Good management can extend the lifetime of Christmas toys

It was two days after Christmas, and I found myself staring in dismay at the wreckage under the tree. Our two-year-old, despite the many gifts she had received, was playing aimlessly with a cardboard box. The ''middle kids'' had dismantled most of their new toys and were fighting over possession of a broken truck, and the eldest was whining that he had nothing to do. It was then that I learned a valuable lesson: Since mothers are expected to be masters at household inventory control, one of the most important inventories we should be managing are our children's toys.

Toys are important to every youngster; they provide pleasure and challenge, inspire learning, awaken the imagination. Not only should they be chosen with care, but once in the home, toys must be handled in such a way to provide maximum benefits. Looking around our littered living room that Christmas season, I decided that it was never too late to start!

Up to this point the children's playthings had been stored in two toy chests. But now, in my get-organized mood, I realized that this was a mistake. Loose blocks, game pieces, crayons, and small figures invariably wound up strewn in the bottom of the chests, unnoticed and wasted. And when the barrage of new Christmas gifts was now added to the jumble, it was no wonder that confusion reigned.

Instead I opted for low shelves installed in each bedroom; when toy chest contents were organized and placed in plain view, they were easier to select and replace when playtime was over. In addition, I made space in a storage closet and put several old toys - and several new ones - out of sight. With clutter now eliminated the children played more contentedly. When they tired of a toy, I put it in the storage closet and replaced it with one they hadn't seen in a while. Thus rotated, our toy supply provided continuing interest. Because this system worked so well, several of my neighbors and I later organized a monthly toy swap , trading playthings back and forth to provide additional fun for all our children.

Children will enjoy their toys more, I've learned, if their play space is kept streamlined and orderly. Since boxes soon disintegrate, toys with pieces can be stored in sturdy shopping bags, plastic containers, or empty coffee cans. Drawing material, paints, and paper can be kept in an under-bed box, and there's still a place for the toy chest - it can hold large trucks, sports equipment or stuffed animals.

More important than storage methods, however, is consistency. Parents should weed through toys at regular intervals, repairing or discarding broken items, rotating and straightening the rest. And children should be taught the proper way of ''picking up'' - putting blocks in the block bag, crayons in a box, rather than a haphazard hit-or-miss approach.

If all this sounds like work, it is. But proper toy management can pay many dividends - a neater house, longer-lasting playthings, and best of all, contented kids.

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