Achtung Santa! A German Study Sets The Ideal Limit On Toys

Play is a fundamental part of childhood development. But when it comes to toys, as one nursery in Bavaria has shown, there's something to be said for moderation.

Less is more!
Less is more!
Judith Blage

PENZBERG — No clutter. No model railways, no toy trucks, no dolls, not even crayons. For 12 weeks, children in this state-run nursery in Penzberg experience what adults would term minimalism. Every morning, the kids, aged 3-6, come in and find tables, chairs, cushions and plates laid out. Outside there's a garden. Except for the other boys and girls, there's nothing else.

Once every three years, the nursery in this Bavarian town has three months without toys. It's a tradition that goes back 30 years. So how do the children and their nursery teachers find it? "In the first month, it gets very, very loud," says Tamara Eberl, the nursery's deputy director. "In the second month, they start to make up very creative games. And in the third month, we see the children that are usually shy suddenly find their voices, and the loud children become calmer."

Three months without toys is a very unusual prospect for a modern, Central European child. Ten years ago, British researchers found that the average child has 238 toys. It seems reasonable to assume that the number is even higher today. But what effect does this huge number of toys have on children?

More choice means poor concentration

Researchers across a wide variety of disciplines agree that play is essential to children's development, and that it's a biological constant. It's not only humans who play; this behavior has also been observed in animals such as elephants, dolphins, dogs, wolves, cats and crows.

"Play is our way of entering into a dialogue with the world, of testing out our relationship with it," says Jens Junge, director of the Berlin Institute for Ludology, the academic word for the study of play. "I would go so far as to say it is a training camp for life."

That is why experts such as Junge speak of homo ludens. Humans have played for as long as they've existed. The oldest known toy — a lion-man figurine found in the Lone Valley — dates back to an 40,000 years ago. Neurobiologists even claim that play was a decisive factor in humanity's development, that it laid the groundwork for our capacity for abstract thinking.

The average child has 238 toys.

"Adults continue to play, usually when they're thinking. They've simply changed the way they play. Instead of playing children's games, they play in their minds," writes neurobiologist Gerald Hüther in his book Save Play!. All of human culture, from music to art, is simply a series of more and more beautiful and complex games. So it's no surprise that parents intuitively overload their children with toys.

The problem, however, is that in this case, more is not better. Studies show that having too many toys has a negative effect. If children are presented with too much choice, they find it harder to concentrate. And as a result, their games are less creative.

In a much-cited U.S. study from 2018, researchers put children between eight months and two and a half years old in two separate rooms. In the first there were four toys, while in the second there were 16. In the first, relatively empty room, the children played for significantly longer and in more imaginative ways. In the room with 16 toys, they flitted from one to the next and played in a superficial way. The conclusion, the researchers wrote in the journal Infant Behaviour and Development, is that as children learn how to concentrate through playing, it's better for their development not to give them too many things and overwhelm them.

"Between three and seven toys is sufficient for children from three years old," Junge agrees.

Younger children don't need toys in the strict sense of the word; for them, it's enough to have objects with different surfaces and textures.

"When parents notice that their child no longer calls a toy by name, then it can be put away in the attic or given away," says Junge, the reasoning being that if we don't name an object, we don't identify with it. He also notes that when it comes to Christmas and Easter presents, parents should talk to friends or relatives about what to give.

"They should think carefully about what will suit the child and what they'll enjoy," he says.

For the instigators of the "toyless nursery," what's important is how taking the toys away affects the children. "We still want the children to play, but in a more independent way than usual," explains multimedia-education expert Rainer Strick, who developed the idea with colleagues in the early 1990s, as a way of preventing addiction.

Since the 1980s, researchers have known that pressure and deterrents don't stop addicts from using: "It became clear that so-called life skills were the decisive factor: self-worth, being able to deal with frustration and conflict, and above all, self-reliance," says Strick.

Children learn these skills through interacting with the world, and with themselves. Neurobiologists note that people lose their sense of fear when they're playing.

Enough? — Photo: Sandy Millar

"Without fear, all the neural networks that are needed to meet the demands of the game are activated at the same time," writes neurobiologist Gerald Hüther. This is how new neural pathways in the brain are formed.

Modern toys are often too elaborate. This means they encourage children to use them in a specific, prescribed way — so children don't activate their creative neural networks. A child sees a doll and dresses it up, sees a toy truck and uses it to shovel dirt. Another issue is that, in schools and nurseries, staff often show children how to play with toys or solve problems.

"If a child never has the experience of overcoming a problem themselves, thinking something through or even being bored, that means they don't develop important life skills," Strick explains.

For the nursery teachers in Penzberg, one experience sticks in their memory: During the period without toys, some of the children wanted to build a wigwam in the garden. They collected sticks and assembled them into a cone, which kept falling over.

"It took three hours until the children decided to put a rope around the top of the wigwam to hold it together," says Strick. "The children had an unbelievable sense of success at the end. But you should have seen the nursery teachers during those three hours. They could hardly stand it."

Indeed, adults find it difficult to just let children get on with things.

A neutral doll sparks the imagination

Nurseries across Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the United States and Turkey are following the Bavarian example and going toyless. Children and parents have to be well prepared for the change.

"We put the toys in a chest and send them on holiday for three months," says Tamara Eberl.

Nursery staff and teachers say the experience has been good. "Migrant children especially make good progress with their language skills during this time," Eberl explains. "They can't hide behind toys any more. They have to talk to the other children."

Modern toys are often too elaborate.

Whether these children will be more resilient in the long term, and less likely to suffer from addiction, remains to be seen.

Other education experts also recommend a small range of meaningful, age-appropriate toys. And they agree that at least one of these should have the potential to be used in more than one way. "If you give a child a neutral doll, that gives them more of a chance to use their own imagination," says Wiebke Waburg, professor of pedagogy at the University of Koblenz.

Waburg has also researched the effects of gender-specific toys. In a study with play pedagogy expert Volker Mehringer, she asked parents how their child's gender influenced the toys they chose for them. Parents of girls said it was important that their daughter also played with toys that weren't stereotypically feminine. Parents of boys didn't see it as important that their sons played with dolls or other stereotypically feminine toys.

"For children, playing is a way of practicing life," Waburg explains. "They identify with their toys, so you shouldn't make them conform to strict gender roles from early childhood."

For a book on the state of ludology research, Waburg and Mehringer have sought to establish a definition of "good play." All scientific theories have three points in common: play doesn't have an aim; it's voluntary; and it's fun. That is borne out by neurobiology.

Hüther says that humans only reach their full capacity when engaging in aimless play. Good ideas don't come when you're sitting at your desk. They come when you're in the shower, half asleep, or playing tennis. When you're relaxed and having fun.

Parents who want to support their children's development should bear this in mind. Don't give them too many toys, or ones that must be played with in a certain way. Choose toys that are appropriate for the child's age. And above all, just let them get on with it.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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