Walk into your average kindergarten classroom and you'll probably find an explosion of toys — Lego, blocks, cars and stuffed or plastic animals. But a number of kindergartens in Germany are doing away with all of those toys — as well as board games and most art materials. Their reason? To prevent future drug addiction.
Yes, you read that right. The movement to take away toys from children in kindergarten is not to promote creativity or prevent squabbles over sharing (although those are side benefits). It is to keep those children from becoming addicted to drugs later in life.
The premise is this: By taking away kids' toys in kindergarten, which is for ages 3 to 6 in Germany, children will learn important skills that will better prepare them for life and prevent addictive tendencies as they age. Advocates claim the life skills that children gain by not playing with finished toys include empathy, creative and critical thinking, problem solving, and understanding and liking oneself, The Atlantic reports. All skills that may help kids when they grow up and are confronted with feelings or situations in which they might otherwise turn to drugs.
And it's not just that the toys and art supplies are taken away. The toy-free kindergarten model suggests a three-month period in which the kindergarten day is completely unstructured, so that children are left to their own devices to develop games and decide whether or not they want to play as a group or do something on their own. (Think role-playing and blanket forts instead of building with Lego or playing dress up.) The children are still playing, they are just playing differently. And they are in control over what games they play and how they play with others. They are not rushed from one activity to the next but instead are allowed to play any game for as long or as little as they like.
A lack of conclusive evidence
Proponents say that after three months of toy-free kindergarten, children are less stressed, more focused and have more confidence in themselves and their interactions with others. Still, there is no long-term research confirming these anecdotal results, nor is there any data on the children who participated in a toy-free kindergarten as a child and their propensity to start using drugs later in life.
The idea for a toy-free kindergarten has been around for several decades. An addiction study group that formed in the early 1980s found that the seeds of drug addiction are planted in childhood. Thus they decided that by taking away the very first objects — namely, toys — that children might use as a crutch against boredom or negative feelings, they could help children develop the skills necessary to face these feelings as adults.
Since the opening of the first toy-free kindergarten in the early 1990s, the idea has spread far and wide across Germany and throughout Europe. But not surprisingly, it has yet to gain a foothold in the U.S.
Americans and their toys
Americans may turn up their noses at the idea of a toy-free kindergarten, but it's not like we've come up with any better ideas. Drug-prevention programs here in the U.S., such as the information-based D.A.R.E program that launched in the 1990s or the Red Ribbon Week initiative in schools today that encourages kids to wear crazy socks in order to "sock it to drugs," have yielded few, if any, results.
So while it may sound crazy to take away children's toys in order to prevent future drug addiction, it's certainly no crazier than asking kids to wear their pajamas to school to promote drug abuse awareness. Time will tell whether or not any of these programs are truly working. In the meantime, parents, teachers and school administrators will likely continue searching for ideas to help strengthen kids against a future of drugs and addiction.