Unsurprisingly, I’ve been doing some toy shopping lately, adding an inventory of enticing playthings to R.’s Amazon wish list.

Does anyone else find this incredibly overstimulating?

As I pored over the Amazon product page for a popular play kitchen, I got that familiar feeling in my brain: there was just too much going on. The kitchen boasted stove burners that clicked, plenty of decorative stickers, and bold, bright colors.

Reflecting on my quickly tiring brain circuitry, I closed the tab. If I felt that way looking at this play kitchen, surely it was more sensory input than my toddler needed. I ended up choosing a plain, simple kitchen from IKEA for his Christmas list.

IKEA play kitchen

R.’s brain is active enough, he can fill in the blanks. I mean, the other day he set a triangle of his peanut butter and jelly sandwich on end and announced, “dog! Woof! Woof!”

Surely he doesn’t need a barrage of stickers and colors and noises to direct his imaginative play.

We all want the best for our kids. We want to give them an environment that is stimulating enough but not too much so, structured but not overwhelming. As you’re shopping this season, take a step back. Think about your favorite memories, your favorite toys from your own childhood. My happiest times as a young child were spent playing in the woods surrounding our family’s home, inventing fantasy worlds and engaging with no toys at all — just a collection of treasures I found outside.

A lot of what I’ve read this year points to a less-is-more philosophy when it comes to parenting. Thinning the hoard of toys to a less-overwhelming quantity can have delightful effects on your children’s behavior, play, and attention span. More and more evidence shows that unstructured, kid-directed play — the kind that was probably plentiful in our own childhoods but has been replaced by a rigorous schedule of activities for our little ones — is critical to development of executive function.

Don’t worry about bells and whistles when you’re shopping for the perfect toy this year. Instead, try something your child can make his own. A simple toy that will engage the imagination, not zone her out.

In other words, relax: it’s still a gift to be simple.