I use Mondays to clear our my mailbox. Today I’m tackling the question of how to keep playthings organized. Read on for my best tips on taming the toy box!
Question: How do I keep toy clutter in check?
I have an organization question. What do you do with your kids’ toys? And what would you suggest when small space is an issue?
We have enclosed our garage for a play area for the kids. When everything is in its place, there’s an open space on the floor. Yet when the kids each get something out, it covers the entire floor (which isn’t that big of an area – only 1 car size).
When the kids leave out what they played with, the room’s a mess. Needless to say, the clean up process takes awhile. And things don’t get put up well unless I’m there to supervise.
So I guess it might be a training problem. But I still feel like it’s partly a space problem. We don’t have a lot of stuff. In a larger house, it wouldn’t feel like we have much at all. Yet in a smaller space it feels tight. Any suggestions for keeping our cluttered playroom in check?
Answer: How to keep toys from overtaking a small space
We’ve never had a dedicated play room. But we do have experience living in tight spaces. Our first three children were born while we lived in a small apartment. And when my husband was in the Army Reserves, we spent a four months living in a 500 sq. ft. bachelor barracks with 10 young children. Our secret to keeping living quarters clutter-free with regard to the children’s playthings can be summed up in two words: Toy Rotation.
Rotate playthings to keep toy clutter at bay
For many of us, the best way to begin organizing our children’s playthings is by getting rid of about half of them. Most kids these days own many more toys than they will ever play with, and the excess just creates confusion and prevents them from enjoying the toys they really like.
So clear out the clutter. Toss the stuff that is broken or missing parts. Donate little-used toys or games to charity. Then store the bulk of what you keep in boxes to be rotated, thereby giving your children only a few choices at any given time. This will do a more effective job of promoting creativity and contentment than anything else you might try.
Limited access means limited mess
There are lots of advantages to putting kids toys on a rotation schedule. One of the most obvious is the fact that, when kids can’t reach all their toys at once, they don’t drag them all out at the same time! So any toy mess they create is automatically smaller and easier to clean up than it might’ve been otherwise.
Fewer toys leads to greater creativity
When deciding which toys to keep and which to purge, go for toys that can be used in multiple ways. A large scarf can be a superhero cape, a baby blanket, a sling for a broken arm, a turban, a sash — you get the idea. Similarly, blocks can be used to build cities, roads, sky scrapers, cabins, fences and pyramids. That’s why we are such big fans of Duplos, wooden train tracks, and Lincoln Logs that we still have a big bin of each in our garage today. Not only do our younger kids still play with them, but our grandkids love them, too.
Special toys get special treatment
If your child has a favorite doll or stuffed animal, by all means let her hold onto that one rather than storing it away with the rest of the toys. We let our daughters keep their American Girl dolls in their rooms for anytime play. One of our boys was especially fond of a small stuffed animal he called his “diabetic dog” and carted it everywhere. Another son wore a black Zoro mask for months, and kept it in his pocket when it wasn’t on his face. So for the time they were fixated on those singular items, we allowed them to keep them close at hand. Once they lost interest, those playthings went back into rotation with the rest.
Rotated toys hold kids’ interest longer
In addition to bins of Duplos and Lincoln Logs, we’ve held onto several other classic toys over the years. They’re clearly labeled and stored in clear bins on a shelf in our garage. These include wooden trains, matchbox cars, potato heads, hand puppets, tea party supplies, baby dolls, dinosaurs, and small instruments (such as recorders, harmonicas, rhythm sticks, and tambourines). When kids are daily tripping over the same old toys, they hardly even take notice of them. Put them out of reach for a few weeks, though, then suddenly those same playthings seem newer and more appealing.
Rotating toys teaches kids to share
The secret for us is to only provide a very few choices at any one time. We don’t turn little ones loose in the garage or toy closet to rummage around and pick what they want to play with themselves. Instead, I usually allow them to pick between two choices: “Do you want to play with Lincoln Logs or Potato Heads?” We only get one bin down at a time. Everyone plays with that same category of toys — there are plenty of matchbox cars or blocks or dinosaurs to share. Then they all help put the fist bin away before choosing another.
Kid-friendly storage makes clean-up a breeze
The easier you can make it for kids to put toys away independently, the better. If the toys have to be stacked “just so” in order to fit in the storage box, you’re setting yourself up for failure. If they can be tossed back in the bucket with plenty of room to spare, even toddlers can help pick up and be proud of themselves for doing so. Those big bins of Lincoln Logs and Duplos I mentioned? The blocks fit inside with room to spare, so everyone can help, and clean-up takes less than a minute or two.
I hope some of these ideas will help. Don’t feel like you have to store all your toys in the play room. If you have space on a high shelf in the pantry or under the master bed and can rotate from there, then go for it.
Also, if you’re interested in investing in the tried-and-true toys listed below, don’t feel like you have to buy them all new. We’ve built rather extensive collections of such classics as Duplos, Lincoln Logs, and Brio train sets over the years by shopping garage sales and thrift stores, where we pay cents on the dollar for such finds.
Playthings that have earned a permanent place in our home
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from 30+ years of raising children, it’s that most modern toys are not built to last. And the few that are seldom need replacing. Below is a list of playthings that have proven to be “keepers” for our family. As such, they will always be allotted space in our toy closet.
We stock a lot of craft supplies, including colored pencils, construction paper, scissors, water colors, crayons, glue, etc. Paper and pencils are readily available drawing; everything else is stored to be used only with permission and supervision. A box in the pantry holds a small stash of egg cartons, tin cans, paper bags, and the like for “recycled art” projects.
We’ve found that baby’s favorite playthings are brothers and sisters. We have an ample supply of both, although we don’t normally store them in the toy closet. Ha! Besides giving baby lots of our attention and playing games like peek-a-boo or patty-cake, we also provide a crib mobile (ours plays classical music), lots of board books, a couple of rattles or teething toys, and a little cart that baby can push around when he’s first learning to walk or can ride when he wants to get someplace in a hurry!
We keep a variety of sports equipment on hand, including two basketballs, a football, a soccer ball and cones, tennis balls and rackets, ping pong balls and paddles, and two four square balls (with chalk for marking a court on the driveway).
Our family loves riding bicycles. Everybody in the family has a mountain bike (with baby carriers attached to the biggest ones) and a helmet. We ride them around the neighborhood, or peddle to nearby restaurants on the weekend for lunch. We keep our bikes in a free-standing rack in the garage when not in use. But the kids can easily access them when they want to ride (which is daily when the weather’s nice), then park them when they’re through.
We keep plain wooden blocks for stacking, Lincoln Logs, Duplo blocks, and Legos. The older boys buy the Lego sets themselves, with the understanding that any Legos Dad finds lying around the house will be immediately tossed, as they are definitely choking hazards for babies!
Our kids have always loved dressing up. So we keep a small supply of capes, scarves, hats, vests, swords, shields, tabards, and light sabers handy. Right now, those items are kept in a couple of deep drawers in my closet. The kids can access them easily and put them away when they’re finished dressing up. I don’t let them eat in costumes, so I only have to launder them if they get wet or muddy.
The girls each have an “American Girl”-type doll, with several changes of clothing, a few of which they’ve sewn themselves. We also have a few baby dolls and a set of Loving Family figurines that go with a collapsable dollhouse.
Our favorite board games include Scrabble, Chess, Risk, and Bananagrams. We also keep a couple of jigsaw puzzles. Our favorites are the “family puzzles”, which contain three different-sized pieces in the same box, so that all ages can work together to complete it.
We have a wooden train set we’ve added to over the years, complete with a couple of little battery-operated engines. Even the older children enjoy laying out a floor-full of interconnected track.
We give our older kids access to our tools – hammers, nails, drills, saws, wood-burners, etc – and a small supply of scrap lumber, with which they’ve built birdhouses, squirrel feeders, book shelves, tree-houses, etc.
Okay, so books aren’t technically playthings — but they’re so good for the imagination, they definitely deserve space in our playroom. Unlike most of the toys that we rotate, we allow unrestricted access to all the books in our house once our children learn to read. Until that time, we keep board books within easy reach and read them aloud at every opportunity.