Your children can have toys and you can have an uncluttered home

A few times after speaking and writing about having an uncluttered home, people have said to me:

You obviously don’t have kids.

I know that these are lighthearted statements meant to let off a little steam about one’s personal experience, but they always rub me the wrong way.

Simply stated: Having children and being uncluttered are not mutually exclusive endeavors. You can have both. Problems occur when people (of any age) have more stuff than they can store and routines do not exist to take care of the things they own.

If a child has so many toys that they are strewn in every room of the house, it’s time to get rid of a large selection of the toys. If the child doesn’t have a toy chest, cabinet, or closet to properly store his toys, then he needs one. Lay out all of your child’s toys on the living room floor for him to review. Next, have him pick which toys will be kept and which ones will be donated to charity (or recycled or thrown away, if necessary). Have your child go with you to make the charitable donation so that he can see the children who are benefitting from his generosity. Then, after returning home, organize the remaining toys in a designated storage area.

A reader on the site recently left a comment that I agree with wholeheartedly:

If a child is old enough to get out a toy to play, she is old enough to put it away.

Yes, it takes diligence to monitor a child’s behavior to know when to encourage her to put away her things after play time, but it’s not impossible. If you’re unable to keep on top of toys being put away at the end of every play time, then have a routine in place where the child walks through the entire house and puts away all errant toys 15 minutes before starting her bedtime routine. Teaching children these life skills at an early age will help them to always live an uncluttered life. Yes, there will be times when your encouragement will be met with resistance, but such are the ways of parenthood.

Be sure to check out our previous posts in the Baby and Children categories to get even more ideas and suggestions about keeping toy clutter under control.

71 Comments for “Your children can have toys and you can have an uncluttered home”

  1. posted by Matt on

    Having a child has forced our house to become uncluttered. How do you stop a 1 year old eating, poking, prodding, licking, unplugging, toppling, or dismantling things if they are not in their place, safely locked away? Until we has our child and needed to lock things away, we had no need to be uncluttered, now we are obsessed with it.

    Life with child and clutter was a stress. Life with child and no clutter is a joy.

  2. posted by Kristen@The Frugal Girl on

    Erin, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be offensive. I did double-check your bio to see if you had kids, and since your bio didn’t mention them (and your fellow writer’s bio did mention his), I thought it was safe to assume that you didn’t have any. I don’t claim to know everything about you…I just thought that you didn’t have kids, that’s all. :)

    Matt, I totally agree. I’ve had close calls with all four of my kids, who despite my valiant efforts towards cleanliness have all managed to find choking hazards, and I’ve often wondered how they would even have survived if I wasn’t as neat as I am. lol

  3. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Kristen — Thank you for the apology! I’m not sure you needed to give one, but I appreciate it anyway. And, please accept mine for being snarky. Parenthood is a touchy issue for me.

    That being said … you won’t ever see my parenting status change in my bio. This isn’t a mommy blog (I really like mommy blogs, we just aren’t one) and I won’t talk about my children on here. We have a rule, only guest authors and male staffers can reference their individual kids. If Teri or I talk about children, it is in the general sense. We do this because the majority of our readership is male and/or childless, and other websites (like Parenthacks) service the mommy market specifically.

    HOWEVER, I do talk about personal parenting issues on from time-to-time. Since Real Simple is a woman’s magazine and their readership has more children as an overall percentage, it works well with their format.

  4. posted by Kris on

    While in general I think there is good advice in this article, I do think as parents or caregivers we really need to keep a child’s developmental stage in mind to keep our expectations reasonable. It would be helpful to include a rough age at which you can actually have your child help choose which toys to keep and which to give away. My 22 month old is not developmentally capable of understanding that concept. For now, we just round up toys he’s lost interest in and spirit them away when he’s napping. You can’t do it while they’re in the room at this age because for some reason anything in the box becomes suddenly fascinating.

  5. posted by Marie on

    When I was a kid, I had a “one out” rule. If I was done playing with X, I couldn’t play with Y until X was put away. The only time things ever got cluttered was when X was a big system of parts, like Leggos or a dollhouse with furniture.

    Having a pet also teaches a child to clean up. After my cat ate half my Barbie shoes, I was a lot more careful that every little piece was put away.

  6. posted by Karen on

    You know, i have three boys. We homeschool. Since the kids are home all day long, we get clutter throughout the day. Long ago I accepted that there would be toys in every room, as long as I had little kids.

    The family room is where most of our toys are. We have baskets, about three large and two small, and the children know where all the toys go, so when it’s pick up time (before nap and before bed) it’s easy for them to scoop and drop. In between nap and bed, I honestly don’t worry about toys being scattered. Bedrooms don’t have toys, just stuffed animals, clothes and books for bedtime. We’ve found the kids go to bed better if they aren’t distracted by toys up there.

    Honestly, I’d rather have a happy home than a perfectly tidy one. My mom was so focused on keeping clutter–which she defined as anything as small as a book left on a coffee table–to a minimum, that my friends, when they came over, would ask “is your house always this….uh, clean?” It wasn’t a compliment. Our house was cold and sterile; my future husband, when he first saw my parents’ house, said it was like a museum.

    I had a very unhappy childhood. My mom would regularly “raid’ my bedroom and throw the “clutter” around in a frenzy, yelling all the time. It makes me sad when I hear about parents bemoaning the toys and clutter, as if the children and their toys are such a burden to their uncluttered lifestyle. There will come a day when the kids are gone, and the house will be as clean and perfect as you like. I keep the kitchen clean and tidy (“as the kitchen goes, so does the house” is a rule I live by and it seems to be true), and keep up on the laundry and bathrooms, but toys? Unless they’re in the way of traffic, I don’t worry too much. We try to keep a happy medium–a house we can all live in comfortably, but which looks lived in. Our family room looks like a playroom, yes, because we have KIDS. We chose to have kids, and with kids come toys and a bit of chaos. Embrace it, find a system to help you live with it without stressing about every stray Lego, teach kids to pick up after themselves without nagging or yelling at them, and you’ll be a lot happier.

  7. posted by Peony Moss on

    @sims — Forget the trunk. Child-height shelves are the way to go — slightly deep, if possible (playsets and bins will sit better.)

    Note all the suggestions above about each toy Having A Place. In some preschools, they put a picture of the toy on its spot on the shelf, so when it’s time to put the red car away, you look for the picture of the red car. Things like Legos, toy soldiers, etc go in labeled bins. The bins with the hinged attached lids are particularly good.

    I’ve found it helpful to have a designated table where toy soldiers, train layouts, Lego sculptures, etc, can be left out.

  8. posted by Allison on

    I challenge the author to try and get a child to “choose which toys to give away.” Have you ever told a child that they have to get rid of something? Even if they haven’t played with it in years, possessive instinct takes over and it becomes a “MINE!” tear-fest. They don’t understand why having so much is bad, and they certainly won’t be any help in getting rid of it.

    The responsibility lies with the parents not to buy their children so many toys they’re swimming in them in the first place. Buying a child toys and then expecting them to calmly, or even happily, give them away is unrealistic.

  9. posted by Eternal*Voyageur on

    Kids toys can be unitaskers or multitaskers.
    If parents would buy toys that can provide entertainment for hours, and can be used in many ways (say, Lego) rather than a huge thing that just has a few buttons that make lights and noises, they wouldn’t have to buy so much stuff !

    Also, take a book out of the Montessori pedagogic, and keep kids entertained with learning real skills such as pouring water, cutting veggies, sweeping the floor.

  10. posted by Kimberly on

    I am so glad to hear this! I do not have children yet, but I have hope that routines, simple storage systems and acknowledging the amount of stuff that will fit in our space will help us train our kids at an early age to pick up after themselves.

  11. posted by Joan on

    Really liked this post. Our daughter is 9, and while we’re not nearly as organized household-wide as we should be, we are pretty strict that everyone’s “stuff” has to go in its place, hers included.

    We’re also BIG on purging. We (with her) go through every piece of every toy bin about twice each year – before Christmas and birthday – and it’s well worth the effort. She’s a great “giver-awayer!”

  12. posted by Hippolyta on

    Sue’s comment really resonates with me. I was raised in an incredibly cluttered home with zero discipline about cleaning up. As an adult I am still struggling every day to form my own tidiness habits, which makes it even more difficult to teach such habits to my son! But we are working on it, and each year is a bit more organized. And what a breath of fresh air it is to have an uncluttered space! @Karen, thanks for sharing your memories of the other end of the spectrum: absolute obsessive spotlessness doesn’t lead to happiness either. May we all find our ideal happy medium.

  13. posted by caro on

    I’m trying to use the same theory with the dog! She is very good at emptying her toybox, but, we still need to do a little work on her fetching things back!

  14. posted by Jodie on

    I have a 6 year-old and a 2 year-old and they pick up their toys (sometimes with help and usually with some grumbling/but they do it). While playing there is usually a mess – all the toys seem to come out at the same time. But my husband and I made an effort when the kids were little (around a year) to have them learn to pick up all their toys. Now at age 2 my daughter knows that she has to clean-up (or the toys go “away” to the basement) and she knows exaclty where things belong.

    We don’t have a playroom and all the toys live in our family room. This limits the amount we can store. We also purge 2x a year – right before birthdays to make room for new toys and right before Christmas & Hanukkah.

  15. posted by Claire - Matching Pegs on

    I think the lively debate is very interesting.

    I try to only buy multi-use toys, and purge every once in a while, (with my kids help).

    The kids are not allowed to have toys from Fast food places that we occasionally eat from – we have talked a lot about junky toys that only end up in land fill.

    I have found that my 7 and 9 year old really need a place of their own where they can display their “treasures”.

    They both have amazing imaginations, and make lots of little crafty things that can look like junky clutter, but are precious to them. They each have a shelf to display this stuff on, in their room – every so often I say, “are you ready to let this go?” and they are usually happy to get rid of something to make more room on the shelf for something else.

    I think there is a happy balance when it comes to kids “clutter” – you have to make spaces in your home that they have some say over (in our house this is in their room).

  16. posted by Mrs. C on

    I know that this is late–I’m a little behind on my Reader updates–and that in the face of the number of readers this blog has this comment probably doesn’t matter. I am officially taking Unclutterer out of my rss feed reader. I’ve thought about it before but the first writer response to a commenter on this post sealed the deal for me. While I do like some of the tips, I really just end up feeling sad when I see the writer(s) almost exclusively responding only when there’s criticism and with an attitude that is often unfair, defensive, or otherwise inappropriate for a lifestyle blog whose tone generally isn’t so…snarky/sarcastic/elite. Since my response to blog readers who get up in arms about the way a blog is run is to not read it, I’m going to take my own advice and unsubscribe today.

  17. posted by Lee on

    Well, I found this through the “last year on unclutter” post, so this may never be seen.

    I can’t try this, as my children are grown, but in hindsight, I would have purchased DOORS with LOCKS for the toy shelves that held my perfectly labeled toy bins. Want another bin? Put one away first. Maybe the locks could have eventually gone away (they seem so “ugly’) when they were more trustworthy, but they could have pulled out 10 more bins in 10 seconds.

    My kids loved to dump the bin and combine all kinds of toys. Very creative (as adults they still are), but a horrible job for them/me to clean up. With doors and a lock, i could have at least limited how much came out. Locking up toys is really not my style, but having fewer things out would have been calmer for me and them. I think that asking them to choose 1-2 bins each would have let them feel like they were getting what they wanted to play with and we all would have seen me as less of a warden.

    It was even worse when guests would come and then be called to come home immediately and didn’t help clean up. One of my neighbors had cleanup at 5:00 pm (guests usually left after that time) and then they read or played quietly with one toy. There wasn’t a big mess when a guest had to leave and the house was neat(er) when her husband came home.

    If I’m ever a grandmother, I’ll try this.

  18. posted by JulieR on

    I also just found this post, so am very late commenting. This is an interesting topic.

    My mom had five kids. In order to maintain a certain level of order, she had a neat trick. We could use whatever we wanted in the living room during the day, but anything left in the living room after we went to bed was confiscated by my mom. Whatever it was — toy, game, book, jacket, homework — was put up high in her closet and we had to earn it back if we really wanted or needed it. Let me tell you: one time of having to explain to your teacher why you didn’t have your homework, or being quite chilly while waiting for the bus, and you learned very quickly to pick up everything in the living room!

  19. posted by Isaiah on

    I’ve been on the fence for a while with this site. It seems to have gone from realistic methods of living less cluttered, to a bauhaus idealism that is not very useful to actual humans.

    This post is a case-in-point. Ask your children to help pick which toys to give away? You are (a) insane, (b) mommy dearest, or (c) not a parent. In any case, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

    If you’ve bought too many toys for your kids, why make them suffer the consequences. How does that help them? Does it really make anyone’s life better? Yours? Theirs? Is there a lesson to be learned in having to give away things you enjoy? If there is, it’s eluding me.

    Children are a product of our parenting, their environment, and of course, their own nature. Even the most zen parent has to fight a tide of western culture telling our children that acquisition and accumulation are good. Challenging that culture is a lifelong battle that cannot be won in a single skirmish of sorting in the living room. Parents that practice that sort of rigor on their children are setting themselves up for some expensive psychiatric bills in the near future.

    Some children take naturally to simplicity and order, others do not. Go ask a long time Montessori teacher if they’ve had any students that “didn’t fit.” My bet is any school that’s been around a few years knows that some people just don’t easily fit the uncluttering mold. If your children do, awesome. If they don’t, don’t force it. It will only drive them from the path.

    Instead of waging war with your children over things. Perhaps borrow this book from the library:

    I have three pieces of advice for parents:
    1. Be flexible. Things will rarely be how you expect them to be.
    2. Swim with the current. Even difficult goals can be achieved with persistence.

    And lastly, 3) If you’re just about to have kids, go out and give other parents a lot of parenting advice right now. Get it out of your system before you realize how much of an ass you’re being.


  20. posted by Helen on

    Isaiah, I’m still laughing at Advice #3. It’s great advice! I enjoy this site very much, but I do think there is nothing quite so distasteful or arrogant as a non-parent giving concrete parenting advice. (Or, similarly, when a parent gives advice about a stage of parenting which they have not yet experienced. I once supervised a volunteer who was the parent of toddlers, and she loved nothing more than to tell parents of all stages how they should raise their children.) However, it is sometimes very difficult for a non-parent to understand that they don’t understand. We’ve all met them. “My child will not throw tantrums. My child will not eat junk food. My child will not talk back. My child will not be messy.” I admit, the concrete advice and “this is how you should raise your child” attitude from non-parents still bugs me…a lot. But I try to remember that many of them don’t know that they don’t understand, and won’t know that until they DO understand, and if it makes them feel superior to give irrelevant advice, fine. I don’t have to feel inferior because of it. After all, there are many occasions where I would like to tell someone else how to do their job (politicians come to mind), even though I have no experience in the field. It’s always easy to think that we could do a better job of running someone else’s life than they are doing themselves.

    On the other hand, I think we critics would all have been much more receptive to this advice if it had been given by someone whom we considered to be an experienced parent. We’re being hard on the author because we feel that she is telling us what to do without having walked a mile in our shoes. Certainly there are ways of keeping an organized home with children. Her method won’t work for everyone (I can’t imagine lining up my child’s toys and telling her to pick which ones to get rid of…but we’re pretty choosy about what makes it through the door in the first place), but it will work for some. I don’t think that she meant to say that this is the one and only system that every family should use; there is not a single system that will work for everyone. (And what a boring world it would be if there was!) I think a lot of us parents are tired of advice, tired of more information and instruction; we need encouragement. We’re in the trenches, and a word of encouragement goes a LOT farther than a word of advice. But that’s not what Unclutterer is here for. It’s an informational, instructional site, not an encouragement site. I can’t really fault an advice site for giving advice.

  21. posted by Cathy on

    When I was growing up, anything that was left out was rounded up and sent to Goodwill. Didn’t take us long to learn to put things away.

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