The long wait for Santa, the hopeful rattling of boxes under the tree... for children, there's no more wonderful time of the year than the moment they're finally allowed to tear open their gifts and find the toys they've dreamed about.
Most children, however, expect to keep them forever, even when they outgrow the Barbie House or tire of the Leapfrog pad; which means an awful lot of unwanted plastic languishing in UK homes.
A 2019 British Heart Foundation survey found that on average, children lose interest in a new toy within just 36 days. Around 20% of parents said their child lost interest after 11 hours of playing, while 8% said their children became bored in under an hour.
Children have an average of four toys they've never played with - adding up to around 162 million unused toys in the UK, which is bad for parental purses, and for the planet.
That's why single mum Jen Otter, 34, was determined not to fill her new home with unloved toys when she returned to England in March 2019, after living in Thailand for seven years.
Her daughters, Rosie, two and Lily, four, have plenty to play with - they just don't expect to keep their toys forever.
Jen joined toy swapping website Whirli, which allows parents to rent a box of toys for £13.33 a month (£160 a year). A recent Nationwide building society survey found that parents spend an average £100 per child at Christmas alone.
Jen, of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, said: “As a single mum, I can’t afford high-end gifts, but by swapping them I can get my kids really nice presents for a fraction of the cost – and I get to send them back when they’re done with them!”
The early years teacher has no qualms about returning presents the moment her children tire of them. “Last year I sent Lilly’s present back on New Year’s Eve. She had this big Lottie tree house with all the dolls. It was amazing and should have cost around £236. But within a few days, she was bored and wasn’t playing with it anymore, so I sent it back," explains Jen.
“This has to be far better for the environment than binning unwanted items and seeing them end up in landfill.”
Returning from Bangkok in Thailand in 2019 after splitting with her partner, Jen arrived back in England virtually empty handed.
“Lilly was nearly two and I was five months pregnant with Rosie. We moved with one suitcase, so we didn’t have any toys with us.
“Friends offered to buy them for Lilly, but the idea of having all these new toys annoyed me because it was such a waste.
"I witnessed her show interest in toys for a few months and then get bored of them, so I wanted to find a way not to create a lot of landfill.”
When her research revealed sites where she could rent toys, Jen decided the “borrowing scheme” was a far better option and meant she could afford to get them 'big ticket' presents for Christmas and birthdays that she could never normally afford.
“My children feel treated and get access to really high end toys which I wouldn’t be able to afford and then they go back when they’re done. At the moment, Rosie has this ride-on recycling truck that she loves and it would have cost about £37 to buy.
“But I know in a few days she’ll be bored of it, so it’ll be going back for another family to use.”
The scheme means Jen can rent toys all year round and she selects her Christmas items in early December, then returns them as early as New Year.
“If you keep a toy for over eight months it’s yours to keep forever and if you want a really popular toy, you can get it waitlisted.
“So if you’re organised, you could do that at the beginning of December and then hide it away until the 25th. I’ve always been able to get the toys the girls want as there are so many and you never have to wait very long.”
She added: “Last year, Lilly’s Lottie tree house was beautiful. She woke up on Christmas morning to it and loved it. But then, by New Year, I sent it back because she stopped playing with it. It’s completely normal to my daughters now for their toys not to be there forever.”
Jen's approach may seem draconian to some, but with attention focussed on the future of the planet, and millions of families trying to cut down on waste and unwanted presents - not to mention the clutter created by outgrown and unloved toys - it may be the future.
“We live in a two bedroom house and don’t have the space for lots of toys," explains Jen. “In the past, I would buy from charity shops and then when the kids were done with the toys, I’d give them back.
“But I worried about them not being used, as you don’t always know what will happen to that toy once you’ve given it away.
“I like renting the kids’ toys because instead of going to landfill or gathering dust on a shelf, they go to another family for their children to enjoy.
“Obviously, my kids also have permanent toys like magnet tiles, a toy kitchen, a dolls house, wooden dolls and lots of books.
“But I do feel, especially with Christmas gifts, that by swapping them for other toys we get the best of both worlds.”
She encourages her family to buy experiences like dancing lessons or theatre tickets for her girls, rather than toys, to further reduce the risk of things being thrown away.
“People always ask if they can buy them gifts, but I say no, suggesting they get them an experience instead,” she said. “That’s far more valuable and the memory will stay with them for a long time, rather than wasting money on a gift they’ll be bored with in a matter of days.”
If they genuinely love an item, however, she will keep it. “The site we use allows you to buy the toy you’re renting. So a few months ago we got a Toniebox, an audio and music player, and they just loved it.
“It stayed for about four months and in the end I decided to buy it. The longer you rent a toy the more it decreases in value so it was actually at a discounted price when I bought it. I paid £35 when it would have been £65 if I’d bought it new in a shop.”
“By doing it this way I was able to make sure that the girls liked it before spending a lot of money on it.”
Now Jen hopes to inspire more parents to join the Christmas revolution, by renting instead of buying their little ones’ festive gifts.
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“I think people find it hard to wrap their head around renting gifts, but I think it’s the new way to do Christmas. Sometimes I go to people’s houses and there are just so many toys. They have loads of stuff and it just never gets played with.”
But what kind of Father Christmas brings everything down the chimney - then takes half of it back up again? When it comes to keeping the magic alive, how does Jen get around it?
She said: “I tell my daughters that I give money to Santa. Lilly will choose the toys she wants, or talk to me about them, then I hide them away for December.
“By swapping the kids toys throughout the year I am able to afford high end presents and not spend a fortune.
"I think it’s a great way to ensure an exciting Christmas for the little ones without breaking the bank."
To find out more, go to Whirli
Additional reporting PA
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