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.
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!
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.
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
- 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)
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.
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?