Clutter makes you feel like your life is out of control. And toys seem to create clutter more than anything else in a home with kids.
If you’re like me, you’ve been desperate enough to start fantasizing about throwing most of your kid’s toys in the trash.
The urge to purge isn’t necessarily a bad one. But there might be — ahem — a “more thoughtful” approach to your toy deluge.
I wanted a better system for my small kids’ toys, and the one I eventually came up with has saved me a lot of sanity since. Taking even one of these steps might make a big difference in the toy clutter problem in your home.
1. Be intentional about play spaces.
Jot down a few guidelines about where and how you’d like your kids to play at home. Which types of activities do you want to encourage in each space? Don’t overthink it.
Here’s what I came up with:
- The basement is best for loud and crazy play.
- The living room is ideal for quiet, thoughtful play.
- The kids’ bedroom is mostly for bedtime stories and sleeping.
- The rest of the house is not necessarily off limits for play, but there shouldn’t be toys in these rooms regularly.
2. Limit toy storage locations.
I was inspired by the Konmari Method (affiliate link) to make sure I had a designated “home” for each of my son’s types of toys.
After a quick assessment, I realized that I had toys stored in almost EVERY room. And the toys didn’t so much have specific homes as they were thrown into the nearest bin.
I thought all those bins were making it easier for me to clean up the stray toys that ended up all over the house. In reality, they were a CAUSE of the toys being all over the house.
Keeping my play spaces in mind, I decided to limit the toy storage locations to just a few:
- the living room bookshelf
- the playroom/basement
- an upstairs bedroom closet for hiding toys that are “on vacation” or “on probation”
- Exceptions: bath toys in the bathroom and outdoor toys (bikes, soccer balls, etc.) in the garage
3. List toy types and take inventory.
Making a list of what you have is the best way to figure out how your toys should be organized — and which types might be getting out of control.
Here’s what I eventually came up with for my list:
- Stuffed animals – Despite my only ever having purchased two of these, my son has about 40 (which I only realized after I put them all in one place).
- Vehicle sets – My son has a few dozen Hotwheels cars with tracks, a wooden train set, a VTech Go Go Wheels set, and a “Magic Tracks” car set.
- Large vehicles – We have acquired a huge school bus, fire truck, and plenty of large construction trucks and diggers.
- Other vehicles – This includes vehicles that don’t belong to a set and aren’t particularly large.
- Blocks – Including wooden blocks, magnet blocks, Duplos, Mega Blocks, and Wedge-Its.
- Puzzles and Stacking Toys – We have several of each.
- Books – These aren’t toys, but they still need a designated home.
- Art Supplies – Same as books.
- Games – We just have a few.
- Imaginative toys – These include things like a doctor kit, a superhero cape, a police officer hats, binoculars, play food and play kitchen stuff.
- Tiny toys – These include things like happy meal toys, small balls and spinning tops.
- Big toys – My son has a tent, tunnel, inflatable ball pit, big exercise ball, a huge floor foam puzzle, a basketball hoop and a ride-on airplane.
- Active toys – These include the ubiquitous plastic bouncy balls from the grocery store, a mini golf set, a Bilibo, and a soft baseball bat, among other things.
3.5 – Eliminate if necessary
Seeing all your toys written down — and noticing how many are extremely similar — might leave your jaw on the floor. This could be a good time to start paring down.
I always struggle with this. It’s way easier to get rid of my own things than it is to get rid of my kids’ — it doesn’t feel like my decision to make, technically. And toddlers aren’t old enough to grasp the charitable concept of giving toys away.
My solution is to put certain toys that I don’t love “on probation” up in the storage area marked with the date. If my son doesn’t ask for it for several months, I can usually move it along guilt-free.
Don’t waste too much energy trying to figure out whether to keep things at this point. As David Allen says in the book “Getting Things Done” (affiliate link), you can adopt the “when in doubt, throw it out” mantra or the “when in doubt, keep it” mantra. Either one works — the key is to move through quickly so you don’t get frustrated and abandon your organizing.
4. Match the toy types to their new “homes.”
Once your toys are grouped and possibly slimmed down, decide which storage location each toy group belongs in. Keep these characteristics in mind:
- Requires adult supervision. These need to be in a location that has out-of-reach storage.
- Messy or has many pieces. If it’s annoying to clean up, it needs to go somewhere kids can’t grab it without permission — and possibly where the pieces won’t get spread out too far as it’s being played with. (This step is more for families with toddlers. Bigger kids are able to follow rules about putting toys back or at least not dumping them out.)
- Loud or annoying. These go as far from the grown ups as possible.
- Encourage active play. If a toy encourages the child to throw, run or bounce, don’t store it in an area where playing with it could do damage.
- Encourages quiet or independent play. These are more likely to be used in a space that makes it easy for kids to concentrate.
- Requires a group. These might be better stored in an area where people tend to congregate.
- Ugly. Save the more visible storage for the best-looking toys.
Here’s what I came up with:
- Stuffed animals
- Books (No more stacks downstairs)
Living Room Shelf
- Vehicle sets
- Other vehicles
- Puzzles and Stacking Toys
- Art supplies
- Large vehicles
- Imaginative toys (in a bin on the only shelf in the basement)
- Tiny toys (in a tupperware container out of reach on the same shelf)
- Big toys
- Active toys
5. Make a few “toy rules.”
As you put the grouped toys in their new homes, you may find yourself out of room and wondering whether it’s really necessary to make all the toys available at once.
Use your feelings to make a few rules about toy availability.
Here were the ones I came up with.
- Only 5 Stuffed Animals Out at Once. The rest go out of sight in up the closet and are switched out occasionally.
- Only 1 “Small Parts” Activity Available at a Time, Preferably on the Train Table – Building sets, vehicle sets and miniatures are fun and have a lot of educational value, but they are also the most annoying to clean up and keep together. He only needs to have one or maybe two out at a time.
- 10 Vehicle Max – My son loves each of his many random cars, trucks, airplanes and other vehicles. Instead of getting rid of them, I let him keep 10 out at a time in a bin on the bookshelf. The rest go up in the closet until I need to keep him entertained.
Ongoing: Keep it Fresh
After I took these steps, I was thrilled with how many areas of my house stayed toy-free or got way easier to de-clutter.
I wasn’t finding puzzle pieces in far flung corners of the basement or stacking toy parts under my kid’s bed anymore.
The toys that I started rotating got more attention than they ever had, and I always knew where to find the toys he asked for.
Even when things got messy — like after his friends came over to play — it wasn’t as stressful because I knew exactly how to put the toys back.
And we all lived happily ever after.
Just kidding. I’ve had to keep refining my methods. Here’s what I learned:
- Toy organization is not a one-time task. Kids grow, siblings are born, interests change. And most importantly, the tide of toys continues to wash in. Post-birthdays and post-holidays are good times to re-evaluate your toy situation. Save your toy organization notes so you can easily update them later.
- Make sure other caregivers are on board with toy rules. It only takes a few times for grandparents, babysitters and even spouses to start putting things where they don’t belong for your system to unravel. Get them on board right away.
- Keep it simple. If you find yourself or your family ignoring toy rules, your system might be too complicated. Concentrate on the toys or areas of the house that cause the most problems. Even just doing this is better than throwing up your hands and resigning yourself to live in Clutterville.