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To Keep My Kids Off Drugs I Should…Take Away Their Toys?

Conrad sorted the rocks he collected yesterday, tucking them safely away in his chair-and-blanket fort. He then rejoined his classmates, and they continued their trek through “the jungle,” pretending to be explorers on a safari mission. After a while, they switched to their recently-invented restaurant game and served up delicious (though invisible) hamburgers.

Why aren’t Conrad and his classmates playing with trucks, blocks, and dolls? Why are they building forts and using their imaginations instead?

Conrad attends school in Germany, where toy-free kindergarten projects are being used to prevent substance abuse later in life.

How Does This Work?

Board showing drug-free school zoneThe goal of the program is to improve children’s life skills, which will in turn protect them against addictive behaviors when they’re older. For three months, all toys are removed from the classroom. The children have furniture, blankets, and pillows, but no finished toys. Teachers observe their students’ play, but do not direct it. This forces the children to learn how to cope with boredom and frustration on their own.

Elisabeth Seifort, managing director of Aktion Jugendschutz, a Munich-based youth nonprofit that promotes this project, explained, “Without any toys, children have the time to develop their own ideas. They develop their own games. They play more together, so they can better develop psychosocial competencies.”

These competencies include:

  • Self-understanding and self-acceptance
  • Empathy
  • Creative and critical thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Coping with mistakes

Seifort notes that the kids “…do a lot of role-playing…They collect stones and sticks, and make their own toys. The children are playing. They are just playing differently.” As they do, they’re learning valuable skills.

Says Who?

The idea for toy-free kindergartens sprouted from a study group in the Bavarian district of Weilheim-Schongau. This group determined many addictive behaviors formed roots in childhood. They instituted the toy-free project to remove what children often use to avoid negative feelings: Toys. Without this crutch, children are forced to work through problems and develop better life skills. Hundreds of kindergartens throughout Germany, Switzerland and Austria have adopted the program, with other countries also showing interest.

Additional long-term research is needed, but initial studies have shown that children who participated in toy-free time “showed increased social interaction, creativity, empathy and communication skills.” The hope is that this strong foundation will prove effective in keeping kids off drugs.

The project hasn’t taken off in the US, where schools are heavily reliant on DARE and Red Ribbon weeks to prevent drug use. These programs remain popular, despite the fact that they haven’t proven extremely effective.

Who knows? Maybe we need to take a cue from our European neighbors. If these children truly develop addiction-prevention skills, these schools may be onto something. Perhaps the secret to drug-free teens is toy-free kindergartners.