Preschool Inspirations

The world is their playground!

Managing the Mountain of Mess AKA Toys

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I am currently watching an episode of “Hoarders: Buried Alive.” What a crazy show — I want to watch it, yet it makes me crazy all at the same time. I have so much sympathy for these people as I see the power of their possessions take over their minds and lives, as well as the well-being of their family members. It’s amazing how something as simple as a mess can turn into an overwhelming mountain. As a mom I have certainly had my periods of being overwhelmed with keeping a clean house. Through trail and error and a lot of practice, I have finally found a happy medium to keeping the toys at bay.

I want to share my best tips with you, but it’s not all about mom or dad keeping up with the messes. This is a team effort, so I am also going to provide some advice on helping children develop healthy cleaning and organizing habits, whether they are an infant or four years old. So if you are looking to get a good system in place to clean up playrooms and bedrooms, you have come to the right place!

1. Everything needs a home

Probably the most important piece of advice I can offer is that every item, toy, stuffed animal, necklace, barrette, pair of shoes, puzzle, etc. needs a home. A “home” can manifest itself as a shelf, a basket, an organizer, a small box, a decorative bucket, etc. Whatever it is, it needs a specific place to go. The key to this is to make it look orderly and provide easy accessibility to your child.  Arrange toys neatly in a toy organizer and categorize them. One bucket is for puzzles, another for blocks, another for figurines, etc. Books should be spread out and neatly on display. There have been some amazing ways to accomplish this with bookshelf rain gutters, spice racks, or even child sized book shelves. The purpose in having a home for toys is to be able to teach your child to take care of their possessions. When different items go into different bins, they are learning to sort their items. When toys are neatly on a shelf, this encourages children to neatly return them. This also involves parents, adults, or older siblings modeling this behavior for them until they get the hang of it.

2. Avoid Catch-alls

When you choose a home for your child’s items, avoid big containers! So those giant toy boxes are the first to re-purpose. Since they can hold a lot, they become a deep toy abyss. It’s the quickest way for toys to get broken, to lose small and medium sized pieces, and to create an environment that encourages chaos. My biggest containers are used for stuffed animals. My rule is that once the stuffed animals start spilling over, it’s time to find new homes for them.  Otherwise, use those nice comfy ottomans for items such as blankets and pillows…not toys!

3. Bedrooms are for sleeping

This has been my most favorite organizational tip, and I learned it from a great family in Arkansas.  My children’s bedrooms are a haven for sleeping, and it works well… I mean REALLY well!  I love that this is dual purpose — it keeps my children’s rooms cleaner, and it has helped them become amazing sleepers at the same time. Toys are not allowed in the bedrooms, unless it is because I am storing them in the closet temporarily (and it is out of sight and reach of my preschoolers). We have stuffed animals and books in their bedrooms, and that is it. We don’t deal with a 2 a.m. play time or fighting to take away toys at night. Instead, we keep almost all the toys/learning activities in our own playroom. While it may be a sacrifice to designate a room for playing, I for one will admit that it has been well worth it!

4. Rotating the excitement

I’m pretty sure that most of us have a huge assortment of items for our children, especially if you live in a 1st world country. Even if we have everything nicely on display for our children, it could be easily overwhelming just because of the quantity. My solution to this is to rotate the items that my children have access to. In my playroom/classroom, each area of the room is set up as a different learning center. I have a block area, library area, kitchen area (home living as we call it in the preschool world), puzzles and manipulatives area (legos and other small items that you assemble), art area, math and science area, etc. Each of these centers has learning activities that I rotate on a regular basis. So if the item is not in the rotation that month, it is put neatly on one of my storage shelves in a “home.” I try to alternate which centers I am rotating the toys in so that it’s not all at once. It’s so exciting to children when you pull out a toy they haven’t seen in three months! I also put toys away once they are no longer carefully taken care of. I will ask my children to put away the toy first. If that fails, I will give them the option to clean it up or if I do it, we won’t be playing with it for a few months because I’ll be putting it on the shelf. Otherwise, I try to rotate when my kids are napping or sleeping so that they don’t even miss the items that are temporarily being re homed. I certainly keep some items out year round, but the majority are part of the rotation.

5. Everyone has a job

Whether you have an infant or a four year old, everyone can do their part to keep cleaning running smoothly. In fact, I recommend starting organizing techniques when your child is under a year old. This would mostly take place with sorting activities. Help your older infant learn to group objects by color or size. Also, when it’s time for clean up, have your child put away the toys while you hold the container and coach her to put away her toys.  Make it fun and enjoyable. As your child gets older, have him take his dishes to the sink and help clean up spills that occur. When your child is about three years old (if not sooner), he will be able to put toys away in the proper home and even help out with bigger tasks around the house. My two year old loves putting silverware away. I make sure to put all the knives and sharp objects away first, and he organizes all the rest. He loves sorting the “big forks” in the “big fork” slot, and I am able to talk him through any objects he is unsure of. My four year old loves sweeping with a child sized broom, making her bed, setting the table, and helping cook. This required effort and patience on my part while I was teaching my children how to learn these great life skills, but my husband and I have been intentional about making these processes and enjoyable, instead of tedious and frustrating tasks. Always be sure to carefully supervise activities such as cooking, sharp utensils,  and anything else with the label “keep out of reach of children.”

6. Less is more

There is such incredible truth to this! There are so many products out there for children, and it is so easy to quickly build a huge collection of items. As a teacher I am so guilty of this! I think of all the great learning opportunities a certain object could provide and justify purchasing more and more. Well, it gets buried, or I don’t get to it right away, and it just sits around. There are bazillions of great (and not so great) products available for children, and we as parents have to take the lead and be selective about what we purchase or acquire. Focus on quality, not quantity! It is much better to have 10 appreciated and well cared for toys than 100 neglected toys.

7. Purge frequently

I have become a huge fan of receiving calls from local non profits who ask if I have any donations they can come and pick up. I almost always say yes; even if I can’t think of what I have, I make myself find something. And honestly, it’s pretty easy to find something, especially for us since we haven’t moved recently. I recommend a purging process monthly. Once your kiddos grow out of a certain toy, pass it along! Whether you donate it, give it to a friend, or sell it, find it a new home. For a while I felt that clothes were overtaking my home. I was saving my kids clothes for the next baby. Well, I finally decided that wasn’t the best use of our space and resources. Who knows what gender the baby will be, what season they will be born in, how quickly or slowly they will grow into the next size, not to mention the yellowing that happens to baby and toddler clothes. I have released about 80% to 90% of those clothes, and now I just have the ones that are extra special. One day I will have to part with those too, but I will be ready for that because I practice giving items away now on a regular basis. There has been so much freedom that I have felt in just downsizing!

8. Take hope

While the process of cleaning and organizing can be overwhelming, grasp onto the tunnel of hope! So many times I feel that I have gone two steps backward and only one step forward, but that is progress. It makes it hard to keep up momentum, but it is worth it! I am a micromanager when I clean so the process becomes so tedious and long. However, it makes it so much easier to keep clean once I find a great organizational process. I used to dread cleaning, but as I operate an in home preschool, there was no way I could get around having a messy home if I wanted to keep clients. Since my home is our home and my business, it requires about 30-40 hours a week of cleaning. In order to keep my sanity and my joy, I had to find some redeeming quality in it other than the end result. I started listening to my favorite music while I cleaned from 9-11 p.m. each night. This definitely was not what I had in mind for what I “wanted” to do, but it has been such a blessing for us that I made it a priority.

What are some of your best tips? Feel free to comment below!


Author: Katie

My name is Katie, and I have been an early childhood educator for over 12 years. I am passionate about child development and teaching children with the most relevant methods available. I have "retired" from working in a preschool center setting, and now I teach at my licensed in home preschool. I believe in inspiring other parents, teachers, and caregivers to provide the most appropriate and exciting learning experiences we can offer to our children.

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