were crawling around pretending to be wild animals.
My son, the little boy who was always asking adults and other children what to do, threw himself into the group play. But toy-free time also did something else for him. He started coming home with pockets full of acorns and stones he had collected. He told exciting stories about the trips to the forest. He began to play outside more, even when other children didn’t join him. Long after the project ended, he could still be found in the kita’s “garden” alone.
Time will tell if having this toy-less experience will guard him against some future addiction, but I definitely noticed a clear change in my son. Somehow the toy-free project gave him the space to not only develop a new interest in the outdoors but also find a greater comfort with himself.