How Our Decluttering Adventure Started
We have a very small house that was formerly a daycare that I loved with all my heart. It was a beautiful space for a home-like learning environment that I filled with meaningful toys which allowed for learning through play. When we decided to move on from our daycare, I found that transitioning the space back to a family home style meant that I was tripping over these toys piled miles high. I really didn’t know where to start as I had taken such care in choosing each item, watched them lovingly played with and investigated by the littlest loves that I had in my care. I was attached to them and the memories they held for me in watching these tiny beings grow.
I’m so grateful for all we have. We’ve been so fortune and it’s been so wonderful. I loved being able to spend the extra time with my daughter and loved watching other littles learn in my home as well. But now, surrounded by the toys of those moments, I felt overwhelmed by the mess and the clutter and was ready to be free of it. I know my daughter felt the same way as our first goal each day was to get outside and away from the clutter. It was hard for her to play when she barely had the floor space to stretch out when all the toys come out of the bins and onto the carpet. When it was time to tidy, it become emotional and overwhelming to think about where to start and I don’t blame her. To find her favorite toys, she had to power through piles of “stuff” and the play and learning got distracted, the moment lost of having to look for what was on her mind a moment before.
I had to consider what I wanted for the space now and I had to think about what my priorities were. It had to become a space for our family to connect and communicate without being lost in a sea of chirps and peeps from the toys that made noise.
Where to Start Clearing Out Extra Toys
I really felt that I had done a pretty good job in keeping toys at bay for the daycare. We accepted toys being passed along to us and I continued to buy toys with the best intentions of thinking of the children, rather than the space to keep them. My garage was filled with bins upon bins of toys to be swapped out. My cupboards, once designed for dishes, were overflowing with puzzles and puppets. I had great storage ideas in place but I had a hard time convincing myself that I had enough for these growing learners, so the closets continued to overflow.
I had decided when my daughter turned two, that I was going to have a small family only party for her to minimize on gifts and focus on family time and experience – a lesson learned from my sister who so much values the memories made rather than a gift to unwrap. But it can’t be helped that we feel obligated to give, give, give, to these little people who we love with our whole hearts. When I walk into a store with my daughter I can’t help but want a cute little something for her to shower her with my love… but why is that?
Why do we feel obligated to give gifts?
I know for myself I LOVE to give gifts. I love the feeling of seeing that look on someone’s face when you’ve surprised them with something they truly enjoy. It’s a high I continue to chase in sharing myself with others, especially when I can’t give my time or be there for someone in person – gifts provide that reach of a hug to someone a you don’t see as often as you would like. But it becomes hard to keep up with the standard created of giving a gift at every holiday or celebrated moment. Gift giving holidays can be stressful in making sure everyone has something “equal” in value, while still allowing them to feel special and appreciated in our lives. It gets out of hand quickly. When pregnant with my daughter I told myself that I wouldn’t be over gifting for her, that I wanted to her really enjoy the things she had and not be surrounded by endless amounts of toys, but here I was walking through the store trying to “apologize” for her having to sit in the shopping cart with a toy to love on for the time being.
I’ve reset my mindset on gifting. I still love it, but now I think of it as sharing and passing along those items we are ready to see loved by someone new.
My daughter doesn’t even blink when I say we are packing things up to pass on to someone else. She already has the ability to let go of those toys that she considers “secondary”. She has her special toys, which aren’t for sharing in her mind, but anything else is easily passed along.
Simple living has been on top of every Pinterest feed I open and with good reason. It’s a movement to help people get back to simple living, to feel a freedom in opportunity and creativity, and to get our time back rather then spending it organizing, cleaning, searching for the things we buy.
I fully appreciate this as I pick up what seems like 8 million pieces of Lego from my backyard. Squished into the mud, many now will just be a part of the backyard forever (maybe a treasure finding adventure for another day) I didn’t feel like the toys were being enjoyed and appreciated among all the others around them. We were transitioning our home from the daycare but hadn’t let go of the amount of toys now being used for only one child.
When I realized that it needed to change:
We recently spent 2 months at my parent’s home hours away from where we live. When I was packing for the trip I knew I didn’t have much space and so I had to think about what toys would be meaningful – for learning through play, while allowing for independence and imagination to flourish. What I came to learn was that she really didn’t need all that much and she was more than happy with the few things we had brought with us. We spent our time outdoors, in the kitchen, reading, and using what we had brought as loose parts in many types of play.
Spring Cleaning Toys
This is the perfect time of year to make a change in our toys – it’s that time of year where I already feel obligated to be cleaning and organizing our home; that spring cleaning vibe. We are spending so much time outside that there isn’t as much heartache about seeing the toys going out the door to their new home.
We’ve been lucky that we have friends with little ones that we can pass things onto. Toys that Little Bee has outgrown are welcomed in homes of friends who have little ones learning new skills. So we’ve started to go through toys that Little Bee has moved beyond in her own development. We are slowly going through and thinking about whom we know that might benefit from them. Having Little Bee be a part of this empowers her and allows her to feel that wonderful feeling of sharing with someone she loves.
Toys are Learning Tools – Choosing Them with Care
I mentioned before that I spent a lot of time and energy choosing toys for the daycare that allowed for learning through play, contributed to imagination, loose parts play, and a love of learning. I was careful to keep branded items at a minimum and include toys that could cross play cultures and become “anything”. With a background in Educational Psychology, I applied a lot of my approach for creating environments for learning from educational theories such as Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Walforf Schools. But it isn’t easy to stick to this when we are surrounded by media marketed messages that we need the newest toys and that kids feel that they have to have the greatest gadgets. We don’t have a television in my home but we do have an iPad, and for us Paw Patrol and Minnie Mouse can be spotted a mile away at any store, or any park on a t-shirt or backpack of a playmate. It’s brilliant marketing and sales; beautifully done, and incredibly impactful. I do what I can to minimize the messaging for my daughter, but I know especially when she gets to school that will be more challenging to deal with. What I can do is enrich the values now. I can remind her that she is not the sum of all her belongings and reinforce those lessons in learning through play (more on that here)
For more support on creating meaningful spaces that allow learning to flourish in your home, head to Home Intentionally where Ashley shares her Co-Organizing system that improves energy levels, moods and relationships in the home – a sustainable system without the overwhelm.
11 Rules for an Organized Playroom
- Less is More: And the lifelong lessons that come from that – sharing and taking care of toys, organizing and being responsible, developing imagination, more time for quality play when less time is spent searching for and cleaning up toys.
- Choose Valuable and Meaningful Toys: Purchase and accept toys into your home that can grow with your children, provide meaningful learning through play and are truly enjoyed.
- Revisit the Spring Cleaning of Toys: This isn’t a one-time process and could be reevaluated after holidays, birthdays as well as seasonally.
- Create a Space for Toys to be Displayed: Whether you have a toy room or a child’s bedroom, or in our case the toys live among our main living area, they all have a home within our home – a dedicated place to be returned to when the play is over where they can be organized and found with ease. Display toys that are important, meaningful, support learning through play. If there isn’t room, the toy goes.
- Toys In, Toys Out: Sharing with friends and family is encouraged (and much more budget friendly), birthdays are exciting and worthy of celebration, holidays provide rich memories but all of these things result in more “stuff”. When one new thing comes in the house, one old thing goes out the door.
- Encourage Learning Through Play: Make play valuable time that doesn’t always have to be with a toy – playing (safely) in the kitchen, outside, or with learning activities, and create a routine where tidying up is part of the activity.
- Avoid the Sparkle of New Stuff: Your child doesn’t need every toy on the market. It’s a big business for a reason and a company’s job to make us feel that we need and want the latest and greatest toys and versions of toys. I want the very best for my child and would love to give her the world, but I also want to teach her to use her mind and to place value where it is important. This one is really hard, especially when children get older and they feel their friends have more than or better than they do. That’s why it’s so important to set these standards early – that toys can be appreciated, replaced (when other toys move out and on), and less is more.
- Be the Example of Change for Your Child: If I am constantly surrounding myself with new things, filling closets with stuff I never use, and feeling overwhelmed by the clutter, these messages are clear to the little ones looking up to me. Before I can think about asking my child to sacrifice her belongings, I must be willing to do the same.
- Be There: Children really want your time and attention – find activities that involve them and allow them to contribute to the home, take time to focus on them completely, and play with them.
- Involve Your Children in Organization: Children are surprisingly open to this idea. Who would have thought a 2 year old would be as keen to give what I had assumed were her favorite toys, to a friend. Making decisions is hard and teaching them how to do this is a valuable lesson – for everyone… I’m still learning. Letting them know where the toys are going allows them to feel good about what they are doing.
- Play Everywhere: I take Little Bee to places where she will have access to other toys and appreciate them as something new and exciting such as the library, playgroup, friends house, outside, kitchen, and so on. This makes her toys that much more special when they are unique and makes each outing fun!
5 Steps to Decluttering Toys
- Start Small: Go through books and remove those that you and your children have moved beyond. Organize blocks or Barbies and look at each area individually. Once you have each small section done, you can stand back and look at the big picture and fine-tune what you have already decluttered. Organizing one area at a time helps me get an understanding of how much of it we had (usually way too much) and how much of it we needed if we even did at all. Also, it allowed me to see what I needed for storage for this item.
- Involve Your Children in the Process: There are so many lessons to be learned from this experience (read more below) and children are natural helpers and have good hearts. Once they understand what is going on, they will be surprisingly eager to help. If they are not quite there yet, spend some time talking to them about sharing and giving.
- Define the Space Where the Toys Belong: I found labelling the containers or color coding to be helpful when I had the daycare. The kids came to understand what was in each box and more importantly where things went when it was time to put it all away. Now, with less to deal with, Little Bee and I have a shelf for most of the larger toys and bins that smaller parts and toys can go into. This makes cleaning up and staying organized that much easier. If it doesn’t fit, or have a spot, it doesn’t stay.
- Once It Goes in the Garbage/Donation/Re-gifting Pile, It Doesn’t Come Back Into Play: This is a tricky one as formerly forgotten toys become instantly loved when they are found again. Get rid of it immediately or within a short frame of time, the longer you “store it for later” the more likely it will be forgotten, or taken back out and put into toy rotation.
- Take the Time to Appreciate and Hold Each Item Before Making a Decision: Each toy held a lot of memories for me and was a great conversation for my daughter and I. Do we love and play with this item? Do we have a place to put it where it can be appreciated? Remember the time…? Who do you think would love this item now that we are done with it?
*This comes as inspiration from The Life – Changing Magic of Tidying Up – A guide for organizing and simplifiying without overwhelm. Such a great book to help wrap your head around moving on from all your “stuff”. I really do recommend it – like most of my books, this one is covered in highlighter and pen marks from all the notes worth going back to.
What Do I Do with All The Toys We’ve Purged?
Now that you’ve gone through the process, what do you do with all this stuff? Where do you take it all? This is what we did.
- Donate to local schools
- Donate to charity boxes or drop zones
- Pass on to loved ones – family or friends with children who could would welcome it. Welcoming it being the key so you don’t set them up with the same problem you are having 😉
- Throw away those things that have had their time, are now broken or beyond repair
- Sell items that you feel you could pass onto to someone but still have lots of value. There are lots of local consignment groups on Facebook or kijiji.com for example
- Repurpose before throwing away. Some items we have found have made great craft projects, or have become part of our “beautiful things” box.
7 Additional Tips for Downsizing Toys
- Some communities have a toy library where you can borrow just as you would books, and then return them at a later date. This is a wonderful idea that we’ve never taken part in but might look into for the future.
- I used to do a toy rotation when I had the daycare – I don’t feel I need that many toys on hand for Little Bee as we play outside, and take part in community and then we can play at home for a set chunk of the day each day so I haven’t found the need to increase the number of toys at this point.
- Some people recommend setting a number of toys to help keep the clutter in check but for my house it depends on what Little Bee is interested in, what skills I’m supporting and knowing what toys can grow with her in a meaningful way. I think this is a great strategy for a lot of families but for us it has more to do with space and value. I’m willing to make space for a great learning toy or one that Little Bee really loves, but not so much for a McDonald’s toy. Depending on your space, having a set number of toys for each child might be a great idea!
- Some things can stay regardless of number. We have a bin of “beautiful things” that are part of our art supplies. Feathers, flowers, ribbon and sparkles that allow us to make something incredible when we sit down to create. I leave art supplies out all the time now on her little activity table, although this has resulted in having a child used as a canvas rather than paper… (I looked away for 2 minutes and these were not washable markers…) but it also encourages her to be creative when the moment strikes!
- Open-Ended Toys are incredible for creative, imaginative, and constructive play. Using blocks as loose parts allows them to be multi-purpose. That doesn’t mean I want to be stepping over toppled towers all day, so we’ve had to come up with a way to store and transport them.
- Artwork gets displayed in frames. I swap out creations by Little Bee (when time allows). What we don’t display, we put lovingly in a binder or mailed to loved ones as a fun activity and going back to that gifting and sharing idea!
- This is (unfortunately) not a one-time process. As seasons pass, toys get shared with friends and passed down to us, holidays happen, we will reassess and that’s totally fine, welcomed and appreciated. It’s a chance for us to look through and evaluate what we have and check to see if it resonates with us and contributes to our learning through play.
Longer Attention Span and Concentration: When children are constantly being “entertained” they have a harder time with quiet moments and finding ways to creatively use their time.Focus on one activity and seeing it through rather than jumping from one activity to the next, one toy to the next without much thought.
Playing with Real Life and Using Imagination: Toys become all sorts of other things, through loose parts play and allow a child to creatively create their play instead of working within the confines of the specifically designed toy.
Sharing: There is so much that comes from learning to share: the conversation, the social skills, the compromise, learning about time (he has it for 5 minutes then my turn), the joy in others, problem solving, dealing with conflict, working in groups, relationship building – amazing skills to be learned.
Responsibility for Ownership: Taking care of them to allow toys to last longer, not leaving them outside, understanding their value (monetary and meaning) , putting them away at the end of the day.
Patience: Having to wait for another activity (getting ready for the grocery store, or driving to playgroup) and not being distracted with toys to help time pass.
Playing Elsewhere: Playing outside, creating art, dancing and singing, helping around the house, reading, spending time with family, are all great ways to spend time in meaningful ways without the need of excess toys.
Play Exhaustion and Decision Fatigue: Children are often overwhelmed with too many choices and can sometimes feel that is too much in the room to focus on, thus moving from one thing to another, or not playing with anything at all. Having fewer things (as noted above) allows children to devote time and attention to the importance of learning through play.
Teaching Children the Value of Moments Rather Than “Stuff”: This one speaks for itself in that memories can be treasured instead of piles of toys.
Use the Toys They Have More Often: It’s now easier to access those toys they have as there are fewer to weed through.
Challenges in Decluttering Toys
We’ve had to mention to family that we love how much they love our daughter but that we hope they would show that with their time and attention rather than with gifts. This is hard because as someone who loves to give gifts, I understand the joy that comes from creating that look of wonder on someone’s face and I didn’t want to take that away from Little Bee’s grandparents in giving her something special if they wanted to do so. We put in place the rule that when something new comes in, something old goes out. It’s hard to avoid that value being placed on getting something “new” being better than something old, that more, more, more means “worthy” and that every achievement deserves a gift. Little ones deserve to be celebrated but that doesn’t require wrapping paper.
Stuffed animals are my weakness. I love them. Now and when I was a kid. I can’t seem to stop buying them for Little Bee, and never seem to want to get rid of them. But they take up so much room! So many of these were not even played with because they were at the bottom of a basket, or buried in a pile of other furry faces. Now we have fewer (although still too many) but we display them around the house so they can easily be found and enjoyed.
We don’t have a dedicated toy space. If we had a room to spare perhaps I would create a beautiful playroom but we just don’t have the space right now. And that’s okay. I want Little Bee to know that her books, and toys are valuable tools for learning and are an invitation to a creative world where her imagination can run wild. I love seeing her play, hearing her voice build stories and adventures. It’s amazing. But, I don’t love tripping over the mass of toys that this often encourages. We had to be able to blend the two worlds of home and play. I didn’t want to have to “hide” her toys to make it look like a home.
Books are another hard one for me because I really value books. We have WAYYYYY too many books. Something I thought I would never say because I didn’t think there was such a thing as too many books. I have too many, AND Little Bee has too many. We just recently went through books that we had an scaled down those that were duplicates (or very similar) and chose a favorite, those we have grown beyond, or those that were very damaged (unless they were also very loved). We’ve passed along those books to friends and family who have little ones, donated to our local school, and recycled those that were beyond repair.
Life Long Lessons in Decluttering
All of this becomes so much more clear in the wake of a flood that has hit my community – seeing neighbours and friends lose almost all of their belongings overnight. They can tell you first hand that at the end of the day what is important is having each other, being safe and healthy, and having that bond that helps you get through those moments together. It’s a reminder of what’s important – where our focus should be as I prepare bags of “stuff” to be donated.
Share with your children how proud you are that they were able to pass on something of their own to someone else – if it’s someone they know, or if donated to charity, it’s something worth celebrating. They are positivity impacting someone else’s life and that is incredible.
Next Steps for a Minimalist Mindset
The idea here is to keep things simple – in having fewer toys to play with, but also fewer to clean up. The toys become viewed as special and appreciated, valued and cared for, displayed as parts of the home. The hope is that fewer will lead to less stress for my daughter and myself when it comes time to clean it all up. Living with less will give us more time together rather than my repeating time and time again that we need to put this or that away before taking out the next piece and wasting time looking for the lost piece of the puzzle in a box of a million pieces.
Starting with the toys is only the beginning. I’ve recently created myself a little office – still a work in progress – and it feels so great to have a dedicated place to go to do my work where I don’t have to climb over or interrupt my daughter’s play to get there. There is, however, a dreaded closet in that room that is filled to the brim with “stuff” – leftover this and that which doesn’t seem to find a home anywhere else, and I really need to bring myself to dealing with it. Our garage needs a lot of attention as we had moved from a bigger home to our smaller home, which meant we had a lot of extra furniture that all landed in the garage. This past weekend I cleared out a third of it… it’s a start.
I grew up in a house that was not filled to the brim with toys. That didn’t mean my sister and I went without; we had more than enough to play with and keep us busy. We also had a devoted play space, which is more than what my daughter has now. What we learned was that if we didn’t take care of our toys we didn’t get to keep them. We donated toys that we no longer used and we passed items on to our younger cousins. I remember babysitting my adorable cousins Monica, Emily and Bridget (who have turned out to be incredible young women – I wish I could take some credit for how good they did turn out but it was 100% their parents and who they genuinely are) and seeing toys and books my sister and I once loved. Being young at the time, my first thought was shock. These were my beloved items! But upon looking back, it was a valuable lesson in sharing these things with family, in seeing them have a second life and getting to appreciate them again while playing with my cousins. Pretty neat. My mother was teaching me a lot in those moments. I hope to teach my daughter the same character creating lessons.
What other ideas do you have for reorganizing your space? Do you have strategies for staying on top of the toy clutter?
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