Toys: Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Flush ‘Em Down the Toilet

A friend recently asked us to make a post about how we simplify and de-clutter kids’ toys. My immediate response was, “If you’ve got an answer to that problem, I’d love to hear it, but I sure don’t!” But then I thought about it a little more and I realized that we have done a lot to reduce the clutter in our house from children’s toys. We could do more, but we’re not doing half bad.

Toy Clutter and a Baby

No, this is not our house. Photo credit below.

At this point, we have a three-pronged approach.

Minimize the Flow of Toys Into the House

The first prong is to minimize the amount that comes into our home. We encourage family to give gifts that are either really needed, non-material (e.g. museum memberships), or don’t take up much space. We don’t give many gifts to the kids ourselves (this year, R didn’t get anything -he didn’t notice- and H got a homemade fairy costume) and we rarely buy junk for them on impulse (although H did get a “queer spawn” t-shirt at Family Week). We have “no gifts, please” parties for the kids. I understand that this rubs some the wrong way, and may get harder as they grow up, but we plan to stick with it because we simply don’t have room for the kind of junk you get at kid’s parties. We had a combo party for H and R this year, who turned 4 and 1, respectively. We had guests who brought noisemakers, balloons, and homemade cards and those were great ways to celebrate a birthday kid. I can hear those of you with older kids laughing at me now, and it’s true, we may change our tune, but don’t forget that our stubborn streak is why we live in 650 square feet and don’t have a car.

Part of minimizing what comes into our home is borrowing rather than buying. We have around 30-40 picture and chapter books for kids and 30 board books. I recently selected a handful of books to give away or sell. We will probably buy more books, but only books with Jewish or queer-family themes because we can get anything else we need at the library. We have a couple of DVD’s, but again rely on the library for those. If we had a toy library in town maybe we wouldn’t need toys at all!

Selective De-cluttering

The second prong is de-cluttering. For whatever reason, I tend to be the de-clutterer in our household. I have had H help with this before, but she tends to get rid of the wrong things (like when she got rid of “Where the Wild Things Are” and her beloved stuffed Peter Rabbit that she missed later — why did I let her do that??). Recently, she and I went through a bin of small junky toys together and she chose ones to get rid of, but I had veto power. It worked pretty well, and I occasionally told her things like, “You can keep one of these Smurfs, which one do you want to keep?”

The thing I haven’t completely mastered is artwork. I love the cute art but don’t want it cluttering up our home. Our current system includes a binder with plastic sleeves that H has filled with artwork and a plastic bin that new artwork goes into. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, we’re going to get rid of everything in this bin and put the cutest things in the binder, perhaps filing some of the old cute things in the binder away for posterity. We’ll also mail some off to friends and relatives.

Embracing Stewardship

The final prong, stewardship, is a new one for us, and very important in light of the previous two prongs. Nathan and I are embracing the concept that we are the stewards of all of the things in our home. That means that we are responsible for them throughout their entire life-cycle, from when they enter our lives to when they leave as trash or someone else’s treasure. The first part of being good stewards is focusing on inviting only items of high quality into our lives. What makes for high quality in a toy? I looked around the internet for answer rather than trying to come up with my own and I found this summary. I think the best toys can be played with in lots of ways and aren’t likely to break very easily (oh, and I suppose they should be kind of safe, too).

If you have a real itch to get rid of a toy, it might be because it’s a piece of junk to begin with, in which case you may need to get rid of it to create space of better playthings. Similarly you may need to toss broken toys (note to self: this includes that broken toy car). If you have an urge to buy your kids something new just to fill up any space you’ve freed up, remember that your kids will be happy to go outside and play with rocks, dead plants, and sticks.

The second part of being good stewards is taking care of our things, and toys are part of this. We’re really hoping to focus, with the kids, on taking care of the toys that we have and finding good homes for toys when it is time to get rid of them, or at least not just putting them out in the trash. This means taking good care of all of our things and keeping a tidy enough house that we don’t break toys by stepping on them. It means considering whether we can or should repair things when they break. If we can’t repair them or they aren’t worth repairing, perhaps we should avoid purchasing that kind of toy again (note to self: maybe that toy car can find a replacement wheel somewhere?). One thing that worries us about repeated purging of toys is that it can be part of a culture of disposable goods. We don’t want to teach our kids that the way to simplify their lives is to throw things away — instead we want to teach them to find things of lasting value and take good care of them.

Before sitting down to write this post I decided to actually make an inventory of what toys we have in our home. I then sorted the list into three piles. Here it is:

This we should keep because the kids can still get use out of them

Child's closet

Baby-free closet which you cannot see much of but contains cubbies with toys and chokables, craft supplies, table, and easel, in addition to other kid-related and household storage.

  • 6 wooden puzzles, including both an alphabet puzzle and a hebrew alphabet puzzle
  • Wooden shape sorter
  • Wooden stacker
  • Wire bead toy (small)
  • Alphabet and tesselating shape magnets
  • Three toy phones and one real phone that’s kept in a toy bin
  • Medium bin full of toy cars
  • Several playmobile sets kept in a clear shoebox
  • 2 lego sets in one bin
  • Homemade playdoh with playdoh accessories
  • Ikea building toy
  • Piggy bank for each kid
  • About 25 dolls and stuffed animals
  • A clear shoebox of pictures, cards and other paper junk
  • Two shoe boxes of miscellaneous crap, like animal and people figurines — this collection has been culled somewhat in the recent past
  • A cloth house made by a grandmother that fits over a card table
  • A clear shoebox full of puppets and a doorway puppet theater
  • A clear shoebox full of doll clothes
  • Two doctor kits packed in the same bin
  • Ikea easel
  • Ikea table and chairs
  • Two shelves full of craft supplies, some of which used to be trash. Crayons, markers, and paint also.
  • Sidewalk chalk
  • A shoebox and jewelry box of “treasures” also known in our house as the “choking hazard bin.” Much of this is stuff picked up off the sidewalk by H
  • A carry-on-size suitcase full of dress-up clothes
  • An “Elephun” game that’s not fun to set up but does provide enjoyment when we take it out once or twice a year
  • A few small instruments
  • A ball and two gloves
  • Several more balls of varying sizes
  • A couple of buckets and a small boat in the bath
  • About 30-40 picture books and chapter books
  • About 30 board books
  • A bike that is currently H’s size and a bike the next size up
  • A scooter
  • Two tricycles (although I often think we should get rid of one)
  • A red wagon (although we rarely use it, lots of the kids in the neighborhood occasionally use it)
Toys in the Living Room

Toys in the living room, which are a permanent jumble thanks to baby R. Most are stored in clear shoe boxes. The white bin at the top of the picture holds art work, and the blue bin underneath it actually has kitchen stuff we don’t want R to get into.

Things I would like to give away

  • A set of plastic food. Play food is great but this is a crappy set.
  • A “Kosherland” game that has to be the most un-fun game ever
  • A bike we got off of the street that is still several years to large for H
  • A collection of baby toys that we probably never needed in the first place

Things that might need to be just thrown away

  • A small collection of magazines

The photos showing where we keep all of these toys probably capture about 80% of the toys with the rest hiding in nooks and crannies or outside.

Toys Under the Bed

Toys under H’s bed: Wooden toys, cars, legos, board books, and the doctor kit. The black hamper has stuffed animals and dolls.

Now it’s your turn. How do you deal with all of the junk that comes with babies and preschoolers? If you have older kids, can you give us some advice for the future?

[Photo credit for photo at top of post]

About Angela

Angela is an associate professor of mathematics and enjoys writing, reading, and talking to people about her bike. She's the proud mother of two cute kids, H and R.
This entry was posted in Child-related issues, Small-condo living (tiny house) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Toys: Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Flush ‘Em Down the Toilet

  1. Leigh says:

    I just have Monkey 18 months. Right now we have a small bin (think tiny laundry basket) of toys in the living room plus an Ikea push walker wagon. The rest live in two large rubber maid bins in his bedroom and the toys get rotated out when I feel like it. His favourites (balls, a cloth doll, his new playmobile people) will stay put, but the trucks, containers etc etc. change. Mostly at this point he is more interested in playing with the pans under the stove and pulling out the recycling.
    I love the baby free closet for H to play in. I have been trying to figure out what to do in the future when we get to that point.

  2. Amy says:

    ‘We will probably buy more books, but only books with Jewish or queer-family themes’

    If you don’t know about this already I highly recommend PJ Library for books with Jewish themes. You can sign up for each kid and for a year they send you age appropriate books every month. Subsequent years are cheap $18 I believe. We’ve gotten great stories and some cd’s.


  3. Carolyn E-V says:

    Funny, Speedy & I just had a conversation this afternoon in which he was checking out some toys, “In case they would be good for baby R when he’s older.” And I explained the lengths to which y’all go to avoid toy acquisition.

    We have tried child-led decluttering/donating as part of teaching about giving, but he’s often loath to give away the junkiest things and happy to part with quality toys. So I periodically “diasappear” things that he’s too old for. The hardest for us is intercepting junk from certain members of my family. Ironically, we have some hoarding/compulsive acquiring issues in the extended family…

    I also have a hard time with the art thing. We have a rotating display in Speedy’s room with fishing line and mini-clothespins, and we pick together what will go up, but what to do with the stuff that doesn’t make the cut or after it comes down, we haven’t figured out. I’ve heard of people scanning and discarding the originals, but it seems so 2-D to me!

  4. 2whls3spds says:

    We did the limit the incoming toy stream with my two when they were small. It was very difficult because they were the first two grand children in two fairly large families. We finally convinced all of the aunts and uncles (8 total) that the best thing was to take them somewhere special for their birthday. One year they all pitched in and took them to Disney for a week. They had a blast. Other times it was a trip to the beach for a week or with side trips to water parks. They have built memories that will long outlast a piece of plastic junk.

    The toys they did receive were durable and passed on to others when they were done with them.


  5. Lex says:

    Good news: I think this actually gets easier as the kids get older (or perhaps it’s just that we’ve become more committed to having less stuff). Our older two are 7.5 and honestly hardly play with toys at all. I wouldn’t even know what to get for them if I WANTED to get them something new to play with. This summer, they’ve played exclusively with lego (just regular old lego; no themed sets) and monopoly (the board game). They also really like to play chess, but we don’t let them anymore (too much competition for our twins). They also like to draw and to read, but neither of those activities requires much stuff (though we do have fairly extensive craft and book collections).

    Our younger two kids have waaaay fewer toys than their brothers did at their age, but I really haven’t noticed any impact. They don’t play more or less than their brothers did. Our 1-year-old really only wants to be outside (all. the. time.), playing with water and sticks, etc. Our 3-year-old has a small collection of tiny stuffed animals (how lucky that he’s obsessed with *tiny* things), and they keep him thoroughly entertained.

    In our playroom we have a good-sized indoor climbing structure, a trapeze, a nice set of wooden blocks, a wooden fire truck, a basket of wooden dinosaurs, about 2 dozen board books, a handful of small (sorely neglected) baby dolls, and a basket of playsilks. In the kitchen, there is a play kitchen, with play pots and pans (but no play food: we find it makes a huge mess and adds little to the experience). In the living room, we have a set of wooden farm animals and our collection of picture books (kept up high since the baby will rip them). There is also a wire bead maze, mounted on the wall. In the kids’ bedroom, they have the beloved lego collection and some stuffed animals (kept on their beds).

    We do keep some extra toys in the basement for rainy day play. It’s always exciting when we get them out, but I’m sure they’d quickly lose their value if we had them out all the time.

    We keep very little of the kids’ daily artwork. Maybe only a few pieces from each year, that really strike us. What we have kept goes in a plastic bin in the attic.

    Less is absolutely more when it comes to kids’ toys, and I think that as kids age they get less and less interested in things, and increasingly interested in experience (playing with friends, being active outside, creating art, writing and reading, etc.). We, too, do “no gifts, please” celebrations, and it really hasn’t been an issue (yet), even though our older kids know that their friends all get material presents on their birthdays. Sure, they’ve complained about it, but not excessively. I hope that as they mature further, they will come to really claim our family’s stance on “stuff” as their own.

  6. Dawn says:

    I have a 10 day old and we have a problem with aquiring way too many clothes. We have very few toys and plan to only ask for gifts that she will actually use as well as making toys more than anything (like making her own costumes or making interactive things she can play with (with mommy or daddy) from recycled things). Dunno how long this will work but I find that my favorite memories of childhood were of cardboard clubhouses and trains, fabric forts, and learning to bike. Not of the other things. As per the clothes we just store them until she grows out of that size of clothing and then we will pass them on or donate them to a nonprofit (not a thrift store). This way we have them if we truely need them and everyone feels happy but we have a plan to get rid of them. Yes, currently our house is overrun with clothes and no one seems to see that. BUT I am telling everyone to stop with clothes under a certain size in order to cut off the flow.

  7. oh, brother, i hear you on this topic!

    i agree with many of your ideas and we’ve tried an assortment of them over the past few years. as for limiting the influx of toys, that’s a tough one, since grandparents often feel a sense of entitlement here. our kids’ grandparents are getting better, but we still get junky toys now and again. while we can’t completely control the stream of toys coming into our house, we do have a selection process that seems to work. here’s how it goes:

    if the toy is not played with for a month, we ask our kids if it’s something that’s still wanted. if yes, then we observe for one more week. if it’s still not played with, we *strongly encourage* the kids to donate it. if they strongly oppose the idea, they get one reprieve: it goes into storage. after a month, it comes back out of storage, and if they don’t play with it for one more week… out it goes, whether or not they agree.

    as for the type of toys– we’ve found the best toys to be the ones that are “open ended”. i.e., vague enough that kids need to use their imagination to enjoy the toy. wooden blocks and the proverbial cardbox box embody this concept perfectly, and in fact our kids had the same large cardboard box (left over from a large appliance purchase) for about three years. it’s been everything from a house to a bathtub. we finally donated it after three years of service!

    another way we try to limit the toy intake while avoiding the “no gifts, please” clause at parties is to do a book exchange. instead of “no gifts, please” it’s “bring a wrapped book, leave with a wrapped book”. this way every child goes home with a book instead of junky party favors, and we’ve managed to avoid getting hit with a deluge of toys. everyone wins! [yes, i know, this won't last too long...]

    as for books: well, here is where we might differ from some looking to eliminate clutter. sure, we rely on the library for a regular fresh stream of books, but books are the one thing that we can not get enough of. our kids have had the tremendous good fortune of being the recipients of five older cousins’ handed down books, and we receive a semi-regular stream of boxes of old books in the mail from my nephews and nieces (it helps that one of their dads is a book collector! we could *never* afford to buy this many books). as a result, our kids’ favorite “toys” are books, and let’s face it– books don’t take up nearly as much room as toys. since our kids are the youngest of all their cousins and the “end of the line” for the hand-me-downs, when they outgrow books, they get donated.

  8. Angela says:

    @somervillebikes I love the idea of a book exchange — I think I’ll have to steal that! I’ve heard from the older crowd that it just keeps getting harder, so we’ll all have to see if our determination wins out over materialism.

    We’re actually embarrasingly extreme about book clutter. Nathan and I have probably about 60 books, including cookbooks, and I would love to get that number under 50. I used to be a real believer in lots of bookshelvs, but when I realized what a nice job the library does of keeping books for me I lost my drive to collect them. But I do have a collection of squished pennies — I think everybody has their “thing.” :) And I agree that books are a lot better thing to collect than most other toys!!

    @Lex I love the idea that it might get easier. We don’t have quite the same ability to have outdoor time, but that will get easier as the kids get older (now H can be in the alleyway alone and occasionally visit our neighboring alleyway alone — R of course would still just walk out into traffic if we let him).

    @Carolyn: H has the exact same issue. Just today she told me she had too many letter magnets and should give some away! How can you have too many letter magnets??

    @Dawn I remember having this trouble too! Between hand-me-downs and gifts, it seemed like we were swimming in clothes. The supply definately dries up as the kid gets older. We still have a lot of hand-me-downs and have gotten a lot more selective about what we keep. We still cultivate sources of clothes from older kids, but like you we put the breaks on the younger wear. We have the complicating factor of having a lot of girl clothing in small sizes, but having a younger boy. He does wear a lot of pink, but we still find we need some hand-me-downs from “boy” sources. Sometimes I think I could open my own clothing exchange!

    @Amy: We love the PJ library. The quality of the books tends to be mixed, but we get enough good ones to keep us coming back for more. I think R and H are both subscribed now, but we’re not getting any repeats — I wonder how they do that!

    @Leigh: The one toy I forgot to put on our list is a push toy Nathan picked up for R out of someone’s trash. I think it’s Ikea! He loves it and H sometime commandeers it as well. Still, we really need to thin out the outdoor toys (especially since we have no real outdoor space at all). Our baby (now at 15 months) does play with a lot of different toys, but almost all of them really belong to his older sister. He enjoys dumping them all out. For that reason alone, I wish we had fewer toys. He also likes to play with trash and has almost no interest in “age appropriate” toys. Bleh!

  9. I, too, feel like the biggest challenge to reducing clutter is the junk from grandparents! This is a bit mean and won’t work forever, but I have been known to get rid of gifts (by donating them) before my daughter even sees them. Of course, this doesn’t work if the grandparents are there to witness the gift opening.

    I am lucky in that “no gifts” parties seem to be the norm in my circles. I hope it doesn’t change as the years go by! I went to one book exchange party just as Somervillebikes described, and it was a big hit. I could see older kids liking that, too, but maybe I’m delusional.

    As for artwork, I guess I am horribly unsentimental, as I tend to recycle most of it. If it’s worth keeping, I’ll send it off to Grandma, as Angela mentioned!

  10. Mamaroo says:

    Bravo to minimalism! I have a two and five-year-old. We have “no gift” birthdays, limit ourselves to only ONE high-quality gift per child for Christmas and birthdays, buy imaginative toys, and ask family to only contribute to already existing toy collections. My kids play with toys that can be enjoyed by both — a play kitchen, music instruments, a table puppet theatre, dress up clothes (boy clothes, too) a few legos, a wooden train set and a handful of stuffed animals and dolls. Then there are books and a few puzzles and games. That’s IT! To be honest, it’s not because we don’t have the closet space. I’ve traveled to many developing countries and it makes me positively want to puke thinking about how much we look to “things” to satisfy us in our nation, when really love, hope and happiness is not found in things, but the people we value around us.

  11. Sarah says:

    I dont have kids myself (as im still young, 20!) but myself and my partner are having the same sort of decluttering issues. We’ve moved in together recently and discovered we have SO much stuff that we are just hoarding! Also, his parents are moving from a house to a house-boat on the canal, and we are recieving boxes weekly from them full of toys that used to be my partners but are now his younger brothers.

    I really like the idea of having book parties, and we’re already discussing the idea of not having material gifts at christmas, solstice and birthdays this year.

    We seem to have gained a large amount of trinkets over the years, including some animal skulls, dragons, and lots of small bits and pieces that we can’t bear to part with but have no-where to put them. Also, theres been a recent influx of WarHammer models and other such fiddy things, again with no storage space.

    As the oldest of 4, my family has always been full of clutter, but recently its getting less and less. My mums been taking things to carboot sales and jumble sales or simply putting items up on freecycle. All 4 of us kids are old enough to decide if we want to keep things or not (youngest brother just turned 11 this week!), so going through things is done on a regular basis. This year for everyones birthday I am not getting presents, but taking them out somewhere – tomorrow I am taking my 11 year old brother to the cinema rather than buy him a toy he would discard in a few hours/days!

  12. kcar1 says:

    Oh, the grandparents!!!

    My mom currently isn’t speaking to me because I had the temerity to point out that I had mentioned several, several times I was overwhelmed with the general flow of stuff and hand-me-downs into the house and I had already told her that we were set for a Halloween costume before she provided my son with THREE Halloween costumes (1 new, 2 hand-me-downs).

    The other set of grandparents are always getting the kids age-inappropriate games and the kids lose, break, or tear up components the 1st time out of the box with said grandparents. Would like to get rid of a set of board games but who wants a game missing pieces or with crumpled cards?

    And school… we have little plastic toys coming home now — whistle, castanets, kazoo, wind-up toy so far. I’m going to the teachers’ supply store to get some super-cool stickers for prizes and I’ve already spoken with daughter about picking something like a sticker if it is an option because the plastic stuff is made from oil and the Gulf oil spill made a big impression on her, so here’s hoping.

  13. Cara says:

    With two small kids under five, we have too many toys. I have started trying to have grandparents buy fun school supplies for them since their birthdays are right before school starts. This helps me a great deal to keep clutter down and school supplies can be costly.

  14. Jake says:

    Our best friend had major problems with “too many toys”. She started donating most of the less played with toys to Goodwill and it really helped keep toy clutter to a minimum. I personally liked simple wooden blocks when I was a kid. Nothing like a kid and his/her imagination set free. I still remember the taste of the blocks when I used to chew on them. Funny that we remember weird stuff like that.

  15. Mark says:

    I like the title of your post, and I like the toy-free birthday idea – I haven’t encountered that before.

    My suggestions are:
    Keep three-quarters of the toys locked away and rotate every month.
    This makes the toys exciting again, and reduces clutter, if not volume.

    Set an example – throw away/donate your own clutter at the same time as asking the kids to do it with their toys.

    Hide toys you hate that the kids don’t play with and won’t get rid of, and then secretly dispose of them if they aren’t mentioned in 8 weeks.

  16. Very good post, thanks a lot for sharing. Do you happen to have an RSS feed I can subscribe to?

  17. Kisha says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this article of yours. Thanks for sharing such a nice thoughts.

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