Toy Storage: How to Teach Your Kids to Clean Up
Toys: the enemy of minimalism, peacefulness, and pain-free feet; the source of stubbed toes, and midnight falls; the overwhelming tidal wave of seemingly useless junk our children love. What if – dream with me a minute – just what if there was a way to teach our young children (I’m talking 1st grade and under) how to keep their stuff put away?? How to enjoy their toys, but not destroy the house? I think I’ve devised a mostly successful method! I say mostly because, well, we are still talking about children with the attention span of a frog in a field of flies.
Personally, I am not a super organized person. Tidiness and minimalism do not come naturally to me like they do for my husband. If it wasn’t for him, I probably would be overrun with toys every second of every day in every room in my home. But he is a lover of the neat, the organized, the simple. After quite a few years of marriage, we have begun to meet in the middle – I have learned to organize, even enjoy a clean, tidy, neatly ordered space. He has learned to live with, and even appreciate, having a few extra things around (Ok, more than a few) – I call it “curated abundance.” But one thing he CANNOT stand? Toys. We worked together and devised a system to teach our then three year old to keep her things put away. Now she is five, her brother is three, and this system still works well for us.
Heads up, though. This is a TEACHING method – not a miracle. This method will require time and effort from you in order for it to work. Also, children have this tendency to want to push the boundaries from time to time – at those times, you will need to put in extra effort.
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The Rules lay the foundation for success.
The method begins with a series of rules (we have rules in our home, because life is full of rules, laws, and boundaries – they need to be able to respect those, even if they disagree):
1. Toys stay in designated toy zones.
You may be thinking, “We have a small home. I don’t have room for a playroom like some people. The entire house is a play room.” Ok. I get it. Until recently, my family of five humans, two dogs and literally HUNDREDS of plants lived in 1000 square feet. While by global standards, that is still a generous amount of space, we definitely felt the squeeze. The tightness of the space is what motivated us to make this rule. We chose the larger of the kid’s rooms to be the play room. It still wasn’t a big space, but by confining the mess to one room, cleanup was simpler. We allowed the children to take one toy to the main living areas at a time – one truck, or one doll, or one pony. But if another toy was to be brought into the main living spaces, the previous one had to be put away. As the stay at home mom, it was up to me to enforce. I wasn’t always perfect, but we were consistent enough to keep the toys mostly out of the living room.
We kept one bin of books in the living room for quiet play and before naptime cuddles.
2. Every toy has a place.
We have a set amount of toy storage space. If we have more toys than storage, we get rid of toys. Twice a year we purge – before Christmas, and before birthday season (all my kids are born in the spring). This way, I can get rid of anything that isn’t used consistently and make room for the new things that tend to come in at those times. The only exception to this are some larger things that don’t fit well on shelves – like my son’s Tonka trucks. I will show you how I keep those neat a little later.
3. Clean up before moving on
This is the key. Before bed, we schedule five to ten minutes to clean up. Before dinner, we clean up. Before getting out a new set of toys, we clean up. A quick three-five minute pickup at key points in the day will keep the mess at bay! Also, by doing quick pickups like this, the children are less overwhelmed by the task, less overwhelmed by the mess, and overall end up a little bit happier (at least, in my experience).
These three rules are important. Without them, the system doesn’t work. Unfortunately, this is part of where the parental labor comes in. It is your job as the parent to enforce the rules as calmly and consistently as possible. The older your child is, the harder it will be to implement the system. They have already developed habits and it takes time to change them. You almost definitely will encounter resistance, but if you persevere, this can work out really well.
Simple, organized storage to clear the clutter!
After you have the rules firmly planted in your mind, you have to set up a toy storage system geared for success. I’m talking easy storage.
1. Easy storage
Organizing for children needs to be super simple. They are just learning to sort – so organize with macro sorting. ALL the blocks go in one bin – wooden blocks, plastic blocks, mega blocks, those chunky legos, if it looks like it could be interpreted as a block, it goes in one bin. All the things with wheels go in a bin. All the tools – doctor tools, building tools. If you have a small kitchen set, I’d put it with the tools, but my daughter is obsessed with baking, so we have an entire bin of baking and cooking toys. One bin for baby toys – teethers, rings, squeaky things. One bin for animals, or Little People. You get the point. Sort into major toy groups and put each in a bin. The most important part of this system is to leave one bin empty. This is the “I can’t figure out what this is” bin. Ya know, happy meal toys they LOVE, bits and bobs that just don’t seem to fit in any other category. I also use this as my quick pick up bin. Once a month I’ll sort through the extra bin and get rid of or give a home to the toys in it.
I LOVE square storage bins for this. We use the KALLAX shelving system from IKEA with their bins. They are strong, sturdy, big enough for some fairly large toys, but also very easy to see what is in them and for the kids to use. You can use other bins, of course, but I suggest getting the cheapest, sturdiest ones you can find – your children will try to use them as stools and chairs.
We also use these clear shoe bins for smaller batches of toys that don’t need a big bin. This magnet set my kids love (seriously, it is the first thing they go for – all three of them (1, 3, and 5) will play with these for ages!) go in one of these shoe bins. Also, our Melissa and Doug magnet dolls claim one of these bins, as does our small Mr. Potato Head collection. They stack neatly and fit two to one square shelf.
For large items, or items that don’t fit well in bins, I use a couple different methods. For instance, we have A LOT of dress up stuff. I really need to give it a good purge, I just haven’t yet. Also, my kids love playing dress up and they actually use most of the stuff. In order to keep the mess down, I store the items in an inexpensive storage ottoman I bought off Amazon. The dress up stuff all fits well in this place, and the storage space serves extra function when we aren’t playing dress up.
My boys love their big trucks. They don’t fit on a shelf, some of them – like these classic Tonka Trucks - are really too heavy for them to be trying to get on and off a shelf. I use a little entry rug – you know, a little 3’ x 2’ rug that you wipe your feet on when you come in the house – that is the parking lot! All the trucks are put away when they are parked in their space.
Stuffed animals are another challenging one – we have WAAAYYY too many of these! My kids love all their “cuddle buddies” and change out which ones they sleep with regularly. Right now, I use a large canvas hamper in each of the kid’s rooms for them to keep their stuffed animals. None of them go in the play room, because they are sleeping toys. I don’t know how we became overrun with stuffed animals, it just sort of happened, but they love them so much. I sneak one or two forsaken stuffed animals out to the goodwill bin when no one is looking.
I also struggled with puzzles storage for YEARS. At one point, I swore I would get rid of puzzles completely and find other ways for my kids to learn those skills. Then I stumbled across an image on Pinterest. Of course, I couldn’t find the source, but the picture was enough. I ordered these Legal Size Poly Envelopes off Amazon and set to work. These envelopes can fit two boards puzzles each and stack very nicely. Now, the children can take one envelope of puzzles, play with it, then put it away before pulling out another. Since the envelopes are clear, they can choose the puzzle they want without having to pull out all of them an lose all the pieces. So far, this method working very well. Remember - they need to be legal size envelopes. Standard A4 size is too small.
Finally, book storage. My husband and I disagree somewhat on how these should be stored. I love the idea of my kids having easy access to books whenever they want to sit and read/look at pictures and imagine they are reading. However, my husband feels books deserve respect and that the children are mostly too young to take proper care of books and will only destroy them. After a few years of parenthood, turns out we are both right. Many good books have met an untimely end, but my kids also love to have access to their favorite for quiet moments of reading (which they LOVE!). So, we met in the middle. Literally. The books go in the middle of the shelf – too high for the younger, more destructive children to take down and shred for the sake of pure destruction, but low enough for my older child, who is now learning to read, to reach. She can get books down for her brothers and keep an eye on them, she can put them away when they are done, but the baby cannot just grab them and eat them on a whim.
Scroll through to see the storage system in action in different homes!
Visual labels help young children!
2. Simple labels
We all know how much everyone LOVES labels right now. The cool retro black and white ones, chalkboard ones, you name it, we love them! For young children, labels are equally important – but I’m talking kids under 1st grade, as young as three years old! Most of that age group can’t even read. So, the simple solution is picture labels! I take a picture with my phone of the full bin of toys. Not good pictures, not Instagram staged pictures, just a boring picture of the inside of a full bin of toys. I print that picture and attach it to the bin.
Obviously, if you print the label on regular printer paper (like cheap little me), they will be too flimsy to hold up well. I like to laminate them (I hear you, laminating can be expensive if you don’t have a machine!!). Instead of using a laminating machine, I use clear contact paper or shelf lining paper that you can find at the dollar store, Walmart, Amazon, or really most of those type of stores. Just cut out a large sheet of contact paper and peel back the protective lining – be careful! If it folds up on itself, you just have to start again. Lay all the pictures down on the contact paper. Cut out another sheet similarly sized and stick it on top. This can be tricky, so just go slow. Use a credit card or something like that to smooth any bubbles or wrinkles out. Mine never comes out perfect, because I always rush. I figure, these labels will probably get destroyed sooner or later, so I won’t stress about perfection for this project.
I use hot glue and stick the labels to the bins! Then, they know what toys they are pulling out without needed to take ALL the toys out. And they can easily see how to put them away.
You can take the picture label method one step further and have a picture of the cleaned up space in the play room to reference. “Does the room look like this picture? What is different? Ok, where does that toy go?”
*In my pictures, you may notice I don’t have picture labels on my bins. My one year old enjoys peeling them off and trying to eat them. Since my older two (3 and 5) are already very familiar with the system, I’m not using the labels any more. I will probably reinstate them once the baby gets old enough to help clean.
*The top shelf of our Kallax is filled with my books and my husbands records - things we don’t want them to reach.
It’s a teaching method, not a miracle!
3. Teach them
Remember how I said this isn’t a miracle? This is where the work comes in. Young children are just learning what it means to be a contributing member of society, and they really just want to play all the time. For a while, you will need to make sure the cleaning gets done. It is still an investment of time on your part. In the beginning, it will be easier for you to just do it yourself. They will probably whine and not want to participate, but do your best to make a game out of it.
This is where the picture labels come in handy – cleaning up becomes a matching and sorting game. You direct and teach them the rules by asking questions and leading them to the answers.
“What is this a picture of? Very good! So, if this is a picture of ponies, what do you think will go in this bin? Ponies? Good job! Can you find a pony in the floor? What color is it?” It takes patience. It takes slowing down a little.
Soon, they will learn to do it themselves. You can say, “Go play, but only use one box.” And they know what you mean. Or you can pick out a box for them to play with. Or they can have free play. But they know what to do when the time comes to clean.
If the mess is particularly large – like after a play date, or a free play session – your child will most likely be overwhelmed by the mess and not know where to start. Then you pull out one bin. “What is on this bin? Ok, first put away the things that go in this bin. When you finish that, let me know.” Or maybe you will need to direct their eyes to the toys that go in the bin. “See, over there by the window, get that blue pony.” Then, one bin at a time, the room gets cleaned.
*Note: A bin is only considered put away when it contains all the toys that belongs on it AND it is back on the shelf!
Prepare for the expected exceptions!
4.. Prepare for the exceptions
As I mentioned earlier, I kept one bin of books in our living room when we lived in the small house. I also kept one bin empty. “An empty bin? Wasted storage space!” You may say. I prefer the path of least resistance to a clean and organize home – that means having a place for the random excess. While the rule is, “No toys in the living room or kitchen” occasionally the rules need to be broken. For instance, on those days the kids just CANNOT be kind and you need to keep a close eye on them. Or maybe they just decided to drag toys through the house when you took a quick… break. I try to get as much picked before bedtime as possible, but once they are in bed, I avoid going in and out of their rooms as much as possible. Then what do I do with all the toys that got left around the house? I take my empty extra bin, walk around for three minutes and put them in the bin. Sometime in the next week (ok, probably month), I’ll sort through the extras bin and make sure those toys have a home.
We now have a bigger home, for which I am very thankful! We have a designated toy room and we use this method for it as well. We still get toys wandering down the halls into the living spaces, but it never gets quite so overwhelming. The children both have a cubed storage shelf in their room where they can keep personal favorites and some books for quiet play in their room, but most of the toys are now stored downstairs.
And there you have it! Our tried and true method of TEACHING our children to clean up after themselves. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it takes work. But you CAN do it!
Maybe you read this and felt overwhelmed by all the things I purchased for this system – you don’t have to buy the same products I used! For a long time, I used hand-me-down book cases and bins from the Dollar Tree. I would even save and use shoe boxes (you know, actual carboard ones, not clear plastic ones) and use those. However, once we felt our budget could handle it, we felt that investing in a sturdier system would be worth it for us – since the Dollar Tree bins were flimsy and quickly destroyed.
Whether you decide to go all out and put together a fancy storage system or you need to keep it simple with recycled items and bins and basket from Goodwill or the Dollar Tree, the method is the same. I hope you have lots of success with your toy storage! And may the odds be ever in your favor.