Creative play: a life without toys
When Anna Kövecses found herself on a boat in the middle of nowhere with three kids and no toys, she improvised. With some paper and a pair of scissors, she made some of her own.
Instead of buying toys, you make simple playthings for your son, Abel. Tell us how this project started?
The project started one summer after we sold and donated pretty much all of our belongings and moved onto a sailing boat in Italy. Decluttering our life meant parting with most of our children’s toys too. These toys were mostly unused. They had been abandoned after a few plays and stored in large boxes in the children’s bedrooms. I always felt so guilty looking at them. I thought they could make other children happy, so letting them go was actually a big revelation. We only kept a bag of wooden blocks, some favourite soft friends, and simple classic games like cards and bananagrams. And the majority of their books.
What led you to this moment?
After moving onto a boat, our whole view of the world changed. We no longer needed distractions like the internet or movies or shopping. Our days were filled with reading books aloud, swimming, snorkelling, cooking together and, of course, lots of playing. I loved observing this quick evolution in my children’s behaviour. Especially Abel, our middle son, who was three years old at the time. He played for hours with his small animal figures and used whatever he found for props: small pebbles, leaves, sticks, shells, plastic bottle caps. Suddenly anything could be turned into a toy. His imagination had escaped from the bottle and never stopped flying.
What’s the first thing you made for Abel?
During an especially rough crossing between Sardinia and Menorca (we spent 48 hours on the sea in rough conditions), I needed to supervise all three kids underboard while my husband and our friend steered the boat in turns (our autopilot broke after the first hour). Tensions were high and Abel really felt it: he became a little monster, pulling hairs, biting and screaming. I knew I had to improvise so I grabbed some paper and scissors and quickly started cutting. I gave him two cats: a mama cat and a baby cat. Miracle.
Abel spent the next two days being an angel, petting his cats. He gave them names, built them a house, fed them and took them everywhere with him. Right there and then I felt that something special began. I knew this moment opened up a path to a world where we won’t need to buy toys to make us happy. Making toys made us happy.
What’s been the most successful toy?
They’re mostly made of recycled scrap paper, as they literally take minutes to complete. But we’ve experimented with more lasting and elaborate materials, too, like wool and wood. Besides the cats, our most successful toy has been a small pretend-doctor kit. We made it from pieces of wood board and decorated with pencils. It includes a jar of honey, a thermometer, plasters and chamomile tea. Our kids play with these almost every day.
What’s your background in making and creating?
I’m a professional illustrator, so creating is something I do every day. But making has actually been very much a part of my life since I was a kid. We moved around a lot and I was often bored and lonely without my friends, so I had to find ways to beat boredom. Making stuff kept me busy: I sewed rag dolls, assembled my own botanical set, and wrote small books and comics. My grandma taught me how to cook, crochet and mend clothes. These moments of my childhood shaped me into the person I am today and launched me on a creative path. I very strongly believe that there’s no such thing as a natural-born ‘maker’ or ‘creative’ type. I believe that every child is equally creative and talented. It’s their surroundings, positive confirmation and impulses that eventually nurture or starve off their creativity.
What’s been your favourite thing to make?
I love experimenting with wood. It’s been a long-time dream of mine, and I was surprised, actually, at how easy woodcarving is. I’m currently working on a small collection of wooden animals that I’ll save as a gift for a special occasion.
How often do you make things?
It’s very rhapsodic. Sometimes we make something every day for five days in a row. Other times life is too busy and we forget about making or our kids end up playing outside with whatever they find in nature. There were times when I felt Abel thought of me as a factory or vending machine who produces an endless flood of toys by request. I had to kindly remind him that I’m still his mum and I’d like to carry on living my life rather than cutting, sewing, gluing by the kitchen table from dawn till dusk.
I’d also like to highlight that I’m not a wonder mum: I have bad days too. Days when I’m too tired for even cooking dinner, let alone crafting or toy making. My children watch movies from time to time, and sometimes the most I can do is hug them or just spend half an hour lying next to them in the grass, watching clouds and birds. The idea of this whole project isn’t about proving what a multifunctional and perfect mother you are. It's about creating small, memorable moments with your kids and teaching them to treasure the simple, pure joy of making. In the future I’d love to share small projects that don’t require any physical material—just your imagination.
Has your boat trip inspired less consumerism?
Absolutely yes. Our trip has opened my eyes to so many happy and sad truths. Happy ones include the fact that we don’t need to buy anything to make us happy. Collecting memories instead of stuff is quite a cliché, but it’s still very true. Sad experiences include the condition of the Mediterranean Sea, especially around the southern coast of Spain. That seaside is completely covered with an endless ‘ocean’ of foil houses, making this area the back garden of Europe and the sea a soup of plastic. Island-sized clouds of pieces of plastic and plant rubbish are floating everywhere. It’s so very, very sad. We sailed in the area last September, using our engine because winds weren’t favourable, when suddenly our whole boat stated to shake and resonate.
My husband switched off the engine, and we pulled out our sails and headed to the closest port: a fishermen’s marina with scaringly shallow water and minimal visibility. When Zsolt jumped into the water, he found an entire foil tent twisted up on our propeller.
I needed this shock to teach me that buying locally grown produce instead of foreign is not an option but a must, and it’s something I’ve been taking very seriously ever since. Luckily, these experiences kickstarted an avalanche in the way I look at my life and customs: I try not to buy new stuff; rather, I enjoy what I already have. I stopped consuming high fashion completely, and I’ve started experimenting with making my own clothes, mending old ones and only buying a couple of good-quality key pieces from small makers or vintage shops. I’m currently working on consciously eliminating plastic from our house and am eventually aiming to be zero-waste. It’s an ambitious dream but I learned that I should never, ever be afraid of my own ambitions.
I find it very important to use natural or recycled materials in our craft projects, too. I love coming up with sustainable solutions for making our own glue, paint and supplies so that we don’t end up generating more waste than what we began with.
What has this project taught you about yourself?
I decided to share this project because I realised that, as an artist, I have an influence on so many people and it’s my responsibility to use this influence for something good. I’d like to inspire others to create and realise that making our own stuff is actually very easy and so rewarding. You don’t have to be a ‘creative’ type in order to reach success with these activities.
I also realised that this project has quickly opened the door to a whole lot of other areas. I decided to slowly expand it and document our journey of creating a sustainable lifestyle from a family’s point of view. Educating my children about the importance of caring for our planet in a positive and optimistic way is an inspiring challenge—and probably one of my biggest responsibilities.
You’ve currently been sailing with your family for a year. Tell us a bit about it. What was the plan, and did things go to plan?
We started sailing last summer, in Italy. We reached Gibraltar by October but we’d gotten to a point where we knew we needed to take a winter break. We’re currently staying in Cyprus and waiting for spring, when we’ll finally return to our boat and continue the journey.
We had all of these pink-clouded romantic illusions when we decided to move onto a boat with our kids. Reality has proven to be much more complex than that. We experienced the happiest and craziest moments of our lives. I guess what we weren’t prepared for is that at least one of us had to watch the kids (aged nine, three and one) ALL the time in an environment that presents a whole arsenal of hazards. Every single second, which is the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done. But I learned so much about myself during this short period and managed to build up a pretty awesome emergency kit of parenting tricks.
Why did you decide to set sail?
We had a sailing boat, before our kids were born, and we were always planning for a family boat in the future. I guess the event that really pushed us over the line was the arrival of our third baby, Lukacs. We were suddenly so overwhelmed with life, work, everyday routines and duties that we seriously needed a change. For us, sailing was the obvious choice.
You’ve shared so bravely and beautifully how you have been dealing with your mental health. Could you share how you identified when you thought something was wrong?
My story started with a nasty bronchitis virus that ran through the family, including our baby, and resulted in no real sleep for a week. Another big factor was me pushing myself too hard: too much work, too many expectations, too little time for recovery. I fell into the dangerous trap that motherhood so often presents: when it hurt, I pushed myself harder. I played Jeanne D’Arc for the sake of my children and family—and probably my ego, too. My body and mind, these sensitive delicate mechanisms, simply gave up.
What happened from there, and what has been the process of understanding what it is?
The tricky thing was that, initially, my symptoms were closely linked to what I ate. Only a couple of minutes, or sometimes seconds, after eating sweets and bread (later the list expanded to dairy, fruits and fermented food too), I experienced dizziness, brain fog, double vision and extreme fatigue. I often couldn’t talk properly, as words just seemed to have escaped from my mind. I suffered from heart palpitations and had to force myself to keep breathing, the room spinning around me all the while.
So, I visited five doctors: three GPs, a diabetologist and a dietician, who all told me that I was perfectly healthy. Despite their diagnoses, my symptoms persisted, which led me to the dangerous field of online self-diagnosing. Good old internet didn’t hesitate to present me with dozens of the deadly diseases I could possibly have. My attacks then happened regularly, regardless of what I ate, and my old symptoms were paired with anxiety and a terrible fear of death. The scene where Debra Winger says goodbye to her kids in Terms of Endearment repeating in my head didn’t help either.
Can you give us some examples of times you felt lost with your mental health?
I remember standing in line in our local organic shop when I suddenly felt a huge lump forming in my throat. Despite my efforts to ignore the lump it just grew and grew and I had to run out to the street, hardly able to swallow and breathe. I ended up in the emergency room, breathing cortisol through a mask. After getting home, I remember sitting on the carpet in our living room. Abel was playing beside me with his cars and animals. He was full of life and joy, fluttering around me like a little butterfly. I was looking at him and I felt his presence but I didn’t feel mine. I felt like something broke inside me, like I was watching the world though a cracked glass. By then I knew that I had a mental health problem.
How do you continue to support yourself through it?
Luckily, once I realised that my problem was mental and not physical, the whole process of acceptance and setting myself on the path of recovery went very quickly. I had such a strong, deep desire to get better that I suddenly forgot about being a natural-born introvert and opened up about my problems to everyone and anyone. I shared my story with friends, my neighbour, my grandma, fellow mamas and, eventually, the world. And instead of stigma or pity, they responded with empathy and love. It turned out that many people had been through similar experiences before, but they were too much afraid to talk about it till then.
I started meditating, taking long walks in nature, doing yoga and carving out time to relax every day. Even though the dark days are well behind me, I still try to stick to that routine. I decided I’ll never trade a good night’s sleep for work and won’t hesitate to open up and ask for help the very minute I feel that I’m under too much pressure.
What are you learning through this process?
Accepting my anxiety and making friends with it has been the first and most important step. I realised that my anxiety is me and I shouldn’t be afraid of myself.
How did the trip help and hinder your health?
Although the trip wasn’t exactly about relaxing all day long with a cocktail in my hand, this type of exhaustion was fundamentally different than the deep mental exhaustion I previously had. Being with my family 24/7 had its own ups and downs, but I can’t think of a better medicine for my illness than love and being around my kids.
How can your story help others?
I want people—and especially mamas—to know they should never be afraid to ask for help if they feel that something isn’t okay. You should never feel that you’re a creep or worthless or not enough. Things will get better, shit will pass and you’re THE most important thing in your kids’ world. So love yourself, and never stop fighting for their mama.