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How I finally managed all of my kids' toy clutter—for good

What was meant to entertain, educate and occupy our children, has become the object of frustration, distraction and pain (ever step on a Lego barefoot?).

How I finally managed all of my kids' toy clutter—for good

Most parents know about the "invasion of toys." It starts with a corner, a basket, then a room, and pretty soon your kids' stuff has infiltrated most parts of your house. Kids' "stuff" can become one of our biggest stressors—a reason why Marie Kondo, The Container Store and organization blogs are so popular. But, beyond organizing, do we really need so much stuff?

What was meant to entertain, educate and occupy our children, has become the object of frustration, distraction and pain (ever step on a Lego barefoot?). In fact, it's been found that too many toys can be overwhelming, while fewer ones cultivate creativity.

Here's how to rethink the way you accumulate things in the first place and regain control.

1. Conduct an inventory.

Have a basic understanding of what your kids play with, what they need, and what you would like them to spend their time doing (coloring, building, pretend play). For example, have you reached capacity on blocks and Lego's? Do they not play with their trucks anymore? Do they need more art supplies? Knowing what you have and what they use is the first step in toy management.

2. Consider your space.

Make decisions based on your current space and how you want that space to look and feel. Aim to have a place for everything, but remember not every space needs to be filled. You can quickly clutter your home when you don't make intentional choices. Even if you have a basement you can fill with toys, maybe creating an open space for running and jumping, setting up a tent or even scooting would be more fulfilling and peaceful for your kids and your family (and less effort to clean).

Make room by donating or swapping out toys. If you're not ready to let go of certain things, buy a few bins and remove 10-15 toys or toy sets from your playroom, put them in the bins and store in a space you don't see every day. Toys that are used frequently should be displayed and easy to take out and put away. Unused toys should not be taking up valuable real estate in the house. Maybe the next stop for these toys is the donation bag.

3. Regulate gifting.

Keep a list of what your kids ask for throughout the year and follow up with them about the items closer to the date of holidays and birthdays. Create a wish list and ask your family to consult that list. Think: experience gifts, memberships and necessities, like a winter coat or backpack. If you have a loved one who likes to bring a trinket when they visit, ask if they would consider doing a craft, playing a card game or having a tea party with your child instead.

Some experience gift ideas that don't involve clutter:

  • Lunch dates
  • Tea party
  • Manicures and pedicures
  • Craft supplies
  • Membership (museums, play spaces)
  • Homemade coupons (staying up late, ice cream dates)

At your child's birthday party, in lieu of gifts have a book exchange, collect for a charity, or simply request no gifts.

4. Prioritize quality over quantity.

Quality toys will last through many kids and provide endless amounts of creative play. Bruder and Micro are two examples of companies that will send you spare parts if something breaks, and washable dolls, wooden toys and blocks stand the test of time. These kinds of toys are also versatile for different kinds of play.

5. Borrow and buy second-hand.

Borrowing and buying second-hand items can relieve feelings of attachment so it's easier to let go when it's time. Activity mats, balance bikes, plastic or wooden toys can be passed around between family and friends.

I learned this lesson early after inheriting all of my sister's baby stuff then gratefully farming it out to local friends before my next baby. And honestly, I only wanted about 25% of it back. So many toys are used for a short time or not at all.

Trade board games or puzzles with friends or give and take from a group. Check your Facebook page for local groups like "buy nothing," "everything is free," or "freecycle."

6. Have an acquisition plan.

Ideally, I would never buy a single toy in between Christmas and birthdays, but realistically that's not happening. Having a plan in place helps with consistency and results in fewer meltdowns and less confusion. Setting expectations is important—be clear about "looking days" versus "buying days."

Do your kids get to spend a few dollars when you go to the cool toy store in town? Do they have an allowance to spend? Did they earn something with their "marble jar?" Earning or saving for toys puts the brakes on impulse buying, which both parents and kids are prone to.

7. Accept every gift with intention.

You are not required to keep gifts you don't want or you don't have room for, mama. You do not have to hang on to toys that aren't in keeping with your values or preferences. You do not have to keep goodie bag loot, party favors, toys from the dentist, and all of the items your kids will collect around holidays. Get rid of it before it masquerades as a treasured toy.

Let them enjoy the tchotchke for an hour or a couple days, then put it up on a shelf and if they don't ask for it for a while, donate or recycle. When they're older, you can involve them in the process: "You had fun with this for a little while, are you ready to donate it now?"

8. Donate regularly.

Keep a giveaway bag or basket in your front hall, garage or closet. Whenever you come across a broken, unused or surplus toy, toss it in the bag.Having a consistent spot for donations will make you more proactive about passing on toys (and any other items in your house that it's time to let go of!).

Choose an organization that means something to you and talk to your kids about where the toys will be going. You can also schedule a delivery from organizations like the Salvation Army, Veterans of America or Big Brothers Big Sisters. Once your kids get used to the idea of passing on toys and clothes they don't need or use, it will become routine to them.

This may sound overwhelming at first, but choose one point to start with—these tools will help simplify your home and your life, not give you another thing to do. Cultivating your children's' toys and things with intention and purpose will help you to figure out what brings happiness and what is of value; it will also help you to be more intentional about what, why and how you are adding to your kids' collection.

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