By using an unconventional organizing system, her kids were happier and her house was cleaner.

June 05, 2017
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When my oldest son was born, my husband and I had grand ideas about what was and was not going to happen when it came to his toys. We weren’t going to have a bunch of plastic toys. We weren’t going to have a bunch of noisy toys. We weren’t going to go broke buying batteries. And we weren’t going to end up with a bunch of toy clutter everywhere. Nope. Not us. We had it all figured out.

We stuck to it, too. From the start, we were particular about what toys we brought into the house. We mostly bought wooden toys, puzzles, books, and open-ended toys. We didn’t buy anything with batteries. We skipped anything that flashed or beeped or played the same song over and over again.

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Our families, however, didn’t stick to the plan. Relatives went on a mission to buy every big, plastic, noisy, battery-powered toy they could find. There were talking toys, singing racetracks, battery powered turtles that scooted across the floor, a dinosaur ball-bouncer. If it made noise, chances are someone would give it to us. After a while, we started to cave a little, too, and soon the floodgates opened. We started with a tablet—convincing ourselves it would be educational—and soon there were huge pirate ships from cartoons, light sabers, and remote control trucks. Eventually, we were completely overrun.

By the time our second son was born, the playroom was filled with wall-to-wall toys, and their bedroom was covered up as well. Not only that, but the rest of the house was constantly in a state of chaos, with pieces and parts of toys sets strewn across the floor, blocks from four different block sets in three different rooms, and puzzle pieces stuck in sofa cushions and under mattresses.

And, wouldn’t you know it, my kids were always bored. “Mommy, mommy, mommy, what can I do?” “There’s nothing to play with!” “Can I just play a video game?”

After stepping on an army guy for the third time in one day, I’d had enough. It was time. No more procrastinating on the toy clutter. No more waiting for my boys to finally learn how to clean up toys to my standards. No more bare feet being ambushed by concealed army guys and Legos. The toys were going away. All of them.

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I armed myself with as many cardboard boxes as I could find and went to work. Nothing escaped the purge. Puzzles, blocks, action figures, pieces and parts from every toy set—all of it. Everything was packed up. If it was broken or gave me the impression that it might break soon, it went into the trash. I had no mercy. I never wanted to see another stray Lego, random tiny gun, or sword lying forgotten in a corner. The mess was ending. I would get it done, and I would be victorious.

All the toys were placed into unsealed boxes, and I labeled each box with exactly what toys or play sets were inside. Then everything went upstairs to the room above our garage. The plan was to allow the boys to go upstairs once a week and choose three toys each to bring down. The following week, those toys went back and different toys were chosen.

The change—in the house and in mu children—was both immediate and incredible. They didn’t complain about being bored anymore. They played and were engaged with one or two toys and weren’t overwhelmed by choices. And my house was glorious. No piles of toys, no blocks in the halls, no swearing under my breath (or not under my breath) when I stepped on misplaced toys.

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I felt like I could breathe again.

Eventually, I relented a little and brought down their play kitchen and wooden blocks, since they invited more imaginative play. (Also, they’re heavy and I didn’t want to haul up and down the stairs multiple times.) I reasoned that as long as the pieces were put away, it was no big deal to have a couple permanent toys available. I’ve found that because it’s easy to identify what goes where, the boys actually clean up when they’re done. Adding in a few cars or trucks to the blocks one week, or rotating out the play food every once in a while, keeps the sets novel enough that they stay busy.

It’s been a couple months now since we started this rotation system, and while I’m not always as disciplined, as I want to be, it’s still working well. Sometimes toys are in the rotation for more than a week and sometimes I let them bring more than their allotted three choices, and sometimes blocks stay out overnight before they’re put back in their storage box. But by embracing a system—even one that I don’t follow perfectly every time—is better than the never-ending chaos we had before.

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