A Full Plate is a column about family life and the home by contributing writer Laura Fenton, who explores the intersection of sustainable living and home design through a mother’s eyes.
“Mama, I don’t play with these, you can donate them,” my son announced as he carried a box of beautiful wooden blocks out of his room. His birthday is coming up, and clearly, my message about donating a few toys to make room for new ones had gotten through. Of course, I had in mind the flimsy plastic cars and rubber ducks that had crept home from parties and the dentist, but the truth is, I could count on my hands how many times the Montessori-approved blocks had been deeply played with. So, I put the blocks in our “to donate” bin and made a mental note to spirit away some of those cars later.
I’m not the only parent who feels that toy management is an ongoing struggle. When my book The Little Book of Living Small came out, the question I got over and over again was how my family deals with toys and other kid-related clutter. I spent seven years working at Parents magazine, so this is something I have thought about. A lot.
Keeping toys in check is more than just a new set of storage bins or a day of decluttering. You need to clean out regularly, establish an organizing system, manage incoming toys, and motivate yourself to stay tidy. Here’s how I and some other small-space parents tackle things:
Gatekeeping could be considered the first step in toy management, but I’m guessing you already have a house full of toys, so we’ll start with decluttering. All the experts will tell you that you should not get rid of toys without your child’s permission, but in real life I have found it is necessary. With older kids, having a conversation about letting go of the things we don’t use is valuable, but with very young children, sometimes you just need to make things disappear.
Reduce the volume
By cutting down on the overall number of toys you are simplifying and making clean up less overwhelming. I try to make it a monthly habit to cull a few less-loved or recently-broken toys. Also, take a hard look at multi-piece sets: When teeny-tiny LEGOs were driving us crazy, I removed all the tiniest bricks from our collection, so we wouldn’t have to clean them up every time we played.
Find old stuff new homes
Instead of shoving a bunch of toys in a garbage bag and dropping them off at a charity where they may end up in a dumpster, Erin Boyle, the blogger behind Reading My Tea Leaves tries to find old playthings specific homes with other children. When she shared this idea in her everyday minimalism Skillshare class, it struck a chord with my desire to create less waste. Lately we’ve been using Nextdoor and our local Buy Nothing group to give away toys and kid gear. Not only will you feel good knowing the toys are being used, but your child will better understand the value in passing things on when he sees another kid receiving it.
Or do what my friend Jodi Levine, the mom behind Super Make It does and save all those little playthings and fill a piñata with them at your child’s next birthday party.
Put playthings in temporary storage.
Some toys aren’t clearly garbage or unloved, but are still only occasionally played with. Strategically select a few toys and put them away for a few weeks or even months. If and when your kid asks for them, and you bring them back out, they will feel like new toys and generate excitement again.
If your kid doesn’t after a couple months, that’s a sure sign you can feel okay about donating the toys. (And after that much time, you can give a vague answer about a missing objects whereabouts if pressed. Our toys are often “at Grandma’s house.”)
There are a zillion bins and drawers on the market today. What’s right for your space may be different from mine, but I do have two rules for what types work best. Open-top bins are always better than ones with a lid because kids struggle with lids. Smaller bins are better than larger ones because there’s less mess when one gets tipped out. I like Pehr canvas storage bins and these white-washed storage bins because they are attractive, made from natural materials—and in a few years they could go from storing toys to pantry supplies or office goods.
Make playthings accessible
Another surefire way to stay organized? Establish clean-up as a regular part of your kid's play routine. Boyle says, “If kids can easily access the spot where something is supposed to be put away, they’ll have the ability to clean up after themselves.” A mom of three who lives in a one-bedroom, Boyle notes that she has found that making kids’ things more accessible has helped her kids get used to the process and ritual of returning their things from whence they came.
Label whenever you can
Marking what goes where can seem fussy for a kid’s room, but it’s the only way that other people (babysitters, grandparents) will be able to successfully clean up your kid’s room. For pre-readers, a visual representation (like a tiny train sticker on the bin for trains) will make it so the kid can “read” the label too..
Hide and display toys
This is a strategy I use in my home, and it’s also what Alison Mazurek the blogger behind 600 Square Feet and a Baby does in her one-bedroom. Says Mazurek, “I love a mix of concealed storage (in the form of canvas bins/baskets and under-bed boxes) and some open shelving. I find that kids like to see some of their toys and to display favourite things while I like the easy clean up of putting everything in a box/basket at the end of the day.”
Contain the kiddie stuff
In our home, we store all the toys in my son’s room—and we put them back there every night. This helps keep the rest of our house from feeling like a playroom. Even if your space is tiny, designating clear and specific boundaries can help you maintain your personal style. And if kid stuff must be on display, be discerning about what you buy: We chose a simple, bentwood play table and chairs (over plastic kid furniture) because we knew it would be in our living room.
You can’t control every gift that comes into your kid’s life, but before birthdays and holidays, you can gently suggest what your child might like to receive and specifically spell out what you don't want in your home. I also try to lead by example: instead of toys that will fill up a family’s home, I like to give kids playful books and consumables, like a sweet treat or a cool bath bomb.
My final secret to staying organized is to seek out motivation. Here are a few moms I look to for inspiration and ideas: My friends Alison Mazurek of 600 Sq. Ft. and a Baby (@600sqftandababy) and Erin Boyle of Reading My Tea Leaves (@readtealeaves), who I quoted here are constant inspirations. I also love the wisdom of Denaye Barahona Ph.D. of the Simple Families blog and podcast (@simple_families), professional organizer Shira Gill, who was featured in my book (@shiragill), and Whitney Leigh Morris, founder of The Tiny Canal Cottage (@whitneyleighmorris).