Toy clutter: four steps to manage it

Take an inventory, then talk to the kids about eliminating the toy clutter.

Photo illustration/Newscom/File
A toddler plays with blocks. There are ways to get rid of toy clutter without upsetting children.

My two children are extremely blessed in many ways. Perhaps their greatest blessing is that they’ve surrounded by a family that loves them dearly and truly cares about their future in a deep, fundamental way – and I’m not merely talking about myself. I’m talking about their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, even some of their cousins. They are surrounded by a cadre of people who love them, care for them, and truly want them to have a wonderful life.

Because so many people care so much for these two children, they’re often the recipient of gifts. Yes, their birthdays and Christmases are full of presents, but it even goes beyond that. Their grandparents often buy them spontaneous gifts. Their cousins sometimes literally give them their old toys and clothes. We even do it ourselves, though our influence is often in the form of books for their bookshelves.

This has a challenging side effect – the kids have accumulated an awful lot of stuff. Their toy boxes are overfilled. Their bookshelves are stuffed with books.

Several problems are made evident by this. First, it’s difficult to keep all of this stuff in order, simply because of the clutter problem. Second, it encourages our children to be overstimulated because as soon as they even have an inkling of being less interested in a particular item, they can just bounce onto another one. Third, they’re often much less enthusiastic about the wonderful gifts that their grandparents give them because they already have so many.

The solution is obvious: reduce the toy count. But how do you do this without upsetting the children?

My goals are very straightforward.

First, I want to reduce clutter. Dealing with clutter means more money sunk into stuff and more time spent cleaning it up. That means less money for the things that are important (like a less stressful career, deeply meaningful experiences, and so on) and less time for them as well.

Second, I want my children to enjoy life with less stuff around them. I do not want them to feel that lots of stuff is the norm.

On a smaller note, I want my children to increase their attention span. With a huge number of toys easily at their disposal, it’s very easy for them to just jump from toy to toy. By strongly reducing the availability of such items, the opportunity to jump around is less.

Here’s my solution for this problem.

First, I’m taking an inventory of which toys they like and play with frequently – and which ones they do not. I’ve actually been making a list of the toys that each child plays with over a multi-week period. If toys are on this list, they’re probably going to be kept. Toys that are not on this list are going to be targeted for removal.

Second, I’ll talk about the process with them. I’m going to ask them what their favorite toys are. I’m going to also tell them that I’m going to take some of the toys that they never play with and give them to other boys and girls that don’t have many toys to play with. Believe it or not, this works very well with our children, even the two year old.

Third, I’ll take advantage of a period when they’re visiting grandparents to reorganize and minimize their toys. When they return from their grandparents, I will have removed many of the toys from their sight, minimizing the clutter. What will remain are the toys I’ve identified as their favorite ones. The toybox will be only about half full (if that) instead of overflowing. The bookshelves will be filtered a bit (though I’m not as interested in reducing their book count).

Finally, I’ll keep the excised toys in storage for a short period, then either yard sale many of them or take them to Goodwill. The reason I’ll keep them in (hidden) storage for a short period is so that if I discover that I removed a toy accidentally that the children really value, I can retrieve it.

One thing I won’t do is discourage family members from giving them gifts. I understand that this is done as an expression of love for children that they don’t get to see as often as they’d like. Instead, I simply want to create a situation where these toys and gifts are deeply appreciated.

For a long time, we did some toy rotations so that the children would always have something new to play with. In my eyes, that doesn’t really achieve the goals I listed above. We still have a lot of stuff. It still doesn’t subtly teach patience and attention to the children.

Any thoughts on this plan?

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