The Elves in the Attic: Making Old Toys New Again

My four-year-old daughter has been playing nonstop with a Little People barn for the past week. Now, if you have a young child, you know the fleeting miracle that is a completely-engaging toy. It adds hours of delight to both of your lives, but usually only lasts a few days in the wake of a birthday or other special occasion.

But this toy is old. We’ve had it since she was a baby, and she stopped playing with it well over a year ago. It was just taking up space for months. What gives?

We put it in the attic and left it there for almost a year, that’s what. Now it’s basically a brand-new toy.

In fact, at least half of our daughter’s toys are stashed up there at any given time. This is partly out of necessity – we live in an 1,150-square-foot home, and grandparents really like to buy stuff – but it’s also by design.

Every time we bring a small batch of old toys down from the attic, you’d think we just went on a shopping spree at the toy store. She’s delighted. With some of the toys, she acts like she’s reconnected with a long-lost friend; others she doesn’t even remember having. And almost all of them take on a vibrant new life, at least for a week or two.

To make room for these “new” toys, we tell her, we’ll need to stow away some others. We ask her to pick a few that she doesn’t really play with anymore, and she can always find some items she’s lost interest in — and up to the attic they go, awaiting their triumphant second act when it’s time to repeat the cycle in a few months.

If you have a young child, you know the fleeting miracle that is a completely-engaging toy.

“It’s very good to do this,” says Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University and author of several books on parenting. “I’ve been in living rooms where there are so many toys from grandparents that the little one becomes a distractable child: no attention span, just bouncing from one toy to the other.”

Honig says learning to play with persistence and attention span is crucial to a young child’s development, and that having fewer toys out can help kids stay focused – and even force them to get a bit more creative with the toys they do have.

However, she cautions against sneaking the toys away and making them reappear — at least once a child is old enough to notice — and therefore cultivating a sense that mom and dad are capable of sorcery. “She might think there’s magic, and that’s not such a good thing,” Honig says. “You can’t send cancer away or send ISIS away with magic.”

Instead, Honig recommends involving your child in the process. “Throw the ball in your child’s court and give her the power to choose. What we can store up in the attic, and what should we bring to the poor kids? Is this puzzle maybe a little too babyish for you now and some other child could use it?”

I’ll confess that at one point our attic was shrouded in a bit of mystery for our daughter. She wasn’t allowed up there — it’s not particularly safe — and probably thought it was a mystical outpost of Santa’s Workshop, a satellite secondhand toy factory. But now she knows the real drill, and from time to time she’ll even request an old toy out of the blue, knowing it’s up there. When we ask her to swap it with something she’s not using anymore, it’s a bargain she’s more than willing to make.

At some point, though, our daughter may resist the idea of surrendering any of her toys, Honig says, even ones she doesn’t use. When that happens, it’s important to acknowledge your child’s desires. “Don’t squash a child’s feelings,” she says.

“In no way apologize, because you need to do this for your own sanity and for her attention span and persistence development – so there are three reasons to do it,” Honig says. “But you want to help her make those choices. So you have to do active listening, say you wish, you want to. ‘I wish we could keep them all out.’ Then offer a small explanation – one octave down – of your reasons.”

In addition, using reductio ad absurdum logic — following a request through to its silly or preposterous conclusion – can be an effective way to make your point to a young child, Honig says. “I wish you could have all those toys, but then they’d cover every inch of your bedroom floor, and how could you walk around stepping on all your toys? You’d hurt your feet!”

Of course, we didn’t really know any of this when we started stashing toys more than three years ago. We just didn’t want to be living in a Target toy aisle for the rest of our lives, and we’d heard the idea from veteran parents.

But so far it’s really worked for us: Between hand-me-downs, yard sale finds, doting grandparents, and the attic cycle, we don’t spend much money on toys — except for Legos, which are expensive even in the secondary market; that’s a whole other post. What’s more, our daughter really seems to enjoy her rotating selection of toys and her decision-maker role in the process itself.

And frankly, we’ll take a victory anywhere we can, because raising a happy, emotionally healthy kid can exhaust both you and your wallet.

“We have to be very creative as parents,” Honig says. “People think it’s an easy job, but it isn’t.”

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Jon Gorey

Contributing Editor

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte’s work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications. Notte earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 1998.