Fight Toy Clutter And Win

“My house will NEVER look like a toy store threw up all over it. Gah. Primary-colored pieces of plastic are practically offensive to my line of sight.”

I’m fairly certain I at least thought that exact sentiment if I didn’t state it out loud more than once before having children. Thank goodness it didn’t hurt too bad when I fell off that pedestal.

The truth is, it’s next to impossible to make your house look like children don’t live there when children, in fact, do. I learned to embrace that by the time Kendall was a toddler, and never looked back. I’m not going to spend my energy fighting to keep toys completely hidden and breakables proudly displayed.

About twice a year, though, I do spend a great deal of energy taming the clutter monster that the toys tend to morph into. Because, while I’m okay with this house looking like KIDS live here, I’m not okay with it looking like pint-sized HOARDERS live here.

Here’s how I attack it:

1. Dedicate a whole day. I know it can seem overwhelming and it may work for others to tackle just a little at a time, but knowing me, if I don’t do it all at once, it will never get done.

2. Find 3 baskets/boxes/bags that are big enough for you to put stuff in: to donate, to store, to trash.

3. Take everything out of where it’s at. Get it all on the floor, or put it on a bed, whatever. Give yourself a visual of what you’ve got. This will not only help you to see if you’ve got 20 too many Tonka trucks, but also will give you an idea of how/if you need to reorganize things.

 4. Be BRUTAL. Take the emotions out of this. Really think, does my child ACTUALLY play with this? Are they too old for this? Is it broken? Is this something they are REALLY going to want to bring to their house when they are adults?

5. Make tough decisions. For me, if the kids haven’t played with it in the last couple months and it’s not something seasonal (which we have very little of, anyway), it’s gone. If it’s missing a vital piece, it’s gone. If they’re too big for it, it’s gone. I very, very rarely hold onto something of theirs to pass down to them as adults. And by “gone” I mean it either goes to the donation bin, is trashed, or I think long and hard about if it’s going to actually be of use to another baby around here before I put it up in the attic.

6. Designate specific spaces for toys. We keep toys in 4 places. We have a playroom, but I’m not okay with that room being overrun by toys. There is a storage unit in there for toys, books, crafts, and games. If they can’t fit in it (or to the side of it for larger toys), then we need to get rid of something.

We also keep toys in 3 baskets under the TV…

And each of the kids has a couple small toy bins in their room.

If these baskets and bins start getting stuck because they are packed full of toys, it’s time to get rid of some. Any toy that comes into this house has to live in one of those spots (with the exception, obviously, of things like tricycles, tool benches, and other large items, which we try to keep to a minimum).

7. Group like-items together. It’s really worth it to make a trip to the Container Store or even Target/Walmart to get some bins that help keep toys in groups that make sense vs. a black hole of a toy box. This not only helps your kids find the toys they’re looking for faster, but it also helps teach them how to put them away in the right spot.

8. Place toys in rooms that make sense. If you have the space to keep all the toys in a playroom, that is awesome. Not a lot of people do though. What I like to do is to keep the toys that each child doesn’t like to share much in their bedrooms.

Of course, we always encourage sharing, but we get that there are some toys that belong to my 4-year-old that are special to him and not suited for play with his toddler sister.

I keep things like blocks/Legos/Lincoln Logs, trains and cars in the playroom since there is enough floor space to spread out and play with those in there. The toys under the TV are mainly play food since it’s right next to the kitchen and the play kitchen. We also keep some outdoor toys and balls in there since it’s next to the back door.

9. Rotate. I try to rotate toys from the living room to the playroom and back every time I re-organize (other than the ones that make more sense to stay in that room). I know people will also rotate bins of toys into and out of storage to keep things “new,” but since our only storage option is the attic, and I avoid it like the fiery hell-hole it is, that solution doesn’t work for me. Could work for you, though!

10. Avoid collecting too many toys to begin with. Step back and look at your freshly organized spaces and remind yourself that kids don’t need a whole house full of toys to have fun. Every time I organize and de-clutter the toy-spaces in this house, I’m reminded how much I 1. detest kid’s meal toys and 2. need to re-commit to letting less junk in this house.

I’ll admit, it’s a battle that’s getting harder as my son gets older. He suddenly, passionately feels he NEEDS certain toys, and I’m not going to deprive him of any and all of them just to make a point. But we don’t come home from every shopping trip with a new toy, and I try to keep purchases of new (or new-to-us) toys to holidays/birthdays and when he’s worked really hard to earn them.

What about you? Do you feel like you’re winning against the toy clutter monster? What are your tricks? 

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  1. For number 10, We have started trying to add to collections rather than add new toy categories. A new set of toy food for the kitchen or a new Lego set, a new train etc. something that can re-spark the interest in an old favorite.

  2. I’m not winning. Not by a long shot. I organize, and for a few days it feels like I’ve won… Then it goes back to chaos. The problem really is that we have too many. I’m going to have to really purge. Sadly, when the kids aren’t there. Lol!

    • I really think 90% of the battle is numbers. It’s much easier to keep things organized and to pick up at the end of the day if you’re not overwhelmed by the volume of toys.

      • I think that is really the key. We don’t pick up Every. Single. Night. but more often than not. The kid is involved – that’s where the William Tell song comes in so handy – but we can knock it out in 3 minutes by doing it together.

        But doing regular maintenance keeps it so much easier.

  3. I just did this very thing this weekend after my daughter’s 2nd birthday. She has toys in baskets in her room and in the living room and it seems that the pieces never stay with the toy in the correct room. She couldn’t even play with some stuff because the pieces were somewhere else. So we emptied everything in the living room and sorted. I now have a huge pile to donate. Of course first thing she does is pick something from the donate pile to play with. Something she hardly ever played with before, but now was totally awesome…do I keep it now or still donate? It’s getting donated because chances are that’s all she would ever play with it.

    I also realized that we eat out WAY too much! How did we end up with all these crappy fast food meal toys?! Some of them don’t even make sense!

    One last thing, my husband accuses me of never throwing stuff away and attaching sentimental value to everything. He saw one of my piles and said “You can’t throw away her turtle. It was her favorite.” I rest my case.

    • Isn’t that the way it always goes? My son will look in the donate bin and be like, “Oh! I love that toy!” But he doesn’t. I know he doesn’t. He’s never missed anything I’ve given away up to this point.

  4. “My house will NEVER look like a toy store threw up all over it. Gah. Primary-colored pieces of plastic are practically offensive to my line of sight.”

    I remember saying practically those exact same words before I became a parent. I cannot believe the amount of toys my son has accumulated in almost 3 years time!

  5. We really need to work on this. I think I’m going to have to think through some sort of emergency drill to get my wife and in-laws comfortable with the idea of purging.

    There will be loud sirens and count-downs indicating how many seconds until everything in the house burns down. Everyone has five toys they can bring out of the house with them. I’m pretty sure this will be easier for my toddler than for the other adults in the house. But that’s what cattle prods are for.

    • Hold up. You’re saying since I take the time 2x a year to re-organize and de-clutter, that my kids have too many toys? What’s with the judgement, Lynet? I’m not sure what the quantity is in comparison to what I grew up with, but I’m happy with what they’re left with after sorting through everything. My kids are given toys for birthdays and holidays. At some point, I have to weed out the ones they’ve grown out of. I’m really not understanding your logic here. My whole purpose with this plan of attack IS to make my life simple.

      • All I’m saying is that less toys = still happy kids no matter what. Yes, you’re right, it’s up to you to say when enough toys is enough. I just come from a mentality that kids don’t need a lot of toys. But that doesn’t mean that organizing is not important (I do it once a year). But you do it your way, and I do it my way. Sorry if I sounded judgmental =|

        • Of course. I understand that, and I do my best to live by it, but it’s getting more difficult as Kendall gets older and since we’ve added another kid to the mix. They play together with some of the toys, but some of them are specifically for each age. Our toy collection has certainly grown the last few years, but I do always try to make sure the ones that take up space in this house are thoughtful. No worries.

  6. Hubby and I said the same thing before we had children. So far we’re not doing too bad. There are toys all over the living-room, but it’s manageable (it all fits into one box, the rest stays in the bedroom). Our eldest is only 2.5 years old so up until now it’s been easy to control what comes in the house. I can see that it’s starting to get difficult though. She gets what birthdays and Christmas are all about now, and she also started pointing at toys in the shops and asking for them. I consider myself lucky we lasted that long, haha 😉
    I think your idea of a twice-yearly purge is fantastic. It allows to de-clutter and re-organize. I need to do that, there are some toys that both kids have grown out of and could use a new home.

  7. I did this recently with my daughter. She and I went through her box of stuffed animals in her room and chose to “keep” or “give away” a lot of them. She kept her favorites but the ones she didn’t care about (including one baby doll that has scared her shitless since she was tiny) got put in a trash bag and taken to our local donation center. I also took an entire afternoon about a week ago to sift through the abyssal toy box and find ANYTHING that was too young for her or that she didn’t play with. Since we’re planning another baby, that stuff is going into storage and I proceeded to remove all batteries to avoid corrosion. Little bitty toys, plastic crap, and anything that I couldn’t figure out what it went to ended up in the trash. All of her toy food and things for her kitchen went into her shopping cart beside her kitchen. Books went in the bookshelf in her room. We are still working on making sure everything has a proper place, but it is MUCH better than it was just 2 weeks ago.

  8. I think we’re about due for our very first toy de-clutter. I’m desperately searching for a piece of furniture that will allow me to keep a few fabric bins tucked away.

    I also have to move on from the emotional aspect. Sophia has a ton of stuff animals that I received at my baby shower and she hasn’t even touched the majority of them.

  9. I have the same rule you do about the ratio of toys to storage. If it doesn’t fit, then we have too much. When it gets too bad, I de-clutter (always right before birthdays and X-mas) and I often get my kids to help. The deal is, if they agree to let go of a lot of stuff without a fight, then we get to go to the toy store to pick out ONE toy (under a certain amount of $). My oldest (7) is great about helping at first, and when he loses interest I just keep going. My youngest (almost 4) doesn’t really care, so I don’t generally let him know what I’m up to. It is a great way to get them to agree to major discards because they have the incentive of a new toy to spur them on.

    I also throw out all Happy Meal-type toys, anything that is age-inappropriate, broken or missing pieces, etc. I definitely need to be better about letting go of the stuff that I want them to play with, but that they admittedly don’t ever touch (i.e., organic, wooden, vintage, free-range blocks with hand-painted images made by unicorns – you get the idea).

    I always feel better when I do finish the job…until the first box of Legos hits the floor again!

    • I think that is so smart to involve the kids in choosing, and using the incentive works.

      We do a “make room for Santa” purge in December because Santa won’t leave toys if he sees there is no room for it. For anyone trying it for the first time, a letter from him a few weeks in advance to explain his new policy might help.

      I also talk with her about donating toys to babies who don’t have any. She feels so bad for them it helps losses her grip on things.

      Finally, I have her keep me company as I purge my stuff, too, so she can see ME make the same kind of choices.

  10. I need to do another purge and wean out the toys that aren’t age appropriate anymore either…especially since my house will be cluttered with newborn baby crap in 2 months! (I hate having the swing, bouncer, play mat, etc clutter!)

  11. I just really did a number on our toy collection! First I got rid of anything I didn’t think was awesome. I sorted everything into 4 bins and every day we rotate through one of the bins, only having one set of toys out at a time and leaving the others in hiding for three days. It keeps the magic alive! I also stash all the birthday/Christmas toys in our basement in a hiding spot, still in the brand new wrappers, then when we need to mix it up or it’s a rainy day, I pull something out of the stash and they are in awe! By the way, I love that your playroom is a kid zone, but still looks pretty and modern, like a grownup might actually want to be in there.

  12. I need to do another purge and wean out the toys that aren’t age appropriate anymore either…especially since my house will be cluttered with newborn baby crap in 2 months! (I hate having the swing, bouncer, play mat, etc clutter!)

  13. I don’t know if you frequent a chick-fil-a (I really try not to; does not appeal to my politics) BUT if you decline the toy, they give you an ice cream cone. That has worked to change my toddler’s understanding of what comes in a meal at a fast food restaurant, so when we hit up any other place, I quietly ask for no toy. Problem solved. Or we leave it in the booth “so someone else can play with it” (which, who knows, maybe it does happen!)

    I am totally due for a toy purge, too. Thanks for this post!

  14. Oh, you know, the other thing I noticed? She really plays with open ended stuff so much more than single-use toys. I was just reading, too, how kids really don’t need such specific stuff – like our extensive collection of play food – and having to imagine it is even better for them.

    So I’m trying to buy fewer, higher-quality versatile stuff. Doesn’t always work, of course, but I try

  15. “The truth is, it’s next to impossible to make your house look like children don’t live there when children, in fact, do.” – Jill, I totally agree. You just can’t. They are going to play with those toys and leave them anywhere. I mean, I am recovering legos under cabinets and places where you wouldn’t care to look. Toy clutter is inevitable.

    When my son turned two years old, I started to teach him to put his toys back in the toy box (I bought this big plastic box where we can keep his toys). Now, he knows how to do that but of course, you know kids, they are not always in the mood for de-cluttering or keeping their own toys. And most of the time, you will still end up doing that – which I love to do for my son, but yes, I work and clean other parts of the house, too, so it will not always feel like doing that. 😀

    I love how you ‘attack’ the toy clutter. I do most of these as well. #4 and 5 are really tough; it’s only easy when the toy gets broken as in really cracked and may harm the child when playing it.

  16. I keep waiting for Joe to finish the basement before I tackle proper toy storage….it was supposed to start this month but with the pool project extending into the fall the basement will have to wait. And I seriously doubt it will happen next fall and even if it does I don’t think I can wait that long. I hate to buy things for our family room that I may not need when we build the basement but I am dying over here….there is only so many times someone can step on a tiny Lightening McQueen before they go basket/bin crazy.

  17. One thing we’ve decided with our daughter, is instead of getting presents on her birthday, she asks her guests for a donation towards her favourite charity. At the same time, we (and grandparents) will get her presents that we KNOW she really wants. That way we avoid getting a crazy amount of toys/presents that she wont really use and ends up cluttering the house!

  18. Lisa Humphries on

    My mom worked at a county hospital when I was young, and there were a lot of young patients there that didn’t have much to begin with, and even less to play with while they were in the hospital. My mom made us clean out our toys & stuffed animals once or twice a year and then we’d take the excess to the hospital to give to the kids. She also made us go through our Halloween candy and donate half of our loot to the kids.

    I didn’t really “get it” when I was small, but by the time I was 7 or 8, I would get really excited to make these deliveries to the kids.

    I’m really hoping to do something like this with my kids 🙂 My niece is currently battling Leukemia, so we have been exposed to a whole world of ways to donate time/money/items to kids to help make their experiences a little bit better, and I hope to continue that after my niece kicks cancer’s butt!!

    • That’s so good to hear (though not the part about your niece!). Sometimes it feels like it will never click with my kids how important it is to give to others. I guess if we just keep doing it, hopefully it will catch on.

  19. Cydnee Pletcher on

    I have bought my daughter 1 you in her entire 2 year life and yet I am overrun. Our families are BEYOND generous around holidays and birthdays and I’m constantly fighting clutter. I think I’m on a downhill slide now. Until we have another kid.

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