As an expectant mom I remember dreaming about the playroom I would someday have for my kids: it would be a clean, gorgeous, light-filled space with organic wooden toys lining the shelves. I imagined hours of joyful, creative play together that would end in them cleaning up after themselves and thanking me for providing such a nurturing experience for them. I can hear you laughing at me because if you have been a parent for any length of time you know how it turned out.
Expectation vs Reality:
Fast-forward a few years and imagine my surprise as I survey the nuclear wasteland of mismatched, loud, plastic toys that had taken over our lives. It didn’t happen on purpose, but over the years things just multiplied. When you combine birthday parties, Christmas, the Target dollar spot, fast food toys, and generous grandparents you acquire a lot of stuff without even trying. Times that by the number of kids in a family and you can see why kid’s stuff can snowball out of control. My kids starting avoiding the “playroom” and bringing a few select toys into the calmer, cleaner areas of our home. At this point it dawned on me- we no longer had a playroom, we had a very messy storage unit for toys.
One of the first lessons I learned as a preschool teacher was that there is also a large amount of stuff necessary to create an engaging, fun and creative learning environment for kids. It changes seasonally and needs to be accessible year after year. I came to the same conclusion in my classroom that I had in my home: stay on top of the stuff or let the stuff bury you.
It’s a proven scientific fact that the more clutter we have in our homes the more stressed we feel- children are no different! The more stuff is in a space, the more visual noise it creates. No wonder my kids didn’t t want to play in there- it’s just too noisy. I researched ways to quiet the space and regain control of our playroom and came up with a few tried and true tricks that work with a classroom of 16 or a family of 4.
Step 1: Simplify
Yep, you guessed it. You have to get rid of stuff. Think of it this way- more stuff equals more time picking up. The less toys you have, the easier it will be to maintain order. The craziest thing started happening when we got rid of extra toys- our kids played with and enjoyed what they had. When the kids were tiny I used to purge their toys when they were out of the house. There was a lot of emotion attached to the idea of getting rid of their things- but once the junk was gone they didn’t notice. Plus, I had a pretty good idea of what they played with and what they had outgrown. Now that they are older they are used to the idea of purging their toys and do it without a lot of fuss. This is such a win because I want them to carry these skills with them into adulthood!
Step 2: Make a Clear Path out the Door
Once you have established that a toy is no longer worthy of taking up space in your home-get it out the door! And whatever you decide to do: Don’t leave it in a bag in the car, because the toy that is driving you bananas will make a sound at just the right time and send your preschooler into fits of regret and rage. Get thee to a donation center as soon as possible!
Step 3: Categorize and Contain
Once you only have what your child loves and plays with in the play area, it’s time to find a home for everything. It’s easy to think about where you want things to go as an adult, but your system will only be as successful as how easily accessible things are to your kids. For example, I love a good bin with a label on it, but if my kids are having trouble opening it or remembering which bin holds what, toys will end up unplayed with or on the floor. Consider low shelving and bins with picture labels on them so pre-readers can put their things back in the proper home. One test of a truly efficient play space is how much time it takes to clean it up! If it takes more than five minutes after each play session- consider getting rid of more toys or making sure everything is easy to put away.
Preschool Teacher tip: Timers and music are your friends here! Set a timer for five minutes and work together till the timer goes off. Kids love a challenge and the music makes it seem like less of a chore and more of a game! Here are a few of our favorites: at home we use https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-y2Ut6aFwac and in the classroom we like https://nancymusic.com/SOM/2010/clean-up-song.htm
Mom Tip: There will always be a few toys that refuse to fit into a specific category but that your child LOVES. We have a little red basket that we call the “junk basket” in our playroom. We toss in random things they get out of treat bags at birthday parties and from grandparents. I purge the junk basket every couple of months (or once its overflowing). This concession has saved us a lot of tears and them thinking I’m a monster for throwing out their treasures. And hey, it’s still contained so it doesn’t add to the noise too much.
Happy decluttering and containing your toys! Remember that it is a constant learning process and for every Pinterest perfect playroom there is a pile of unphotogenic toys being stashed off camera. Life with kids is messy and loud but with a few systems in place we can find order and even more space to play and create!