Tuesday, April 08, 2008

an amazing trip trick: organization (part ii) LEGO of me! (toy management)

Have you ever felt the urge to throw away every toy in your house?

Yeah, me too.

That is why a few months ago, I found myself stomping through our house with a trash bag in hand and shoving in to that bag at least 80% of the toys that were cluttered all over the place.

I made the hasty decision to do this after I felt like I was constantly picking up the same stuff over and over (and over) again. Several times, everyday, I was picking up toys that the kids weren't even playing with, but removing from their storage space and dumping all over the floors.

At first, I was ready to throw the whole bag (actually, all four bags) directly in to the trash, but I caught myself. There were some very nice toys that I knew our children would play with, but not when they were strewn all over the floor and shoved in to drawers. So I methodically went through the toys - once the children were out of my way and not in a position to intefere in bed sleeping and I made an immediate determination with each item.

Were there parts missing?

Do they play with it?

Do they enjoy it?

Is it age appropriate?

Is it a pain for me to clean up?

At least 50% of the toys I put in to the four bags were donated to Goodwill and the remaining 50% were moved in to clear storage bins in our garage, that were labeled and easily accessible. This was the beginning of "toy circulation" as I know it, and these days, it is a very big deal for the children to bring something "new" in from the garage to play with.

However, whenever something "new" comes in to the house - something from the house goes in to the garage. This is key, because otherwise, our house would soon be filled to the brink with everything that I had moved out because children are natural born hoarders and must carry in their little arms whatever they can get their hands on as if their very lives depended upon having that ... thing.

At least monthly, I will do an inventory of what we have in circulation. If toys become broken or lose parts, or if I make the decision that the children have outgrown the toy, or never liked it to begin with, I will immediately discard it in the trash, or donate it to charity. Also, I have figured out that if we have the space to store things, we will generate more things. Therefore, I am of the mind that no new storage bins will be purchased. If something doesn't fit, room must be made, even if that means I'm packing off more stuff to charity.

Initially, I thought the kids would really miss the toys that I removed. But in contrast, once I moved out more than ¾ of their stuff, they started playing better - they were more focused - and interacted more cooperatively than they ever did before.

The sensory overload of too much stuff that was affecting me had been affecting them, too. Or, maybe they were just in shock wondering where all their stuff went?

Anyway. Potato, Potatoe.

I choose to believe that with just about everything in life - but especially toys - less is more. The more toys that you have out, the more that children are distracted. Particularly young children. When I have less toys out for them to play with, they are engaged and not as easily overwhelmed by all the "choices".

What I find extremely interesting is that Henry's favorite toy at nine-months old, is a metal mixing bowl and large wooden spoon. Likewise, our triplet's favorite toy at three and a half years old, is a metal mixing bowl and large wooden spoon. A close second favorite toy, for both the baby and the toddlers, would have to be an empty toilet paper, or paper towel roll.

Or maybe a cardboard box.

The point is: It doesn't take much to keep young children happy. The simpler, the better.

One of my greatest abominations are toy chests that are stuffed with every item imaginable. Toy chests that are stuffed in this manner, soon turn in to toy compost piles.

As for me, I need to know exactly where all the pieces to various puzzles are located - and not have blocks mixed in with trains mixed in with books mixed in with dolls mixed in with stuffed animals.

Everything has it's place and everything, at the end of the day, is tucked away in it's place.

Because the kids know where things are - and where things go - they have been working with me on cleaning up after they play.

I make it a point that if we are playing with blocks, we put blocks away before we bring out trains. Or, if we are playing with dolls, the dolls go away before we break out crayons.

We don't have the space to set up a separate toy room, and even if we did, I doubt that we would. The kids are happiest playing near me and I am usually in either the kitchen or the family room. Also, even though our house is relatively small and children outnumber us 2 to 1, our home is not dominated by toys. Instead, we have a very kid-friendly environment. But with the toys that we have in the house, I have organized them in such a way that when they are put away at night, there is almost no evidence that children live here.

Not that I'm trying to hide the fact that we have kids, but after a long day spent with children, the last thing I want to do is trip over toys on my way to the couch whilst holding a glass of wine.

It is very important that our house is our sanctuary and it's not very relaxing to be surrounded with kid paraphernalia 24/7.

So, I select toys and toy storage systems that blend with our home and don't glaringly look like kid furniture. And, I devoted all the drawers in our entertainment system to holding various toys and puzzles.

Our children's activity table is honey-maple wood that works great for them - and goes well with our decor. During the day, it holds train tracks, puzzles, blocks and books. At night, all of those toys are tucked in large roll out drawers underneath and it holds a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of wine. This is a timeless piece of furniture because not only does it blend with our home now, but as the kids grow older - it will grow with them. Fifteen years from now, when they are teenagers - they can still use this table to construct 1,000-piece puzzles or play a game of Risk - and not feel goofy for playing on a kiddie table.

I use baskets extensively.

I could write poetry about my love of baskets.

Wire baskets, wicker baskets, fabric baskets, straw baskets, bark baskets, sea grass baskets, wood baskets.

I love baskets and I use them for everything.

Some baskets are out in plain sight, others are tucked in to drawers.

I keep large baskets or bins in each of the rooms in our house. All of the toys I have divided up based upon use or type. For example, stuffed animals are in William's room. Electronics are in the living room. Dolls are in the girls room. Puzzles, books, cooking gear, trains, trucks and blocks are in the family room.

I have moved bulky toys (shopping carts, doll carriages) and excess books (that also go in to circulation) out to our garage where they are stored in accessible bins.

Because I am frequently moving through the house - and the children follow me wherever I go - they have various "new" play items in each room. Yet before we move from one room to the next, it is easy enough to toss all the items that they played with (unless there is something in particular they want to keep out), back in to the basket.

Toys with numerous parts, I only bring out when I can supervise or interact with the children playing. For instance, Legos are great, but after playing with them for around 30 minutes, I will pack them up and put them away. As much as the kids love Legos, after a certain period of time (10 minutes?) the art of building stuff, becomes the art of hiding and dumping stuff and colorful blocks will disappear - only to resurface in the dishwasher and/or body of Charlie's acoustic guitar.

Unless your kids are older and understand the concept of picking up after themselves, I would limit the number of toys with parts that they can play with. For example, we have wood food that the kids love. But, I will only let them play with one thing at a time. If I were to give them the birthday cake, pizza set and sandwich set - in no time flat - all of the pieces are all over the house. The same applies to their magnetic dress-up doll sets and string bead sets.

Some might call this hiding toys from children.

I consider it successful toy management.

So, in summary:

1) Reduce the number of toys in your home by at least 50%;

2) Either give excess toys to charity, put them in storage bins for circulation, or throw them out;

3) Maintain toy storage space that works well with your decor;

4) Employ baskets and bins for toy segregation and keep different toys in various parts of your home. Keeping in mind that not everything needs to be in one space and chances are, your children will remain entertained for longer, if your whole house, as opposed to one room - is open for them to play;

5) Put your feet up and drink a glass of wine.

Next, I'll be reviewing kitchen space and storage.


  1. How did I know you already knew all the secrets I shared about revolving toys????? I loved every word of your post tonight. I took great pleasure in reading how you organize everything with the toys! Because I love order, I loved your blog.

    I still use the rule that they have to put what they are doing away before we go out and get anything else out when children visit. (Sometimes it is a little awkward when a mother is standing there not reinforcing having her child help pick up their mess) But its my house, so my rules!

    I said this before, and I am going to say it again tonight. I think you are a great mom
    and the love you have for each of your children is so evident. Oh that all children would be so cherished!!

    Can hardly wait to hear what you do with your kitchen. I just finished my spring organization of my kitchen--got all my spices back in abc order, etc!!

    Don't work too hard!

  2. In my experience, circulating toys leads to less buying of toys. Having something out of sight for a while, makes it "new" again when it is brought out.
    Actually the daycare my sons went to have a "no toys" policy. They have:
    -big wooden blocks (the kids can build around themselves)
    -small wooden blocks (like kapla)
    -colors (10 colors in a box, paper, scissors, tape)
    -playroom with big pillows and blankets etc.
    Every day the kids play with/in the same stuff, and never get bored. This actually is more stimulating then all the small, specialized toys are.
    The blocks, pillows, colors, clay and water (all in separate rooms/corners) are considered "open" toys that the children can use creatively.
    So you'll have kids laying hardwood floors with big blocks, or making them into pizza, or building a house/birthday cake/car out of clay, or telling a story with their colors, or jumping like superman in the pillow-room with the blankets for capes.
    Kids will play, toys or not.
    And the adults who supervise them will be much less tired if the toys are few and simple.
    Less clutter, more peace of mind and more creativity, don't you find?
    Also, the smaller the toys and more complicated, the worse for the kids' posture (bending over to see the small parts).
    So, yay for the playground you're assembling in your garden...
    One of my sons changed daycare-centers when we moved, and is now in a conventional toy-playing center. Oh, the clutter, and glitter everywhere...
    Sometimes I wonder if they are replacing staff with stuff, if they have troubles finding people to teach the kids, they go out and by more junk.
    Which is probably one of the reasons why parents buy so much stuff for their kids - to make up for not spending enough time with them...
    Your comrade in see-through boxes,

  3. I can't decide if I miss those days or not.
    Our kids are 14 and 16 and we still have, in their original boxes WITH ALL THE PIECES, all of the Fisher Price play sets they had. I remember an old aunt saying "You'll never save all those pieces..." when I told her we take inventory each evening before putting things away. But, we did it. And it is bittersweet to bring those toys out for neighbor kids to play with while they visit. And our Lego shelf is a life saver when my 10-year-old nephew visits.
    Your organizational skills are so impressive.

  4. I use similar methods. I just don't have the storage space for things in the garage or elsewhere. I think our problem is too many BIG toys (tricycle, large firetruck with blocks, Pooh ride-on, push toy, large truck, etc.) that take up a LOT of room in a smaller house. The rotating toys idea has worked well for us too. I've just gotten lazy about it lately. Anyway, thanks for sharing your ideas. Oh, and I also agree that having things put away at night and having room to relax is essential.

  5. One of many cuzzins'!4/8/08, 8:32 AM

    Hi Jen!

    Wow...what a control freak!!

    It takes time to get organized, but in the end, it really does saves so much time. You've done a great job getting all that excess stuff in order.

    When my teenagers were little, I also spent quite a bit of time organizing their toys, drawers, closets, etc. Unfortunately the Pavlov's Dog Theory didn't work. Walking past their rooms today gives me heart palpitations and makes me throw up in my mouth. I want to cry when I think of the hours I spent sorting Lego's & Barbie Doll clothes into costly plastic see-thru bins. It seems none of that organizational skill left an impression on them. They think I am funny when I tell them they are like hogs living in their own slop. I am such a perfect mother - I just don't get where I went wrong in this area.

    On another note - along with donating to charity, I also used to do alot of consignment with kids clothes & toys. Every cent I made, was hidden in a jar. When the kids were 4 & 6, we moved from our condo into our new house. With that stashed away money (5 yrs worth) I bought an awesome, big cedar swing set. Believe it or not, my 15 yr old daughter still swings while she talks on her cellphone.

    I think I'll go sell some stuff off the kid's bedroom floors. Hmmm... what can I buy FOR
    MYSELF with the earnings?!

    Keep up the good work Jenna!

    ~Regina :)

  6. Boy, do I wish I had your discipline! And the ability to have a glass of wine in the evening!

  7. Thank you! This was just the inspiration I needed! Especially "3) Maintain toy storage space that works well with your decor" (or maybe especially "5) Put your feet up and drink a glass of wine.")

    We don't even have that many toys (and have already sorted through what we should give away), but the mess and the lack of organization have been driving me nuts! I was about to breakdown and buy some cheap, primary colored bin shelf from Target that I don't want. Now I'm going to look for something that could work in the same manner but fit our family room furniture better... maybe with baskets (I also love baskets!).

    I can't wait to read more of your organization tips.

    (Also, last night I dreamed of making bread with huge piles of dough. Apparently my excitement about your bread recipe is also in my sleeping worl.d I can't wait to use your recipe this weekend!)

  8. Oh Jen, you are so amazing!

    This was a really helpful and wonderful post.

    I'm going to link to it from my blog. You really inspire me!

  9. You forgot the favorite toy.....the toilet brush. Why oh why! You have given me some great pointers. I am not crazy about toys so I already do not have a ton. Even so she doesn't play with what I do have. Why have them? And the no more bin purchasing....love it, good furniture......love it. Etc

  10. Jen.....like mother, like daughter. I think you were too young to remember how smoothly your mother ran her household in Maynard. Can you imagine raising seven children without any organizational skills?? Thinking back, she was just amazing!!!! All of the kids had "jobs". Making beds, clearing dishes, folding clothes, etc. There was a place for everything and everything in its place.You sound just like her.....good for you!

  11. Okay. I think you definately have to much time on your hands!
    Take it from me honey ... this is "not" normal. ;-) (Seek Counseling Fast!)

    I'm still looking for the lego set from our move! Now I'm thinking that you might have it!! mmmm ;-)

    Good work. Love, Marg.

  12. That's it, Jen. I'm throwing all this shit out today. These kids have a ridiculous amount of toys and it's bringing ME DOWN.

    BUH BYE TOYS!!!!

  13. You are a genius. :-) I have one box in the closet of toys, but we really need to reduce by MORE. And I never thought to use the garage and clear bins!! WE HAVE BOTH! HOORAY FOR FREE SOLUTION!

    I do have a question for you, though. My kids are 6 1/2, 2 1/2 and 5 weeks. I'm having a tough time figuring out how to make the playroom functional and fun for the older two and their "big kid" toys, yet safe for our soon-to-be roaming baby. What have you done with all the toys that aren't appropriate for Henry? And how did the kids take it?


  14. This is great! I can't wait for the kitchen space segment!

    We definitely find that when we take toys out of circulation, J (our four year old) plays better and more independently, and is able to help put his toys away. What I'm terrible about is re-circulating them back in, but your idea of one-in-one-out works well. I could let him go "shopping for toys" (trading for toys is more like it) on a recurring basis. The truth is, J's room is jam-packed with toys, but the only ones he plays with are the dinosaurs and matchbox cars! I may just remove EVERYTHING ELSE. Then it's a matter of finding time to go through the rest to decide how I feel about keeping/donating/circulating the others.

    I remember when we first got J (he's a foster son), every day after work, I came home, played with him, fed him dinner, cleaned up after dinner, got him a bath, got him to help clean up toys, put him to bed, and then cleaned up the rest of the toys and swept the dining room and living room. I can't for the life of me figure out where that time went, because I sure don't have that kind of time, organization, or energy anymore. And I'd better find that time, organization and energy again, because once my triplets are mobile- heaven help me!!

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  15. Great, I hope you will come to Greenville and help with my kitchen. I just brought some of the "stuff" over from Riverbend and I am swamped with extras.

  16. Found you via Swistle... and I think I'm in love. I have to ask, where did you get that activity table? I want one!

    Also, just fyi, I have twins and a 1 year old- and I bow to you, b/c triplets is MORE than twins. ;)

  17. Our solution was the same as you-only we rotate in the closets. The kids' rooms each have closets with locks at the top so that I can put toys away and they can't get into them. The rotation works wonderfully (until Grandma sends toys.)

  18. Absolutely NOTHING on tv and my husband has control of the remote..zzz. Thought I'd check out your sight. I really enjoyed this post. Have been completely frustrated with the toy mess this past week! Then I remembered the crazy unbalanced neighbor who lives next to my Dad & Mom. One day she just completely lost it and threw a big pile of toys on her sidewalk in front of her house (the 4 kids were in the age range of 7 - 14) and just lit in on fire!
    The thought of that makes me laugh!
    Holly from MIM

  19. Jacki Nesbitt5/28/11, 5:03 PM

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