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A No-Toys Education

by Charlotte Stafford

Inside a cozy classroom in Brooklyn, 18 children ranging from 2 to 4 years old are seated on individual mats listening to a Thanksgiving song. As they clap and sing along, they jabber away to each other in German.

The room is quite bare. There are simple wooden building blocks in one corner and a mattress with pillows in the other. This space inside the Brooklyn German KinderHaus, a German language immersion school, bears no resemblance to the typical American kindergarten classrooms, which often feature a mélange of primary colors, plastic cars, felt animals, and bright A B C lettering.

Here things are different. There are no toys.

The KinderHaus in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is the first all-German kindergarten in New York. It is pioneering an experiment into the toy-free classroom. This unique and some might say radical idea has been used in German kindergartens for years, however it is not well known to the American system. In fact there is almost no English literature written about it. The KinderHaus, which teaches exclusively in German, has decided to bring the model to New York.

Professor Celia Genishi, a Professor of Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, is an expert in early childhood education and childhood bilingualism. She believes a toy free classroom to be a “unique idea” and was unaware of it being initiated in American kindergartens. “There must be good ideas why the teachers initiated the idea,” she said. “It seems like a strange and interesting idea that would need committed teacher support in order to succeed.”

Katja Ikeler, the primary teacher for the “ladybug group,” is the only educator at KinderHaus currently running a no-toy classroom. Ikeler pushed to try out this radical experiment in an attempt to curb possessiveness among the children and to encourage more interactive behavior. She did not remove the toys right away, but said that it was a process of easing the children in. Ikeler simply sent the toys on “vacation.”

“The children spent about a week choosing the toys, listening to a story about someone going on vacation, then packed the toys into boxes,” she said. “Then they turned the boxes into trains and planes and buses and we told them that they will not be coming for back for the whole of the November month.”

Ikeler’s class has been together for a year and the children are very close. She felt they were the perfect class to try out the no-toy experiment. She was the driving force behind the idea, for the first time, implemented it in November this year, with the support of the faculty. She says she is unaware of any other Kindergarten in New York that has attempted this. While some people may find the idea extreme, Ikeler sees it as important development for the children.

“The theory behind it, is that it is actually preventing addiction at a very early age,” she said. “You know, later on you sometimes see the same reaction in children who have to give up an object that they are emotionally attached to. So to prevent the emotional attachment to an object, we remove it.”

Most of the parents are becoming supportive. Nicola Brower, whose German-born 2-year-old son Max is in Ikeler’s class, has been pleasantly surprised by a toy-free classroom. “I think it is a great idea,” she said. “I love it. It is good for them to do a little more imaginary play.”

It is hard to remove children from their treasured possessions, their comfort blankets, trucks, dolls, but for Ikeler, the gamble of a no toy classroom has paid off.

Ikeler said she is seeing positive results.

“They have started moving around a lot more now,” she said. “So a little doll bed, an empty doll bed had never been touched before when they had all the toys. But now it has been used for imaginary games. They communicate a lot more and they play hospital.

Having no toys in the classroom may be an educational step for the children of KinderHaus but it is also a social step. Ikeler believes making friends is the first and hardest stepping stone for children.

“It’s a very important step to take, it’s difficult to bond,” she says. “They have just discovered that they are a person. It’s just 6 months ago that they had recognized themselves in the mirror!”

Alisia Eichwald, who teaches the “frog group” at KinderHaus, sees it as an important way to enhance the children’s creativity.

“They can use little rocks, sticks and cartons,” she said. “It is important to see what they can do without all these plastic things around them.”

Eichwald, who grew up in Germany, has strong feelings against the typical American kindergarten classrooms. For Eichwald, American kindergartens are all about bright colors. She feels that there is no room left for children’s imagination with the ‘ready-made’ items inside and outside the classroom.

In the KinderHaus backyard, everything is natural. There are no jungle gyms, sand pits, or monkey bars. The children don’t seem to mind though. They star jump into piles of orange fall leaves, collect wood chips and dig in the soil for worms.

Ikeler echoes Alisia Eichwald’s sentiment, adding that she found it extremely difficult finding information on American toy-free classrooms. Her attempts to research them online online were constantly thwarted by advertisements.

“When I Googled ‘toy free classroom,’ all that came up were ads for toys,” she said.

“So these are the toys that someone wants to sell, you know, nobody wants an empty classroom.”

Teachers at KinderHaus do not see toy free classrooms being adopted in American kindergartens, mainly because the concept is still so unfamiliar. Given the right environment, Simona D’Souza, the Director of KinderHaus said, teachers would take the natural kindergarten experience a step further.

“For some of the teachers, if they could do the kindergarten like they do in Germany, having all the children in the forest, they would,” she said.

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