It’s the eternal struggle of parenting little ones: You want them to play (and play independently at that), but the constant battle over misplaced and disorganized toys can make even the most zen parent lose their shanti.
Here are a few tips to keep kiddo clutter at bay while riding the occasionally rough waves of parenthood.
Less is more
Truth time, now. How do you feel when your shoes and coats and paperwork cover every available surface? Overwhelmed, right? Less really can be more when it comes to creating stress-free zones for our kids.
Empty out the playroom into gigantic piles and let them help cull broken and unused things, giving guidelines like “We have 15 big trucks, let’s find two to share.” (Does this process take 80 times longer than doing it yourself during school or nap time? Probably. But does it instill good habits that will hopefully last into their own adulthoods? Absolutely.)
Encourage them to choose a charity or organization close to your family’s heart to donate to, and talk about how some things your kid simply likes can turn into something another kid will love (and maybe even need). And don’t discount the Big Kid ego boost of hand-delivering outgrown items to a neighborhood little one. Philanthropy can start young!
Color-code as much as possible
It may sound high-maintenance, but sorting play zones and heavily used items by color can actually save time and make a ton of sense for a visual learner. It can be as simple as “dolls in the red bin” and “trucks in the green”—as long as that’s a system you and your kiddo decide together—or it can involve shelving books by color for not only a pretty pop but also a cut-and-dried way to return books to their homes. (“You find the yellow books and I’ll stand up the purples!”)
Older kids at home? Color blocking books and knick knacks is a great way to define a space—and is highly Instagrammable, too.
Kick out the monsters from under their beds
Don’t be afraid to check out what’s going on under the bed! Yes, this spot can become a dark abyss when left without hard n’ fast rules, but this terrific real estate is prime for those long rolling bins that usually hold guest room bedding, off-season sweaters and the like. Have a crazy collection of doll clothes? Tracks and building sets and tall marble runs and floor-sized puzzles? You know what to do.
Beanbags for toy storage
“Out of sight, out of mind” has never been cozier. Tons of stores sell sweet beanbag seats that double as overflow soft storage, but beanbags already residing at your home can step up to this challenge as well!
Beanbag have a zippered insert? Fantastic. Pull it out and load the beanbag shell up with toys. (Tread a little more carefully if your beanbag is filled with polystyrene “beans.” Be ready with the trash bags for this one!)
This storage hack is great if seating is an issue on playdates, and the refilling of the bags with soft friends is an absolutely perfect chore for the youngest members of the family to understand.
DIY toy canopy
Small, triangular canopies are powerhouses for keeping the floor clear—and the lovey they want in reach. Sure, many companies sell toy hammocks and ready-to-hang netting, but a superbly cute (and satisfying) option is to make your own! Fold or stitch fabric of your choice into a wide triangle.
Not handy with a needle? You’re among friends here. Simply knot the ends of each point and hammer those into the corner of the room; high enough that you can easily vacuum underneath, and low enough that they can easily grab (and ideally put away) the stuffies of their choice. Pro tip: However high you nail the outer corners of the triangle, make sure to secure the back (i.e. the corner) of the canopy about two inches lower. You want gravity to be your friend for this pal pocket!
Think outside the toy bin
If you’re looking to create well-defined spaces for your kids’ collections but can’t bear any more licensed character faces plastered on polyester, go treasure-hunting around the house.
Magnetic knife strips are practically begging to hold a racetrack’s worth of tiny metal cars, and heavy-duty milk crates can be stacked or secured to the wall for virtually indestructible shelving. Got a bevy of unused mason jars from a planned Pinterest project? (No judgment, here.) Those look exceptional grouped together when they store vibrant collections of marbles, beads, colored pencils…or whatever it is your preschooler just emptied from his pockets and wants to keep forever.“
Up and down” bins
I hear you: Sometimes you really just can’t bring even one more thing back to its rightful home at that moment. For those times, my family has adopted what we call “up and down” bins.
A cute box or basket is placed by the side door, tucked next to the landing step, and anywhere else that receives higher-than-normal traffic. Yep, these are our clutter drop zones. Perfect for when you’re running late or running on empty, it’s an forgivable cheat to toss an item that needs to eventually live in another room or floor. The only catch? When it’s full, items have to be delivered around the house as soon as possible. (My first-grader takes immense pride when she’s a delivery person, but maybe the perk of whatever change is in my pocket sweetens the deal a little.)
Happy sorting—and an even happier play time!
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.