Did you step on a Lego this morning as you shuffled to the kitchen for that morning cup of coffee? Do you find yourself just closing the door to your children’s play room or bedroom because you just can’t stand to look at the mess for another minute? You’re not alone. Toy clutter is one of those realities of parenthood that no one warns you about beforehand.
It’s a challenge to find the healthy balance between giving your child the latitude to play freely, exercising their imagination and maintaining order in the home environment to reduce stress.
Toys are emotional objects
As parents, we have our own sentimental feelings about toys and personal belongings in general. These are formed from our own life experiences. We want toys to imbue fun happy feelings in us. But, they can easily make us feel angry, frustrated, miserable and stressed out instead. They often have a lot of parts and pieces, and once they get separated and lost around the house, the toys frequently becomes unplayable. Instead of feeling joyful, we feel resentful.
Some parents think their children need to have a lot of toys to keep them from becoming bored. Some think that being able to provide a lot of toys is an outward sign of their own financial success, or even a way of compensating for being absent due to a demanding career. Some parents feel like they need to keep toys long after their children are no longer interested in them, for all kinds of reasons. But those who are able to face their own feelings and process them in a healthy way usually discover that less is more.
Getting rid of old toys after children are finished with them or they are no longer functional comes with a host of emotional challenges for some parents. Letting go of our children's toys can create enormous emotional stress for some.
Toys are incredibly sentimental objects. Parents recall playing with certain toys during their own childhoods, and want to provide that same experience to their own children. The urge to save toys their own children loved for the grandchildren can be powerful. Toys create and hold memories. This can make it extremely difficult to let them go.
Less really is more
The role of gift-giving in our culture often results in toy clutter. An overabundance of toys in the play environment can become overwhelming, distracting and actually hinder creativity. Fewer toys can give a child the chance to become more focused and deliberate with play.
Toys and play are serious work for children. In our quest to be good parents, we find ourselves conflicted between forcing them to cleanup and allowing them to explore their imagination and creativity, allowing their play to remain intact and “in progress,” even if it’s scattered across the floor.
Many parents decide that they just have to surrender to the mess and close the door to avoid the stress of constant and significant time spent clearing, organizing and sorting a zillion toys, only to have them scattered about again the next day. The hyper-orderly parent, at the other end of the organization spectrum, risks squelching the development of their child’s creativity and creating anxiety for their child, who becomes constantly worried about “making a mess.”
Toys are an investment. They are expensive! It’s disheartening when a lot of thought and money is spent on a quality toy, only to find that the child is not interested. It’s tempting to hold on to those toys for a lengthy amount of time in attempt to somehow “get your money’s worth” out of them simply by possessing them. When there are multiple children in the family, saving toys for younger children feels like a natural thing to do. Hand me down toys can add up in a hurry to a mountain of stuff.
While toys are lots of fun, the best thing a parent can give a child is their time and attention. Engage with your child regularly over toys and play with them.
Life is better when the home is orderly.
Children thrive when they have consistent, clearly communicated boundaries and are included in household tidying rituals to maintain order. But the boundaries must begin with parents and their own attitude about toy clutter first.
Consider these ideas to live well with toys and manage clutter.
- Declare at least one room a toy-free zone. Make it the first room you see when you come home. Set the expectations with children that this is a room for relaxation but not a room for playing with toys.
- Purge toys on a regular basis. Organize five piles: “keep” for current toys still in use, “toss” for toys that are broken, damaged, missing pieces, or worn out, “giveaway” for toys that are still good, but have been outgrown or no longer interesting for your children, “sell” for toys that were expensive and you feel like you need to get something back out of them to feel good about letting them go, and “save” for those toys that are too precious to let go yet, but aren't being played with anymore.
- Include your children in the process of donating old toys. This can teach them empathy when you remind them that there are children who don’t have many toys. Donating or giving away toys they are finished with teaches them the joy of sharing, kindness and generosity.
- For collections of smalls or toy systems that have lots of pieces you are trying to reunite, line up plastic containers or bags and begin sifting through the mess, sorting as you go. Once they are sorted, decide which pile they should go to. Even small children like the activity of sorting. Enlist their help even if it’s just for a little while.
- A huge toy box feels like an easy, classic solution, but it can quickly become a bottomless pit of no return with smaller toys sifting to the bottom, never to be seen or played with again. Provide low shelves and clear containers for storage instead. This allows your child to participate in the organization process, and get the best quality play value from their toys – because they can easily access them.
- Limit the selection and rotate toys in and out of the play environment on a monthly or seasonal basis. Putting toys away and reintroducing them periodically reduces stress for the whole family, keeps children from becoming overwhelmed and extends the play appeal by creating excitement of playing with something that feels new and different.
- Surrender to the mess…. a little. A day will come when you will miss tripping over those dinosaurs and racecars and plastic ponies. Children who grow up with patient parents learn to be patient themselves. And that is a virtue that will serve them well for a lifetime.
Don’t use toys as a crutch
Life is busy. We all have a lot of responsibilities. Try to avoid falling into the habit of substituting toys for your own lack of attention for your children. Spend time with them! Play with them! Childhood is fleeting. The toys will be all but a memory soon enough. But the time you spend with them is like money in the bank for their future as healthy, well-adjusted people.
How do you find a healthy balance when it comes to managing toy clutter? Please share your ideas with our readers in the comments.
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