Living Simply Saturdays: Keeping the toy mess in check


Lately it seems that no matter how clean the family room is when the day begins, by approximately 10:07am it has become a pig-sty.

It’s not that we don’t try to get it cleaned up often, but my biggest challenge is with a very creative 3 (almost 4) year old girl. She loves, loves, loves to do all sorts of imaginative play. She can turn anything into an instant tea party, a kitchen, a zoo, or a bedroom for her dollies and soon all of the precious things that have made their way into her creative play end up strewn all over the house.

I know what the major problem is. I do not have her cleaning up one activity entirely before allowing her to move on to the next. As a result, it doesn’t take too many activities before the room is trashed and what could have been a 2 minute cleanup has now become a 20 minute ordeal.

When she was young, before Caden was born, I had all of her toys neatly organized in labeled ziploc bags. The bags belonged in two wooden baskets, which belonged on the bottom of a wooden bookshelf in our little condo. It was all so tidy and orderly. She was given one bag at a time, and when that one was cleaned up, she could have a new one. Ahh… I thought it was so easy back then. Before she could reach it all herself, open everything without asking for help, and come up with the idea to combine 5 different sets of toys into one grandiose imaginative play idea.

I’ll admit, I gave her too much slack. I was so enthralled, watching her creativity develop that I began to regulate her toy use less, and just let her mix and match and make a big mess, as she developed these wonderful skills. Overall, I don’t think it was a terrible thing. I think it’s important for children to be able to play freely at different times during the day, and to have a variety of playthings (be they “real” toys, or other household objects that they are allowed to use for make-believe).

The concept of simplicity had to come into the picture for me, though, for two basic reasons. One, the family room (which is also our school room, the place I do my computer work, and also where we store many books and toys) was continually a mess, and it was becoming so difficult to stay focused on a task, because I was distracted by the clutter. Two, she is still young enough that although she is capable of cleaning small messes and helping to clean larger ones with direction from an adult, she was not capable of cleaning up the entire mess on her own and this would immobilize her and ultimately frustrate us both.

The solution?


We received these great shelves a few months back, and they have definitely helped us to store and organize the kids toys to a larger degree. What I did yesterday, though, was a bit of tactic organization.

I moved all of the bins with lots of different pieces and components up to the two top shelves, which she cannot reach (and won’t be able to for years). On the bottom shelf, I placed a few things that both children could access on their own (a few simple baby toys on the left, and some dolls and doll accessories on the right). Abbie and I discussed it, and she now understands that if she wishes to play with something in one of the upper bins that is perfectly fine, but she will need to ask me to get it down, and there will be no more bins coming down until the first one has been cleaned up and put back.

This serves a few purposes. Cleanup will be quicker and simpler for her, and I can retrain her to do it by herself, with less direction from me. Both children can still access some toys without my help, but they cannot make too much of a mess with these few simpler toys. Since we will not have half of the toys spread all over the room at any given time, I think that the kids will grow to appreciate the toys more, and really play with what they are using, instead of getting bored after a few minutes and moving on to the next item.

Problem solved. I hope. I’ll let you know how it goes!

How have you simplified the use of toys and playthings in your house? What types of organization have worked to keep down the clutter and help your children make good use of what they have?

(On a quick side note- beginning next week, I’m going to start working my way through the book From Clutter to Clarity: Simplifying Life from the Inside Out, just addressing a chapter or aspect of the book each week. This is something that I’m mostly doing for myself, because I have so enjoyed reading the book and have found it so helpful that I want to really make an effort to put the things I am learning into practice. If you have the book, or are interested in it, I’d love to have you join me and follow along, letting me know how you are implementing these ideas into your life!)

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  1. We have just been trying to problem solve this same issue with our daughter, who is about the same age as yours, if I remember right. I too had a good system working, but she went through the same exploration in imaginary play, etc. which was fun/fascinating to watch, but resulted in her room (where almost all her toys are) being a PIGSTY every day! What worked for us in the past, and now I just need to do again is the labeling of containers. We used old gallon ice cream pails which I wrote on and labeled with a drawing. I went to Walmart yesterday and found some surpsingly good priced containers in 3 different sizes that I am going to use for the things that aren’t in containers. Then I am going to go through the teaching phase again of: “Abigail, what is this picture? Soo..what do you think goes in this box?” and review the rules of playing with toys/cleaning up. I believe I am also going to use your idea Stephanie of putting toys with lots of parts on shelves that she will have to ask for help with to access. Thanks for the idea!

  2. Sandra, I don’t even want to think about birthday and Christmas toys! Yikes!

    Faith, that’s what I need to do now. Add labels with pictures to the bins to help her with cleanup. Glad the idea was helpful for you! Did you know that our daughters are both named Abigail? 🙂

  3. Do you mean you will be blogging about this book? I”ve been slowing making my way through it and am really enjoying decluttering my heart and mind. I would love the opportunity to discuss this with someone else!

  4. Michelle, yes, I’m going to blog about it! I’m not going to blog about every single thing in the book, but I am going to work my way through it, covering the topics that particularly spoke to me or felt relevant. I’ll blog a bit about her thoughts and ideas, and my reaction and response, and I would also love to hear others thoughts and reactions to it! I think it will be encouraging to talk about some of these topics. I’m glad you’re excited about it!

  5. I remembered that you called your daughter Abbie, but couldn’t remember if she was an Abbie or Abigail as well. :o)

    And I had one more thing that I wanted to add that is my brainchild of all my ideas….at least I hope it turns out to be ;0) . Abigail also loves doing crafts and it breaks her heart to throw any of them away or to find them in the trash when I’ve thrown them away. Right now her favorite thing to do is to color, cut, tape, staple, and glue to make “books”. From the boxes I got at Walmart, I took a medium sized one and told her this is where she can store her completed crafts and books, but once it is full, she needs to look through it and decide which ones to throw away to make room for more or hang any favorites on the wall. But, she has to store all of her crafts in that box, not in the myriad of other places she was using. I hope it works…I think it will! (We did the same thing with her craft supplies as well, using the same rationale.)

    I guess this idea goes along with when an item comes into the house, (clothing, toys, etc.) something else has to go. We are really working on this idea to cut down on clutter.

  6. I JUST did this not three weeks ago for my 2 year old and 10 month old.
    My two year old (boy) has done AMAZING with this kind of a system. It’s totally eliminated the battle of picking EVERYTHING up at once right at nap time or bed time which is not when I want a battle! 🙂

    I also scaled WAY back on the amount of toys they have as well. A tub for the baby toys, a bucket of legos, books and a few misc. toys on shelves.
    He has been remembering that he has to pick up the books before he can get the legos out and so forth!

    Just wait til you see how much easier this makes life for all of you! Have a great weekend, Mandi

  7. We too feel this struggle around our home. One thing that seems to be working with our girls is to have them clean up before nap time or before we head out the door for a play date or outing. Everyone knows that their rooms must be tidied up before we leave. Momma tackles the kitchen and deals with the little guy while the girls pick up their room and any stray toys that may have wound up in the living room.

    In addition, one new rule I have begun implementing is that after nap time there are no toys allowed outside of their room. I’ve explained to them that we need to get dinner ready and the house tidied before their papi comes home. It’s been an effective way for me to model serving my husband and neat to see them join in too!

  8. The way I have worked this is to have different baskets for different things. Which works for my daughter. She is at the age where she can put them away though…although I think sometimes kids are a bit more capable of learning this than we realize (with limits, of course!) Plus, I like the look of the baskets in the living room as it makes it look more adult-like while still being kid-friendly. I got some great ones that are durable on sale. My daughter is almost 3, and I told her what goes in which basket. So when I ask her to clean up, she is able to do that. She has a few main groups of toys: kitchen stuff, dress up stuff, books, small animals/cars/accessories, stuffed animals and blankets, and a few smaller toys that are individual. She also has a few medium-sized toys but not many. I try to rotate ALL the toys/books on a regular basis while leaving out the kitchen stuff and her other few favourites all the time. She doesn’t get bored because of the rotation. Also, we have an amazing toy lending library about a 10 min walk from our house. Seriously you can get everything there. I go there every two weeks or so and we pick out new things and return others. I thought she would have a problem with it but she never has. It means she can have “new” stuff without buying it and storing it. It also means we can get her a larger toy like a play centre and then return it and not have to store it long term. Its worth a look to see if your area has one of these centres. Sometimes they are at parent/child drop in places or at book libraries. Or even swapping with a friend. All of this cuts down on the amount to store and pick up. And we never have to buy anything. We give her one thing for her birthday and Christmas and that’s it.

    Another idea for using craft projects like paintings and other paper-based flat things is to send them to grandparents and good friends and such in the mail, make a calendar by pasting the craft items over the calendar pictures (many stores give out free calendars around December…you could even get more and give them as gifts…12 different pieces of art each year to enjoy a new one each month). Or even using the art as gift wrap. Grandparents seem to love these types of ideas a lot. I also save some special ones and am planning on putting them in a scrap book. For now they are in a basket on top of my dresser. 😉
    Also, sometimes 3-D type of crafts look good as decorations on a Christmas tree and also make good gifts to others like grandparents for their own Christmas tree/shelf etc.
    Looking forward to reading your blogging about that book!

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