By Yvette O’Dowd
A large source of visual clutter in family homes is kid’s toys. Messy bedrooms, playrooms and family rooms create lots of stress for adults and children. The skills and understanding to organise and maintain collections of toys take many years to develop and the fact that parents feel overwhelmed by the mess shows that children are often unable to deal with the clutter independently.
Organised toy storage is certainly part of the solution but before organising you must first declutter. And that means taking a closer look at the main culprits sabotaging your efforts to maintain previous systems and routines.
Let’s take a look at that mess and identify the likely suspects. They might surprise you!
It’s hard to escape the pieces of plastic and paper given to children wherever they go. Fast food meals. Community events. Birthday parties. School. Supermarkets. The majority of these trinkets are not intended or designed to become permanent parts of your child’s environment. Some are given to tempt you to shop. Others are designed as “Shut Up Toys”, strategically placed near adult stress points like checkouts, gift shops and even alongside lollies and chocolates. “Pester power” is a recognised marketing strategy and it is no coincidence you find it hard to say no to them.
- Set boundaries before these things come into your home.
- Create specific storage for items like this and apply a one in/one out rule.
- Routinely edit and remove broken or torn pieces automatically.
- Use these items to create entertainment packs for car trips, waiting rooms etc.
..and assorted pre-packaged projects, ready for the child to unpack and assemble, are quick gifts shining from shelves, promising aunts and uncles, grandparents and parents “hours of entertainment”. Once opened (and usually realisation that adult supervision and assistance is needed to get a result anything like the “suggestion” on the box) the contents are often set aside unused and scattered. Those which are painstakingly assembled become treasured creations claiming undisturbed display space – often in the middle of the dining table!
- Have a supply of lidded storage boxes in sizes to hold the contents of kits.
- Discourage unboxing during parties and events, waiting until you have the time to focus.
- Set up a display space for creations, with limits on exhibition periods. Add a construction date discreetly to art works. Pop a note on your calendar to discard.
- Encourage photographing creations rather than displaying them long term.
- Routinely deal with left over supplies by adding to existing craft supplies, donating to childcare, preschool or schools etc. Discard packaging and instructions.
Childhood interest in collecting peaks around the middle primary years. From toddlers gathering rocks, sticks and seashells as soon as they can walk, to adults curating the toys of their own childhood in boxed mint condition, collecting is another human trait which marketing has tapped into. “Collect the whole set” is the constant message, from supermarket collectibles to collector cards to figures promoting the latest movies. Pocket money purchases are supplemented by pleas for gifts on birthdays and other celebrations. Interest is keen only until the next big thing comes along.
- Review collections regularly through the year.
- Create display and/or storage systems to honour the collection.
- “Give back to nature” collections of natural materials.
- Embrace the learning that comes with collecting: organisation, cataloguing, sorting and researching are all useful life skills.
Lost and Found.
Its the key piece to a game, puzzle or … something. Separated and possibly not even identifiable, the bits of plastic or card roam around the play space, surviving all clean ups as everyone agrees if it is vaguely familiar and necessary.
- Assign a labelled Lost and Found container in a central location and create the habit of placing such items there when tidying or decluttering. Teach children to look here first when they cannot find missing pieces.
- When a game or puzzle is found to be incomplete and unable to be used, use a post it note with the date and details of what’s missing. Quarantine away from regular storage until parts are located or a determined time has passed.
- Don’t donate incomplete games or puzzles!
UFOs (Unidentified Found Objects).
Gumnuts. Interesting stones. Acorns. Seashells. Sticks. Marbles. Bottle caps.
When not hidden in pockets risking the health of your washing machine, these random gatherings appear on every surface and in every container. And they are usually Very Special.
- Create a set display/storage space for gathered items.
- Review and edit collections at the beginning of the next month/season.
- Encourage instead the creation of temporary artwork on the beach, the bush or the playground rather than bringing everything home. Leave for others to discover.
- Suggest the gathering of rubbish instead and keep a bag handy to bring to the nearest bin. Keep a running tally of how much is collected.
Unplanned and unanticipated toys coming into an existing toy storage system. Patiently awaiting a permanent home as they are moved vaguely from surface to surface, room to room by everyone attempting to “put this away”.
- Plan ahead before birthdays, Christmas and other occasions when new toys can be expected. Routinely declutter and donate in anticipation.
- Try to stick to one or two types of storage containers which you can rely on being able to purchase. I like the Ikea Kallax and Trofast units and containers.
- Keep a few extra empty containers available so you are prepared.
- The container sets the boundary: remove the old to add the new if space is tight.
Bloody Big Things.
Anything and everything too big to fit on shelves, in cupboards or within storage boxes; taking up floor space, getting in the way and visually overwhelming. Often presented by triumphant family members who do not live in your house. Includes everything intended to be sat on, ridden or left set up because it takes so long to set up.
- If possible, be upfront with family and friends that you are struggling to manage toys and ask that they check with you before giving large surprises.
- Be cautious about accepting hand-me-downs you can’t store easily.
- Assign clearly-marked “parking spots” for mobile toys like doll prams, bikes and scooters. Keep these clear from other items.
- Set limits about how many dolls houses, garages etc can be out at any time. Create storage elsewhere for items to rest when out of rotation.
- Pass on anything which uses more time to set up than it is used.
Pom poms. Paddle pop sticks. Feathers. Googly eyes. Coloured paper. Colouring books. Markers. Coloured pencils. Glue sticks. GLITTER. Stickers. Everything which promises some creativity and peace which doesn’t include screens.
- Create an adult managed storage space for craft items out of reach of toddlers.
- Decant materials which come in bulk packs allowing small quantities for use.
- Assign a place where crafting is allowed: ideally NOT your dining table.
- Set limits on how many options are out at one time. Less is more.
- Make it easy to pack up and support this being done while skills are developing.
(see also craft supplies … and kits) (see also UFOs) (see also Lost and Found)
Artwork. Party bags. Giveaways. packaging. Promotional items. Torn books. Broken plastic. Dried out markers. Food wrappers. Bits of paper. School notices. Teeny tiny little things you can’t even identify!
- Have systems in place to manage what comes into the house. Say no at the source.
- Make it simple to put rubbish in the right bin. Have bins in bedrooms and playrooms and teach the process of separating rubbish. Use labels. Have a small bin on the craft table.
- Accept your role as overseer and manager and regularly do a “5 minute pick up”with your children for rubbish. Make it fun.
Baby rattles. Stacking rings. Soft toys. Last year’s Christmas must-have. Generally everything currently in a storage box or sitting on a shelf. The toys they DO still play with are the ones scattered on the floor, the bed, the table!
- Keep a donation box in each bedroom and the playroom; out of reach of toddlers and younger children. Older children can take more responsibility.
- Edit toy collections as you do wardrobes; seasonally, before birthdays etc.
- Passively observe what your child currently plays with and what they don’t.
- Choose language when talking to children about outgrown toys. “Do you play with this?” will likely get a “YES!” response. “Show me your favourites?” will get more useful information.
- Talk about giving toys to children who don’t have any when donating. Avoid saying toys will be “thrown away” or “gotten rid of”. Respect emotions.
So, before you read the riot act again, take a fresh look. Gather a garbage bag and donation box and tackle the clutter before you organise the keepers. Assign everything a real home and look at macro organising better suited to developing brains. Open boxes rather than closed. Pictures on labels as well as text. Broad categories that allow quick pick ups rather than painstaking sorting. Include regular review of what is and isn’t currently in favour and accept your role as manager of toy inventory and supervisor of pack up.
Yvette O’Dowd is not your typical grandmother! This mother of three and ‘Granny’ of three has been a breastfeeding counsellor since 1992. In 2014, Yvette established the Southern Natural Parenting Network, incorporating South Eastern Babywearing Group. With 11,000 members world-wide, the group supports parents interested in breastfeeding, babywearing, co-sleeping, baby-led weaning and modern cloth nappies and other aspects of gentle, natural parenting.