How Old Is Too Old for Toys?

When kids are young, it’s easy to tell when they are too old for a toy. They stop playing with it and move on to something else or their bodies quite literally will no longer fit. But what about with older kids? Where is the line between normal play and being the grown man living in your garage surrounded by their action-figure collection?* Is there such a thing as “being too old for toys”?

We know play is important for their development up to a certain age but is there an age when they should stop playing with toys altogether? Psychologist Jean Paiget theorized that children go through four stages of cognitive development. In his theory, the final stage of begins somewhere around age 11 and lasts through adulthood. What he called the “Formal Operational Stage” is when we become able to form ideas from abstract concepts and can test hypotheses — yes, your ’tween really is testing you! It actually becomes harder for kids in this stage to play imaginary games such as dolls and action figures, because their own brains get in the way. This is when some kids can start to seem too old for toys, but developmentally they still need opportunities for play. (And so do you, grownups!)

If your child starts to seem too old for toys, it isn’t time to get rid of playthings altogether. This is a new developmental stage, and just like when they progressed from a tricycle to a bike, it is time to transition to a different types of play. This is when kids get really good at applying information they already know to new situations. Complex puzzles and games of strategy are particularly good at this age, as they can practice their new planning and higher-level thinking skills. Another benefit to these types of toys is that kids (and adults) are reminded that the more you work on something, the better you become at it!

Toys with an element of danger and skill, such as slacklines, can help keep teens healthy while satisfying their natural desire for risk-taking.

Adolescents are also learning who they are. Games that allow kids to “try on” different roles and personalities can help them explore themselves. Role-playing games and anything that engages their creativity like art supplies or complex construction toys can help your ‘tween learn new ways to express themselves. Toys with an element of danger are another choice that will keep even the most “grownup” kids engaged. Skateboards, slacklines, and even games like Truth or Dare are popular with teens for a reason — they appeal to a teen’s natural desire to learn about themselves and their environment through risk-taking. And because the ‘tween and teen brains are so busy, you may find your child is interested in toys that have no real purpose at all. Yes, there is an actual explanation for fidget spinners, slime and squishies — they give kids (and even adults) a chance to quiet their busy minds!

If a child still wants to play with toys as they move into adolescence, it is totally normal and to be celebrated! Unless a child’s play is affecting or replacing real-life friendships, there is no need to worry. In fact, we need to be more concerned about older kids who don’t play. Researchers have documented a rise in mental health problems among teens — such as anxiety and depression — that parallels a decline in children’s opportunities to play. Many teachers are working to integrate more play in the classroom, noting that it reduces stress, encourages teamwork and inspires creativity. Even Google has bought into the need for the most grown among us to play by providing their staff with LEGOs, slides, scooters and all kinds of opportunities to play.

So how old is too old for toys? Never! Disregard the age limit on that LEGO package, Grandma, you can still play after 99! If you haven’t heard the term “kidult” yet, don’t forget you heard it from me first. I know this may disappoint some, but this year’s hottest toy isn’t going to be an obnoxious finger monkey or a screaming toy that terrifies small children. The trend gaining the most traction is a whole category of toys — “Toys for Kidults.” And I, for one, am excited to see some validation for my endless desire to play.

*For the record, Leonardo DiCaprio collects action figures, and he is welcome to move into my garage any time.

Theresa is a recovering fake adult and is now proudly a child who refuses to grow up. She spent a decade developing and facilitating enrichment programs for at-risk youth. Through this work, she saw firsthand the power of play in the growth of emotionally, physically and mentally healthy children. The pressure of pretending to be an adult finally became too much, so in 2014 she and her father Todd (also NOT a grown-up) opened Villa Villekulla Neighborhood Toy Store on Amelia Island. Her two children, Adrian and Francine, often exhibit more maturity than she does and are, therefore, the ones in charge both at home and at Villa Villekulla. When she isn’t playing with toys, learning about toys, or talking about toys, she enjoys dance parties and listening to live music with her husband.

14 COMMENTS

  1. I love this so much. Thank you. Our oldest daughter is 10 & still loves to play with toys. I can tell her play is changing, but she still loves them. My husband and I are concerned with her going into middle school next year that her friends will pick on her…although I know she will change a lot over the next year (sniffle, sniffle). This blog has been very helpful to me. I just bought a bunch of board games, and I’m looking forward to playing as a family. Also, I was so pleased to see you’re from Amelia Island. My family has a place there. We visit a few times out of the year. I’ll try to stop by your store, and say hello. Where are you located exactly? Are you the toy store located on one of the side roads?

    • Kids change so fast, don’t they?! (sniffle, sniffle). We are located on 2nd street, right next door to the Hampton Inn downtown. Can’t wait to see you.

  2. This has helped me so much! I am under 14 but I still want to play but the thoughts of being grown up is drowning me. I want to hang out with boys, popular girls and be a 25 year old but yet a burning desire to play is still there. Kids now are 23 at the age of 6 and I’m just glad a got a good while being a young kid.
    💜

    • Hey Lottie! Glad to hear it! You might love to know that most of our employees are in college, have lots of meaningful friendships and they LOVE playing with toys. Playing makes you more creative and less stressed out. Anytime you are feeling overwhelmed you are welcome to visit our shop and join in on a board game!

  3. This is a good article but I think it’s sad that, despite the conclusion (with which I agree), there was still the obligatory swipe at the grown man living in a garage playing with action figures. It’s a bit sexist. I mean, I don’t play with action figures and I don’t live in a garage, but it’s sad that this stereotype is constantly invoked even in an article like this. Most men don’t look like Leonardo di Caprio.

    • Ouch! You are absolutely right. It was a tongue-in-cheek attempt at addressing a mom’s fears about their children playing with toys as they get older, but I acknowledge that it was a bit of a sexist stereotype and apologize. (And FWIW I’m glad most men don’t look like Leonardo di Caprio) Most of the most successful people I know, regardless of gender, are playful adults.

  4. Hi I’m going to be 12 in September, and I’m scared to grow up becuase I still enjoy playing with toys, and my entire family thinks that playing as an adult is creepy and weird, even though all my friends still play and they are older than me. It’s unfair that you get very little time to be a child.

    • Hey Chez! I’m sorry to hear your family is so grumpy. In fact, there’s lots of research to show that adults who play are smarter, more innovative, and happier. I’m so glad you have awesome friends who love to play. It sounds like you’ve found your tribe, which is an awesome feat for a 12-year–old!

  5. I feel the same way. I just turned 11 in April. I really wish that I could have some more time. My brain is starting to get into the way and I can’t come up with anything anymore. I am so sad. I really can’t believe it… I built up a huge doll collection and now I can’t literally think about playing anymore because I can’t come up with anything!!!!!

    • Hey Saige! As your brain changes and develops, it may be hard to get lost in play the same way you did when you were younger. But that doesn’t mean stop playing! What can you think of to do with your awesome doll collection that more matches your current level of development. Maybe making stop motion movies with your dolls, or using them to create other forms of art? Maybe making clothes for them, or even writing stories about them. Don’t ever stop playing!

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