Ask Unclutterer: Toddler-safe labeling solutions

Reader Cynthia submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I have a modular piece from Target where the cloth-covered boxes fit perfectly in, 2-tall by 4-wide. It’s resolved several issues in our small entryway, from stacks of shoes to picnic items, sunscreen and hats, to outside toddler toys. So far, it also looks very stylish!

Trouble is, my toddler has learned to re-arrange them so I never know which box holds what since they’re never in the same place. Running out to work, the park, etc., takes extra time just pulling out each box to find out what’s inside. It was fun at first, but I’m tired of playing The Price is Right-ish game.

I need a way to label the boxes while keeping the aesthetics of the set-up. All of my other solutions have either a card holder right on the box for labels, or I’ve simply slapped a mailing label on my cabinet boxes, since they’re hidden behind cabinets. I though of gift tags on the handles, but they also have to be baby safe (my little one is teething and prefers to chew on everything except teethers).

Since I’m not familiar with your exact setup, I’ve included a few ideas here that might work for you. Also, check out the comments, where readers might have additional solution ideas. If all goes well, we will hopefully find you an answer.

My first thought was to use something scrapbookers might stick to album pages. These adhesive Metal Label Holders with printed inserts don’t have any lead in them:

A search on Amazon for “scrapbook labels” turns up numerous stickers that are visually more appealing than rectangular office labels:

Like you mentioned in your e-mail, basic Luggage Tags could work if you have a loop to hook them to. You could print fun inserts for the tags to personalize them for your needs:

Thank you, Cynthia, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Again, I hope that between my suggestions and what the readers recommend that you find an answer!

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20 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Toddler-safe labeling solutions”

  1. posted by mugwump on

    The luggage tags look like a great idea. Her toddler will learn how to unbuckle them pretty quick, though.
    Assuming the bins are covered in fabric, I recommend iron-on patches with magic marker. Or sewn-on.

  2. posted by Rose on

    If the boxes were plastic or wood I’d suggest investing in a label maker as that’s how I keep all my folders straight. However fabric boxes are tricky, perhaps as the previous commenter suggested iron or sew on patches with magic marker names on them would work?

  3. posted by Jan on

    Toddlers are amazing at removing buckles and stickers. I second mugwump’s suggestions and also recommend fabric paint used directly on the boxes.

  4. posted by Dan on

    Fabric paint or colored tape. You don’t need labels, just associate a color to an item, like red could be shoes and blue toys. Then you could put a small dot or band on each bin. It wouldn’t change the aesthetic greatly and it would allow you to tell each bin apart.

  5. posted by Tiara on

    As your toddler grows and begins to recognize shapes, I would suggest a picture of what goes in the box, so he/she can help put things in their right place. However you put the picture on (drawing, clip art, photo) it up to you, but it would be a great shape sorting exercise for your child and a good way to keep things in their place for you.

  6. posted by Jan on

    I will say that I have your first option. My son is 16-months old and all he does is work his little fingers until he gets the insert paper out of the metal holders. The luggage tags would work great, but wouldn’t fit the decor in my office. The stickers, however, would be PERFECT! Great suggestions! Thanks!

  7. posted by Jenny on

    Could you buy four coordinating colors or styles of bins, then you would only have to search in the two bins that are of that color to find what you need?

  8. posted by Celeste on

    I’d use paint. Then you have the options of numbers, letters, or different symbols, however many you need. You could also do 4, 3, 2, or 1 stars, bars, circles, etc., if it would work better with your design element. I like the paint idea because it’s not removable. But if you can somehow sew onto the fabric by hand or machine, fabric iterations of your labeling system can used instead of paint.

  9. posted by Lee on

    Could you stencil a number on the fabric and you’d know what went with each number? When you’re past the point of them constantly being rearranged, you could just put them on the shelf with the number to the back instead of to the front.

  10. posted by Michelle on

    If the fabric boxes have handles – how about tying different colored ribbon onto each handle (similar to the luggage tags, but you could do a bow plus double-knot that hopefully is more toddler proof).

  11. posted by Anthony on

    I think you should probably try to enjoy that your toddler is enjoying making puzzles for you.

    Seriously how long can sorting though a few boxes take, especially if it becomes a game?

  12. posted by Colleen on

    I have these same bins in my toddler son’s room and will tell you this now. NOTHING sticks to them. My extra strenght P-Touch labels don’t even stay!
    If they fit your decore, go with the luggage tag option or hanging some kind of baby-safe label from the handles.
    Otherwise, I think fabric painting might be your best bet.

  13. posted by empty on

    Our label maker (a P-touch I think) can print iron-on fabric labels for things like this. I think your toddler would eventually be able to pick them off, because mine certainly would, but by that time the novelty of messing with those boxes will probably have worn off.

    E.g. both my kids went through a period where they felt compelled to empty every drawer or cabinet holding towels and washcloths and throw them around the house, but then grew bored, and then felt compelled to make giant ziggurats from containers in the pantry, but then grew bored, and then felt compelled to pull the pillows and blankets off our beds and couches and build forts from them, etc. etc.

  14. posted by Laura on

    I have a similar system – and although it wouldn’t be very safe for a younger child, I plan to print out cards with the name and picture of the toy, laminate them, hole punch them on both sides at the top, and attach them to the handle using 2 metal craft rings. Maybe keychain rings would be safer (although harder to initially put on.)

  15. posted by Cat on

    I’m a sewer so I usually think of sewing options first. Have numbers or letters stitched on or ironed on (stitched on would be most secure). Iron on a ribbon trim along the top of each basket with a different coordinating trim for each basket. Have someone print out iron on labels and stitch them on for security. Take advantage of the fact that they are cloth. Even if they have some sturdiness to them they can be stitched through.

  16. posted by Bibliovore on

    I like Cat’s stitching idea — it sounds fairly toddler-proof and also, with a little care, easier to remove than iron-ons/paint/stickers if you ever decide you no longer want it there. If you can’t/wouldn’t stitch directly to the bins but the bins have handles, you could tie a bow through each handle and sew through the bow’s center so it can’t be untied, or stitch other shapes/labels/whatever to that anchor.

    Anthony, I suspect she IS enjoying it; she said it was fun at first, but now the frustration element has grown. The time it takes doesn’t matter unless you’re running late. Unfortunately, with small kids can come numerous small (or large) unexpected delays that add up to running late, even when you’ve planned what you think will be more than enough time to cover such things. Any simplifications can help, even if they only save a few seconds.

  17. posted by Robyn on

    The above ideas sound like a lot of effort! I’d like to suggest archival label holders used to organize portfolio boxes. They’re available from ArchivalMethods.com and are adhesive vinyl holders with removable paper inserts. Sizes vary – we use the 1×3 in. (item 37-695) to label all of the boxes in our photography print archive. I love them. No sewing, no mess, and you can always insert a new tag whenever you change the box contents. I realize these are specialty items not widely available in stores…but extremely helpful for anything. Gaylord is also a good source of library org supplies and materials. All online.

  18. posted by Splomo on

    In my preschool son’s bedroom, I cut out tags from a plastic pocket folder (flexible plypropylene type, costs less than $1, able to hand-cut a couple of dozen labels from one.) and used letter transfers from a scrapbooking supplier to label contents: balls, wheels, figures, gear, tools. I used a hole punch and short lengths of ribbons to tie them securely to the handles of the boxes.

    It’s been a few years, they’re still going strong, and it cost me nothing to use materials I had on hand.

    I will soon be updating the labels for his latest interests: Bakugan, Dragon Universe, Lego, Ben 10. :)

    It would be easy to use a color-code (ribbon, tag) or shapes (shoes, glasses, etc) to indicate the contents of the box.

    Others suggested many good ideas above, too. This is just what worked for us.

  19. posted by Kate on

    I think I use this same type of organizer… How about embroidery floss? It comes in every color, and it’s pretty cheap. Wrap tightly around one side of the handle, knot securely on the reverse, then superglue the knot and trim the ends off. Should be toddler proof, as long as you keep the scissors out of reach. :)

  20. posted by Sandy on

    Great ideas! For the bins in our playroom, I printed small photos of the toys inside each bin, then cut them out and laminated them. I punched a hole in the top and used a zip tie to secure them to the bin handles. The kids can see what’s in each bin at a glance, the lamination keeps the labels strong and tear-free, and the zip ties are impossible to get off without scissors!

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