How to Organize Toys and Stop Clean Up Battles

How to organize toys for good

Organize toys? That's a mess.

How to organize toys is a topic that sounds basic. Buy some storage stuff and fill it up. You find yourself turning into a broken record of,

“Just clean it up!”

“This place is a mess!”

“Put your toys away when you’re done!”

Kids aren’t leaving a messy trail because they’re lazy slobs at heart. Nope. It’s something else.

So What's the Problem?!

Children can’t organize toys for one (very good) reason.

Their stuff has nowhere to go.

I know, I know! You worked hard to organize your home. You outfitted play areas with toy boxes, organizing cubes, containers, and more. Closets hold less-used toys.

All you’re asking is that they throw it in a bin, line it up against the wall, or jam it in a closet when they’re done playing.

Right?

It’ll never work. (Sorry.)

Children need structure. To organize toys, that means “a place for everything and everything in its place.”

Which is a problem, because kids have so many toys it’s impossible to designate a spot for each one.

Fix the problem and you fix the mess – and fights.

The BC Plan

I had it all planned out BC (Before Kids).

The coffee table had three large baskets underneath it. Bam! Built in toy storage.

Epic fail. Even with sparingly filled baskets, toys were never put away. My daughter was used to putting her things away at preschool… why couldn’t she clean up at home?

The Sneaky Culprit

The baskets! She had trouble retrieving toys from the high-sided baskets.

I wasn’t organizing toys… I was hiding them.

Welcome to The Toy Exchange

how to organize toys for kids

Out went the baskets. Now 5-7 toys take up residence under our coffee table. Not the prettiest site, but I prefer to toys shoved against a wall. There’s a small art table off to the side with a wall organizer that contains a small, rotating collection of art supplies.

One large play item stays out at a time (kitchen, dollhouse, playhouse, tent) and we rotate upon request or when something’s gone unused for too long.

A cabinet is filled with remaining toys. We organize toys by assigning each a designated spot. My daughter completes a toy exchange by switching out a “new” toy with a played-out “coffee table toy” when she’s ready to play with something different.

If she’s not playing with the current selection, I’ll take the lead and complete a toy rotation based on what I see her using or talking about. Older kids can do it themselves. You can get kids to clean up.

It works like a charm.

Every time your child has to throw unrelated toys together it undermines their ability to clean up.

Teach kids to appreciate their belongings by giving every item a home. 7-bedroom home or studio apartment, kids need to work with the space they have and so do we.organize toys how to coffee table storage

Exceptions to the Rule

Some toys that benefit from a “dump it in” mentality:

  • Legos®

  • trains

  • blocks

  • doll accessories

  • dress up play

  • collections of toys that are often mixed

I’ve found we don’t need every piece every time.

Example: My daughter recently received a 75-piece magnetic princess play set. Score! She loves it, but 75 pieces for a 3-year-old? Wayyyyy too much. I leave out 25 pieces and rotate them. Less mess, more play.

As For Everything Else

There’s no easy way to say this so I’m just going to rip the Band-Aid® off.

Keep your child’s favorites. Donate the rest.

Yes, giving stuff away that you or someone you love spent hard-earned money on is hard. It sucks. You’re worried you’ll offend someone. You’re worried your child might want to play with it next week. As a mom, I worked hard to find the best toys for 3 years olds. So I get that you don’t want to throw it all away.

Really, I get it.

Guilt sucks. And guilt is what you’re feeling.

But you work hard and care for your home. It’s not your job to deal with a houseful of guilt and mess.

It’ll be tough to weed out and organize toys. My advice is to involve the kids when you can.

Older kids:

  1. Prepare the space where toys will be taking up residence. We use an old armoire/tv cabinet. Low-sided baskets and trays are always helpful for storing items with smaller pieces.
  2. Open up a little. Let your kids know how draining it is to look at all the stuff all the time. Tell them you want to feel happier and spend more time with them and less time cleaning. One way to do this is to organize toys. They’ll whine, offer to help clean, promise to put things away, and try to manipulate you. They’re lying. Don’t fall for it.
  3. Empower your child. Offer up the storage space and organize toys in one sitting. It’s up to them what stays. Stick around to help facilitate the cleaning, but be like Switzerland. Just stay out of it. Help them, but don’t try to sway their decision.
  4. Let them fill up the space with their favorites and donate/sell the rest. If your child is very attached to possessions, passing along directly to families in need will be your best bet. Have them come with you to see the delighted faces of a family received gifts. It makes a difference.

Younger kids are a bit easier. I cleaned out everything I didn’t want to interact with or read (yes, you read that right!), then watched my daughter for a bit. I noticed what toys she never reached for. A few I put away, knowing she was too young for them. That’s how we organize toys.

art table organize toys

The rest went to friends and donation. Even gifts.

A Note About Gifts

Touchy subject, right? Truly, I feel your pain. But gifts are not obligations. They’re considerations. And if someone’s laying a guilt trip on you because you donated a gift that’s no longer used? Shame on them. They’re the ones with the problem – not you.

Grandparents are often offended. It’s understandable. Explain you just can’t handle the amount of stuff. Ask them how much they had growing up?! This much?? Stress that you appreciate their gifts and your child has kept their favorites.

Many families find creating an online wishlist (Amazon.com is a great place to store the list) helps. I don’t, but I do make a point of telling gift-buyers what my daughter really wants. Rude? Maybe. But I don’t expect gifts. If they want to give my daughter something, I’m happy to point them in a direction she’ll enjoy. If they want to brainstorm on their own, awesome! Everyone understands we won’t keep it if it’s not a hit.

Decreasing toy quantity decreases stress and increases attention span and care. It’s not some crazy parenting technique. It’s science. Too many choices make us less able to choose. Decision Fatigue is a real and growing problem.

Organize toys but eliminating everything that doesn’t get used often, is broken, or is missing pieces.

organize toys with toy cabinet

Drastically reducing the amount of toys will result in a more engaged and careful child, who appreciates their belongings (most of the time).

Not to mention it makes holiday and birthday times MASSIVE hits! 😉

I can tell we have too many toys – especially after birthdays and holidays – when toys start piling up and getting shoved on top of each other. We know it’s time to weed out the old and make room for the new.

A place for everything and everything in its place.

That’s how to get kids to clean up.

Take a day and go for it. You’ll be amazed by how much your kids don’t need and how much better you feel!

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Ashley

Ashley Trexler is a passionate parent, dedicated to debunking popular parenting advice that doesn’t work, and raising healthier, happier kids. If you're sick of the same trite parenting advice everyone is spouting, you've come to the right place. She has contributed to Washington Post, Scary Mommy, and Tiny Buddha, in addition to many more awesome-sauce sites.

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