Before becoming a parent, I told myself I was NEVER going to be that mom that bought my kids excessive amounts of toys. Although I definitely hoarded stuff as a little kid, as I got older, I found that having too much stuff was causing me unneeded stress and anxiety. As a result, I’ve definitely become that person that’s frequently dejunking and has a constant “donate” pile growing in my garage. Once I had kids, however, it became difficult to keep the clutter at a minimum. Although I was pretty good at telling my kids “no” when browsing the toy aisles, I found it challenging to not pick up the occasional trinket when I’d see something that I knew one of my kids would absolutely love--especially when it was on an impossible to pass up sale.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried to not acquire more, the stuff seemed to pile up. And I found that I was becoming a grumpy, stressed out mom, constantly getting frustrated with all the toys all over the house.
There had to be a solution, so I decided instead of being angry all the time with all the toys and threatening to get rid of everything (a not so proud mom moment we probably all have experienced), I decided to do something about it.
This led me to implement the following steps in our home when I began to feel overwhelmed:
Declutter & Donate
Decluttering can bring SO much relief. Although I only try to spend money on good quality toys and limit what we bring into our home, it’s inevitable that my kids will come home with knick-knacks from time to time. From little trinkets acquired from grandparent’s visits, to the cheap McDonald’s happy meal toys and random things that come home from school, I found we had a LOT of things that we just didn’t need. So when things seem to start piling up, it’s time to declutter!
To do this, I recommend pulling out ALL your kids’ toys from wherever you store them, whether it’s a toy room or your kids closet, and sort everything into the following piles: donate, trash, and keep. I always recommend going through everything at once, but if you’re short on time, pick one closet, dresser, or room to do at a time. If you have more than one child, this may be the way to do it so you don’t get overwhelmed.
Get rid of any toys or games your child has outgrown or doesn’t play with anymore. You may also want to go through puzzles and game sets to make sure you’re not missing any pieces.
I personally like to declutter with my kids because I don’t like getting rid of their things without their permission. Plus, I think it's a good skill for them to learn. This can be difficult, especially if you have a kid that likes to keep everything. If this sounds like your kid, try explaining to them that other kids may enjoy those toys too, and donating them will let other kids enjoy them.
If they insist on keeping an item that you know they don't play with anymore, tell them they can have it for one more week and then it will be time to donate. This has always worked with my daughter, and giving her a few extra days instead of demanding her to get rid of an item on the spot helps her to be ok with getting rid of it.
Organize What You’re Keeping
Once I know what we are keeping for sure, it’s time to organize it. Organizing toys makes it easier for kids to find what they’re looking for and can also remind them of things they had forgotten that they had.
When organizing toys, I’ve found one of the best things you can do is to invest in clear storage bins. Not only do bins create uniformity for storage purposes, but it makes play time easier for kids as they can quickly find a toy they're wanting.
If your game or puzzle boxes are broken or torn, you can also purchase some really nice reusable storage bags to contain the pieces. Something like these work well. Cut the front off of the box and put it into the bag so you know what’s inside, then store the bags in a nice bin or container. This is another way to create uniformity in your storage space and make things look a bit tidier!
Once you’ve gotten everything organized, then it’s time for step 3:
This is the step that TRULY makes all the difference! Ever since my daughter was little, I always tried to make decluttering and organizing a habit, but it wasn’t until I implemented some level of toy rotation that I truly felt less overwhelmed by the toy mess. And I noticed a lot of other great benefits as well!
What is Toy Rotation?
Toy rotation is simply rotating toys that your kids have independent access to at any given time. It’s very popular amongst the Montessori world, and has innumerable benefits for children and parents alike.
Most classic toy rotations utilize an open shelf where individual toys are displayed on each shelf. It creates an aesthetic play room, but its purpose is so much more than creating a beautiful space.
Some of the biggest benefits of toy rotation include:
Encourages Creativity: Fewer toys means kids have to think a bit more when it comes to play time. They have to use what they have available to them, which leads to more creative play. Not only does this make playtime more meaningful, but kids have to be resourceful and purposeful. This expands their minds in some pretty incredible ways. For example, I’ve witnessed my kids using the same toy for more than one thing and repurposing it to fit their needs. Just yesterday, my kids were using a toy carrot as a microphone and playing a variety of games with it. With that one toy, they were entertained for over an hour (even though they had several other toys they could’ve been playing with as well).
Fosters Independence: Having toys readily accessible and reachable at ANY time allows kids to be independent and make their own choices. This freedom to choose whatever they want has some incredible benefits for their developing minds! Plus, it prevents parents from having to come assist them with getting out a new toy constantly.
Reduces Overstimulation: Less is often more. And having too many toys can quickly cause parents AND kids to become overwhelmed and overstimulated. I’ve noticed with my kids in particular, having too many toys accessible leads them to not want to play with anything they have. They become too overwhelmed with the choices. Have you ever been in a restaurant that has a 10-page menu that leaves you feeling frazzled and stressed, preventing you from being able to pick anything? The same thing happens in a child’s mind when there’s too many toys from which they can pick. So having less available at a time can actually make playtime easier, allows their creativity to kick in more quickly, and can leave everyone feeling a little less stressed.
Renewed Interest in Old Toys: One of my favorite perks of toy rotation is the sense of novelty my kids experience every time I swap out toys. It makes things feel new and exciting, and kids are less likely to get bored of what they have. This can also prevent you from spending more money acquiring new toys.
More Space: With less toys out or being stored in the playroom itself, kids have way more space to get down and play with the toys they have. This again makes playtime more meaningful and fun for kids. In our home, I’ve noticed my kids have WAY more fun playing in a clean, open, and clutter-free space than when there’s stuff everywhere.
- Less Clutter: And last but definitely not least, with fewer toys accessible at any given time, there’s less for kids to dump and leave. This makes clean up easier, quicker, and less overwhelming for parents AND kids alike! As a result, kids are more likely to help with cleanup and may even do so without being nagged. Growing up, our basement was always covered in toys. Everyone avoided cleaning up because there was just too much to do. But if there’s only one or two things to pick up at bedtime, kids can be more easily urged to pick up.
How To Start a Toy Rotation
The benefits of toy rotation are definitely there, but actually starting and implementing it in your home can feel overwhelming! Here are some tips that I found helpful when starting one in our home!
Keep Things Simple
When first figuring out how I could make toy rotation work for us, I read countless articles saying you should categorize all your toys based on the type of toy it is so that you can make sure to have one or two things from each category out at each time. Some blogs recommended making spreadsheets, and even rotating on a specific time table.
Although this may work for some, it won’t work for most. It makes the toy rotation itself a stressor, when it’s supposed to be eliminating our stress! So just make it simple! Make it work for you, whatever that looks like.
Organize a Space for Toys Not in the Rotation
This is a really important step. If you don’t have a designated space to store and organize the toys being rotated out, it makes it more difficult to remember what things you have when it’s time to swap things out. One of the best ways to do this is to have a shelf that's exclusively used for storing the toys not currently in the rotation and installing it in a basement, garage, or room that your kids don't go in. This can be a challenge for those with limited space or small apartments. But just because you have a small space doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
My sister in law, for example, has some shelves installed really high on the wall of her playroom where she stores some of the toys not currently in her toy rotation. They’re too high for her toddler to even attempt to get to, and her daughter doesn’t even realize they’re there. You could also just designate a high shelf in the top of a random closet of your home. The key is to keep everything in the same area so it's easy for you to find, but not somewhere your kids will see often.
Like I mentioned before, I recommend organizing and storing toys in clear bins because it makes it easier to find exactly what I’m looking for when it’s time to rotate. I’d just recommend either putting the toys high enough that your kids can’t get to them or putting them in a room where your kids don’t frequently go in.
Use Open Shelving
Finding good shelves to display your toys on is super important. If your shelves are too high, kids won’t be able to reach things independently. I personally love the Kallax cube shelves from Ikea, but you can get similar shelves from almost anywhere. I love these because I can get varying sizes to fit my space, they’re low enough for kids of all ages to access, and they help divide toys in a straightforward way. However, any shelf will work as long as the top shelf isn’t more than a few feet from the ground.
When installing any shelving unit, remember to always anchor it to the wall, even if you think it won’t tip.
Make Toys Visible That are Rotated In
To get a lot of the benefits that come from toy rotation, how you display your toys on their shelves is just as vital as the types of shelves you use. Display bigger toys on the open shelves outside of a bin or box, and smaller toys in small bins that you set on the shelf. Try to use shallow or clear bins for the pieces so that kids can easily see what’s available to them without having to pull out each basket.
I also find it essential that you don’t try to fit too much on each shelf. Space things out.
If you have older kids that have toy sets with lots of pieces, use clear storage containers with lids and put one set on each shelf. Again, just make sure you don’t have too many different things out at a time.
Include Different Types of Toys
When deciding what to have out, try to include a variety of things. This will help kids to be creative by using toys together. For example, right now we have a toy dump truck, a basket of balls, Tegu blocks, and dress-up accessories. My kids will put the blocks or balls into the dump truck, or they will build a city with the Tegu blocks and wear dress-ups, pretending to be super heroes or villains saving or destroying the town.
Some great categories you could use include puzzles, dolls/figurines/action figures, musical toys, vehicles, building blocks/legos, imaginative play toys (such as play food), etc.
Just remember to not be too picky about your categories! As long as you have a variety, you’re good to go! It doesn’t have to be too complex.
Incorporate Their Interests/Favorites
Remember, your toy set up should be specific to YOUR kid. So incorporate toys that speak to their interests at the time and keep their favorite things rotated in. It wouldn’t make sense to swap out their favorite toy so they can’t use it, just as it wouldn’t make sense to keep toys rotated in that they just aren’t interested in.
It can also be super fun to incorporate seasonal toys into your toy rotation or if there’s something specific they’re learning about at school. If it’s Christmas, throw in some fun seasonal toys like a kid’s nativity! If your kid is learning about farms at school, put some farm animals on the shelf.
When to Swap
Some will recommend using a specific time table for when to rotate out toys. But I found it was way more successful to just observe my kids and swap things out according to their needs and wants.
When I noticed my kids playing with a particular toy less and less, it was time to swap it out.
If they were still playing with a toy frequently for a month straight, I’d leave it in a little longer.
If something I swapped in wasn’t touched once after a few days, I’d swap it out sooner. You really just have to watch your kids and see what their interests are at that time.
You DON’T have to swap everything out all at once like some will say. It’s ok to leave some things in the rotation longer than others.
You can also ask your older kids what they want out. My daughter is 5 and she will normally tell me when she wants a new toy. I will then ask her which toy she wants to swap out, and we go from there!
Do What Works for You
This is similar to my first tip, but I think it’s super important to emphasize. Toy rotation will look different for everyone. We all have kids of different ages and interests. So the classic toy rotation with infant toys you see online may not be how you do it. And that’s totally okay!
The key is to just have less out at once. It’s also important that if something you’re doing isn’t working, change it up and try something new!
Additional Toy Rotation Tips
Rotate More Than Just Toys
Obviously, it's called "toy" rotation for a reason. But you can use the same concept for more than just toys! I like to do this will my kids' crafts and activities because we just have so many supplies. I have a craft cart that allows them to access their supplies independently, but by limiting how much I have on it at once, my kids better use what's available to them while also not making such a huge mess when it is craft time.
You can also rotate:
Use a "Library" System
Another thing you can try once your kiddos get older is making toy rotation into a "library" system. This can make older kids less likely to throw a fit by not having access to everything at once. Tell them they can "check out" a few sets of toys to have in their room at a time. And when they're ready to "return" them, let them exchange them for something else.
Common Myths About Toy Rotation
Toy rotation only works for those with less stuff. I have too many toys for toy rotation to work effectively for me.
I personally love toy rotation because it doesn’t mean we have to get rid of everything. Although I am a firm believer of decluttering and donating, as parents, we do invest a lot of money in our kids’ toys when they’re young. You don’t have to feel like you HAVE to get rid of all the toys you have, especially because they’d be nice to use when you have grandkids. In fact, toy rotation is PERFECT for you if you have a lot of toys. And you will get a lot of the benefits such as decreased clutter, increased creativity, and more meaningful play WITHOUT having to get rid of most of what you own.
Toy rotation only works for those with babies and toddlers.
Although toy rotation is much simpler for babies and toddlers as those toys tend to have much fewer pieces, this does NOT mean once your kids get older that toy rotation won't work for you! You can still find unique ways to display older kid toys on the shelves, store away other toy sets, and rotate things out when needed just like you can for little kids.
My kids are older and would NEVER let me store any of their toys. They like to have everything accessible to them at all times.
While my husband was looking for a job after grad school, the majority of our stuff was in storage, including most of our kids toys. This is where I started to get an understanding of how successful toy rotation could be, even for older kids. We let our kids each choose a few of their favorite sets of toys and set up a small 2 x 2 Kallax Ikea shelf to put the toys on. The rest stayed in storage. Our kids would play with those things for about two weeks, then when they’d get bored, we’d swap them out for different toy sets.
Some may still not like this idea, but it worked great for us. Just because you store something away and make it inaccessible for a bit to your kids does not mean you’re a mean parent. And it also doesn’t mean that your kids will be mad. My kids had no problem with this. They played with the toys they had, and they were great at communicating with us when they got bored of a particular toy. We’d then swap it out. This kept clutter low, while also getting our kids to actually play with the toys they had forgotten they even had.
I will forget about toys that I put away, and then my kids will outgrow them before they get to play with them.
This is definitely a valid concern, which is why organizing your toys and storing them in a dedicated space is so essential. This makes it easy to frequently check in on what's out of the rotation as well as swap things out when needed. Avoid storing random toys in cardboard boxes or bins that are mislabeled, or you will likely forget what you have.
I love watching my kids play and enjoy their toys. However, without a system in place, play time can quickly turn into madness and chaos that leaves me feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. But by simply organizing, decluttering, and rotating toys, things become much less chaotic. And I've found we spend much less time picking up and more time enjoying our time together as a family!