4 Quick and Easy Steps to Streamline Kids' Toys Today

If children are bored and unable to play well by themselves or with others, the answer is simple – at least according to toy manufacturers and retailers.  Buy them something new!  Obviously, finding just the right toy will solve the problem.

But what tons of research (and perhaps our own experience) tells us is that kids can be happy with fewer toys.  In fact, they're more creative with less.  Preschools and kindergartens that remove all toys discover that children learn to deal effectively with their boredom, cooperate together to play games, transform found objects into playthings, and enjoy more exercise and outdoor time than when they are given finished toys to play with.

Meccano set

What makes a good toy?

How often do we joke about kids playing more with the boxes than the toys that come in them?  Or see them spend hours in a fort built of chairs, cushions, and blankets?

When I was a child, my brother, sister, and I usually visited my grandparents for a week or two in the summer.  They lived in a tiny old house in the middle of a cotton field, and while we might travel with our favorite cuddle toys, we had no other playthings.  What did we do?

  • We played hide and seek (and games like Red Rover, Freeze Tag, and Red Light, Green Light when my 8 cousins came by).
  • We played with the baby kittens in the barn (there were always baby kittens).
  • We helped Grandma with garden chores and fed the chickens.
  • We devised multiple things to do with rocks, sticks, and dirt.
  • We climbed trees.
  • We made up silly songs and poems.
  • We played card games like War and Crazy Eights.
  • We read books (Grandad had classics like Treasure Island and westerns like Shane).
  • With paper and pencils supplied by Grandma, we drew pictures, made paper airplanes, and folded simple origami, which we then incorporated into fantasy play.

It isn't toys that facilitate engaging play.  It's imagination.  Collaboration helps too!

The day I had enough

By the time my children were about 4 and 6 years old, they had a million toys (or so it seemed).  Those toys filled their room, and were often strewn down the hall and all over the living room and kitchen.  Cleaning them up was a huge chore, and they didn't all fit into the bins and shelves we had anyway.

At the time, I thought I was the only one who felt stressed by the excess, but now I realize the kids did too.  A great deal of the mess was caused by them flinging things around trying to find a certain toy.  And they never settled down with one thing for long – they were constantly distracted by all the other choices.  They fought over toys too, even though there were so many that they didn't really need to share anything.

One day, I was threatening to get rid of all the toys.  Of course, I should have handled my frustrations better, but nevertheless the result was a reduction in the piles of toys.

all the colors

How to simplify toys

If you're overwhelmed and believe that reducing the toys would be beneficial for your family, here's an easy way to do it.

1.  Create a boundary.

When it comes to decluttering, creating a boundary not only helps you limit what you keep, but requires you to choose your favorite things, and gives you confidence about getting rid of the also-rans.  A boundary works perfectly for toys.

Decide how much space you want to allow for toys.  A toy box?  A closet?  A shelf with bins?  When that space is full, you know you have plenty and can get rid of the rest.

2.  Establish your toy "ideals."

Here's where you decide what kinds of toys to keep.  You want them to be versatile, durable, and well-loved.  I recommend "open-ended" toys like building blocks, Legos, Lincoln Logs, dolls, stuffed animals, and so on.  Choose your specific categories and stick with them.

Here are toys that made the cut for my kids (and I have similar things for my grandsons now):

  • 1 bin of Legos (the larger Duplos are great for younger children)
  • 1 bin of Tinker Toys
  • 1 bin for a wooden train set
  • 1 bin of various trucks and cars
  • 1 bin of play food and dishes
  • 1 bin of dolls, plastic dinosaurs, stuffed animals, and mini plastic animals

I keep a supply of drawing paper, construction paper, crayons, colored pencils, and glue sticks for the kids to use.  We also have a "game drawer" with a deck of regular playing cards, dominoes, Bananagrams, Uno Flip, the Clue card game, and a checkers/chess set.*

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

You can get through all of your toys in less than half an hour, and here's the secret:  Don't hold up each toy and ask "Do the kids like it?"  "Do they play with it?"  "Will they miss it?"  That takes way too long and can get too emotional.  Instead, ask "Does it fit one of the categories of toys we've decided to keep?"  If not, remove it.

3.  Box up remaining toys.

You chose certain categories of toys which fit your "toy ideal," and you put the favored toys of each category into your chosen containers, which placed a boundary on the number of items.  Everything else should be boxed up.

And yes, you can even box up a toy that was a gift!  If you have a friend or relative who will be offended to know that you got rid of something they gave your kids, tell them you're rotating toys now.  They don't have to know that what you're doing is rotating them out of your house!

Having an organized, easy-to-clean home is better than appeasing someone who gives gifts with strings and expectations attached.  If the toy doesn't fit with your "ideal," it won't provide a lot of value to your child anyway.  There's no reason to let it clutter the toy room.

4.  Temporarily store the boxes of extra toys.

For the next month, if there's something your children specifically ask for, you can pull it out for them.  In my experience, once these things are out of sight, they're usually out of mind, but there might be a few exceptions.

After a month, you can be certain that your children are happy with the toys available to them, and you can donate or sell whatever is in the boxes.

What if your kids struggle to let go?

If your child insists "Everything is my favorite!" try making the boundaries the bad guy.  Don't tell him what he needs to discard, but help him understand that everything needs to fit into a certain space.  Let him choose what stays and what is less beloved.

You might also try buying the toys.  Kids six and older are probably saving up for something special, so if you say you'll give them money for old toys (say 10¢ for a Happy Meal toy up to $1 or $2 for larger items), your kids get to decide what's worth more to them.  Alternatively, plan a yard sale and let your child set up her own little table to sell her toys.  When you offer to exchange a toy for money, it often turns out the toy is not so special after all.

With fewer toys that really are favorites, your child will take care of them and appreciate them more.  He'll find new ways to play with them and combine them with other toys, and practice communicating and cooperating with siblings or other playmates.

Beware your own bias.

Sometimes I've purchased a toy because it was something I would have liked as a child.  Or perhaps the beauty and craftsmanship of an expensive artisan toy appeals to me now.  Then if my child doesn't really take to it I'm disappointed.  I wind up with more emotional attachment to the toy than he has.

If you're in that situation, remember that the toys are for your child's benefit, not yours.  Clearing out the excess is a gift you're giving to your kids, who will be less stressed and more creative as a result.

As we get nearer to the holidays, the pressure to buy more toys intensifies.  If your kids watch TV, or spend time with other children who watch TV, they will be bombarded with ads for the latest – often pointless – must-have toys.  Now is the time to let them adjust to having fewer toys.  Their own imaginations will solve the problem of "boredom."

Years ago, my kids had tons of toys, clothes, and other stuff.  Toys were all over the house and the back yard.  Drawers were so full we couldn't shut them.  With so much stuff, it was sometimes hard to find what they wanted, and cleaning up was a real pain.  My kids would complain and I would get mad.  All that stuff wasn't making us very happy.

One day I said, "Honeys, we're going to get rid of some things today.  We might throw them away, give them away, or even sell some, but in the end you'll have just your favorites."

At first my kids were worried.  Wouldn't you be?  Maybe when you think about getting rid of stuff, it makes you afraid of losing what you love.

But that is totally NOT what happened.

My book, Clutter-Free Kids, can help kids (and their families) take control of their stuff.  Kids learn how to choose what matters and remove what gets in the way.  They create more focus for homework, and more time for play and creativity.  They think about how they want their room to feel, and how to make it their favorite place to be.

This book is kid-tested and approved.


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