2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Gifts for helping kids be organized

Maybe it’s me, but I get as much enjoyment from buying and imagining my kids’ reactions to opening gifts as I get from witnessing the unwrapping itself. As a result, Erin assigned me the task for putting together the shopping guide for kids for this year. I’ve collected a number of gift ideas for kids of various ages and interest, from toddlers to teens. And, each of these gifts has a special organizing slant, of course.

  1. Foldie T-shirts. I am flat-out in love with these. The Foldie “educational” tee is very cute. The shirts feature adorable graphics and they have a secret. Specifically, they teach kids how to fold shirts in a very clever way. Flip it over and bring the sleeves together, and the image on the back becomes a whole new picture. Fold it again, bringing the bottom to the top, and a third image is created. It’s utterly delightful. I tried one out with my own kids and, not only did they love it, the lesson generalized to non-Foldie shirts. Perfect.
  2. The Swoop Bag. The fantastic swoop bag serves three purposes. First, it’s a play surface. When fully opened, this sturdy bag makes a great area for playing with LEGO bricks, wooden blocks, and so on. Second, it’s fantastic for storage. When playtime’s over, just zip! It’s closed. Use the built-in straps to close or hang it up. Finally, it’s super for transportation. My son has a mind-bending number of Skylanders figures which he brings to his buddy’s house. The Swoop Bag is a great way to transport them.
  3. Rainbow Loom. It’s a clever little device that lets kids make all sorts of bracelets with elastics. My kids sure love it, and that means I find tiny rubber bands all over the place. Keep them tidy with a multi-compartment container. It also helps kids more easily transport their “loom gear” to their friends’ houses.
  4. A can of chalkboard paint. Stay with me here. Last Christmas, we gave a pint of chalkboard paint to the kids, whose initial reaction was hesitant. A year later, they absolutely love it. My son is always changing the “art” on his wall, while my daughter has taken to using her wall as a calendar. She’ll note down what’s happening on a given day, like “ballet” or “play practice.” She draws goofy faces, too, but that’s the fun. Slap some on the wall, hand them a box of fresh, colorful chalk, and let them go wild without any paper mess cluttering up their spaces.
  5. Activity bags are great for older kids. Val Jacobs makes super dance bags, from multi-pocketed duffels to hanging solutions that can accommodate costumes, makeup, and more. CCM makes a very nice hockey bag that’s suitable for other sports, too. (While we’re on the subject, here’s how to keep odor out of sports equipment bags.)
  6. The chalkboard laptop. Seriously, how adorable is this? This handmade, wooden “laptop” features a chalkboard screen and keyboard, plus a slot for chalk where the trackpad is on mom and dad’s laptop. The whole thing folds up for easily for travel and storage, just like its computer counterpart.
  7. The crayon bandolier is adorable and handy. First of all, it’s super cute. And, secondly, it keeps crayons ready to go and not all over the table or floor.
  8. The Doodle Tablecloth. Since you’ve got the crayons out, break out the Doodle Tablecloth to complete the set. This lined tablecloth is machine washable and ships with a pack of eight washable markers. If you’re not willing to subject your entire tablecloth to Jr.’s artistic endeavors, consider the Doodle placemat set.

Want more gift-giving ideas? Explore Unclutterer’s full 2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide.

Deciding when to let go of your children’s toys

If you have little ones in your life, you might also have a not so little situation known as toy clutter. Letting go of toys can be difficult because you may be considering passing them on to younger or future children or you might think that reducing the number of toys means that you’re depriving your children of enjoyment and learning experiences. You don’t have to be a parent to experience this dilemma. If you’re a grandparent or family member who often has kids stopping in for quick (or long) visits, you will likely need to determine what to do with an overabundance of toys.

How do you decide when it’s okay to let toys go? There isn’t a super hero to swoop in and take away toys that are no longer needed, nor are there flashing signals to let you know the exact moment when it’s time to let go of a toy. But, over time, you’ll begin notice whether your children’s interest in specific toys increases or wanes.

To help you recognize when it’s time to part with some of their playthings:

Oberserve your children during play time

When I was a teacher, I spent a good amount of time observing the children in my classroom. This helped me create lessons that suited their learning styles. Though interacting with them gave me lots of insight, I found that simply observing them when they were “in the moment” helped me to get to know them better. To truly discover the types of toys that your children love (or don’t love), you’ll likely need to do this as well. That doesn’t mean that you need to spend an entire hour with a clipboard in hand ready to jot down what you see. There will be plenty of opportunities for you to figure out which toys they reach for often and which one they don’t pay much attention to. Those that are not as interesting to them anymore are great candidates for donation. And, you can then decide which specific toys you’d like to introduce them to.

Look for toys that do similar things

I once worked for an organization where the motto was, “Each child is unique, precious, and unrepeatable.” Toys on the other hand, are not necessarily unique. You may have duplicates or several that function in extremely similar ways. As I mentioned before, your children will let you know which are their favorites based on their typical play habits. This means you can easily donate or give away the ones they don’t play with often.

Swap toys in/out regularly

Limiting the number of toys that your children have to play with will help you get a better sense of their likes and dislikes, and give them ample opportunities to play with specific things. Having fewer toys to focus on can be less overwhelming for them and they can get on with the business of fully learning about each one (rather than bouncing around from item to item). Rotating toys in and out will also stop them from taking over adult spaces and will make it easier to unclutter and maintain children’s areas in your home.

Once you’ve determined which toys your children no longer play with (and which ones you’ll keep in rotation), you can do a toy swap with friends or donate gently used items to a local family shelter. There are also several organizations, like Goodwill, Loving Hugs, and Second Chance Toys, that will accept used toys that are still in good condition.

What to do with old toys

The winter holidays are coming and, for those who celebrate and have kids, it typically means the acquisition of new toys. It’s great for the kids but becomes problematic when the new bounty is piled upon last year’s. And the year before that. Before long, you’ve got clutter on your hands. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to reduce the mess, keep things tidy, and, best of all, keep the kids happy about it. If you’re looking to part with used toys, the following are several ideas for what you can do with older, outgrown or otherwise unused toys.

Donate

It’s always nice to donate a toy to someone who could use it and there are plenty of options. Here are a few that should be available in many communities for very lightly used toys:

  1. Toy drives. To find a toy drive in your area, contact a local church or chamber of commerce. Organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts also organize drives, so seek them out in your neighborhood.
  2. S.A.F.E. Stuffed Animals for Emergencies. This organization delivers donated stuffed animals, toys, books and blankets to hospitals, children’s services, homeless shelters and hospitals across the country. You can find a chapter in your area here.
  3. Goodwill. Goodwill works to foster employment training opportunities for those it serves. The vast majority of funds brought in through its stores serves that purpose.
  4. Local fire department. Firefighters and EMTs often keep stuffed animals around to give to children they must transport to the hospital. Call the department in your area to see if they have such a program.

Repurpose Old Toys

Repurposing is where it gets fun. You and your child can let your creativity run wild and think of fun and useful ways to repurpose old toys. It can soften the blow that comes with giving something away. Often children can have an emotional bond to a toy they haven’t touched in years. Tricks like these allow them to keep that toy around (or a part of it at least).

Repurposing helps kids (and parents) realize that making something can be more fun than buying. It fosters a real sense of ownership and accomplishment. Finally, you’re keeping a hunk of plastic out of the landfill in many cases. Here are some great ideas for re-purposing old toys.

Website Apartment Therapy has gathered 10 fantastic projects for old toys from around the web. My favorites include:

  1. Plastic toy as planter. This fantastic tutorial shows you how to turn a plastic dinosaur into a cute planter.
  2. Wooden block wall hangings. My wife and I bought so many wooden blocks for my children. At 7 and 9 years old, they’ve lost interest. This quick how-to from snug.studio shows how to turn them into wall hangings for book bags, hats, jackets and more. Very clever.
  3. Animal head toy coat rack. A very clever and useful project from Make: Craft uses the heads of discarded plastic animals to make a good-looking coat rack.
  4. Tree ornaments. When I was very young, my mother cut the plastic animals that hung from the mobile above my crib and turned them into Christmas tree ornaments. They’re still among my favorites (wooden peg puzzle pieces also make great ornaments).

I know that kids aren’t thrilled about receiving clothes as gifts, but it happens. Even I have a T-shirt collection that drives my wife a little crazy. Last year, she had several made into the quilt pictured below that has graced my bed ever since.

Honor the Memory

We often fail to part with things not because of the item itself, but with the memory or emotion it represents. This is especially true as kids grow up. One way to honor the memory without incurring clutter is with a shadow box like these from Lawrence Frames. Add an item or two and discard the rest. The memory is intact, and the clutter isn’t.

I also love this wall decoration made from small, unused toys. What a nice way to let Jr. keep some of the items he loves without letting them form a space-hogging pile.

Sell

You won’t be able to sell all of your old toys, of course. But some vintage toys and collectibles can attract buyers. Before you list your little treasures online, you’ll need to take some photos. A good photo can make or break a sale. Here’s a fantastic tutorial on how to photograph your items for the likes of ebay. And, Thomas train sets are very popular this time of year for sale on Craigslist.

There’s a lot that can be done with old toys. If you can, have your kids take part in the process you choose. They’ll feel a part of the decision and enjoy seeing the toy’s new role.

Ikea hack for toy storage

The older your child gets, the more important it is to find great ideas for toy storage. It is always important to get rid of toys that your child doesn’t want or play with any longer to keep the toy inventory manageable. It also is important to find a storage solution that is easy for you and your child to use. Enter this idea from Ikea Hacker:

The hack uses the Ikea Pax wardrobe and Trofast storage boxes, which fit perfectly in the slots. This hack stores an incredible about of toys and is simple to create. I’m not sure if my daughter has enough toys to fill a full Pax wardrobe, but I’m sure we will be able to find use for all of the drawers.

(via ohdeedoh)

11 cheap (and free) toys from Simple Mom

In the spirit of the baby toy alternative articles we’ve written in the past, Simple Mom has a great list of cheap and free toys for your toddler. It’s easy to forget about the simple and classic toys for our children. Toys with a lot of bells and whistles seem to replace the simpler toys because they are perceived to be better somehow. This list is a nice reminder that a child’s imagination can create entertaining fun with just about any object. From the list:

1. Egg cartons. They make great caterpillars, they’re good storage containers for little treasures found on walks, and they can even become airline seats for little animal toys. 

5. Dried beans or rice. It’s fun to pour into bowls and cups of different sizes, and it’s a good sensory exercise. Sand works well, too.

7. Washed out empty food containers. My daughter loves to play kitchen, and she’s stocked with some of our empty syrup, ketchup, and dressing bottles. No need to buy a child-size version of the same plastic thing.

We do have the miniature versions of food products. The variety pack of just about every Kraft food imaginable was a gift and those tiny replicas turn up just about everywhere around the house. The regular size hand-me-downs would be easier to clean up and keep in order.

We also use egg cartons as a way to keep the finger paints in a confined space while our daughter creates her next masterpiece. The paint inevitably ends up all over the place, but the egg carton is a great way to bring a bit of organization to the painting chaos.

Baby toy alternatives (part 2)

Cutting back the influx of toys is an ongoing issue for my wife and me. Last summer, I wrote about everyday items that could serve as toys for your little one. While my daughter grows, she’s now two years old, and her taste in toys changes daily I figured I would update the list that I posted last summer.

Paint brush and water: Man, does she love to “paint” the sidewalk or fence with a paintbrush and small bucket of water. She can easily spend a half an hour painting and when she is done there is absolutely no mess to clean up. My mom clued me in on this one.

Laundry time: She loves to help with sorting laundry. So much so that we sometimes give her clothes on non-laundry days to sort through. Match up all the socks!

Magazines: When she no longer wants to look through any of her books, which is rare, we hand her a magazine. She flips through the magazine while looking at all of the interesting pictures and photos.

Household chores: She is really showing interest in everyday household chores. Isn’t this the reason to have a kid in the first place? (I’m kidding of course.) As I mentioned above, she loves to help with laundry, but she also helps with taking out garbage, emptying the dishwasher, watering plants, and wiping up her spills. These are not really “toys,” but my wife and I find it important to have her help out around the home. She’s even starting to clean up her toys without even being asked.

Computer time: She watches us use the computer quite a bit so naturally she shows an interest. Her favorite site is Elmo’s Keyboard-O-Rama.

Reader’s Digest tips to tame kids’ clutter

Reader’s Digest is a fun periodical. Recently, I was happy to come across this article as I was checking out their site. The “6 Ways to Tame Kids’ Clutter” isn’t groundbreaking content, much of it is common sense, but it is still helpful advice. I’ve always found reading common sense solutions in writing makes them click.

Swimming in children’s clutter

I have a hard time conveying my disdain for the inevitable accumulation of more stuff for my two year old. We are about to celebrate her second birthday and the grandparents are the nemesis against my anti-accumulation project. My wife and I tried to head off the unnecessary gifts by suggesting to the grandparents that they simply invest in a pass to the Children’s Museum here in Pittsburgh. This objective was achieved, but the grandparents were not satisfied with such a modest purchase.

Apparently, my mother in-law has a box of stuff that is awaiting my daughter when they return from their winter retreat in Florida. I’m not sure what is included in the box, but I’m fairly certain we will be finding a home for all of these gifts at grandma’s house. That is our short-term solution: Clutter the grandparent’s house with the gifts that they feel compelled to purchase. I don’t feel great about it, but we decided that this is the best solution at the moment. We appreciate that they want to buy our daughter gifts, we know that a lot of children don’t have this opportunity, we just wish that every gift they give didn’t have to be a toy. The gift giving guide that we compiled for the holiday season can also be applied for birthdays, but getting the grandparents to comply has not been successful.

The accumulation of more children’s clutter is a constant struggle, and it seems that Merlin Mann is right in the middle of an all out war against baby clutter, too. Good luck, sir. It is a tough thing to get under control with so many others (grandparents) working against you.

Creative storage for kid’s clutter

Apartment Therapy’s ohdeedoh site recently held a contest in conjunction with Cookie Magazine where readers sent in pictures of their creative solutions for storing toys, clothing, and entryway items. It was called, Now You See, Now You Don’t! The contest finalists were recently announced, and their ideas were fantastic. I thought some of our readers would like to check out some of the great ideas that were showcased in this contest.

As a parent of a nearly two-year-old daughter, storage for toys is a constant struggle. It is always helpful to see what other people are doing to conquer the toy sprawl. I hope you enjoy these creative solutions for storage.

(Photo via ohdeedoh)

Crib clutter warning

Sleeping BabyA newborn baby adds so many items to your home. If you are a first time parent, you often don’t know what you really need. That being said, you should never clutter your infant’s crib with toys, pillows, or multiple blankets.

According to a warning to parents by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, having too much clutter in the crib of a baby, whether it be with too many pillows, blankets, etc. can put babies at risk of harm, and even death.

The agency stated that between 2002 and 2004, there were 241 child deaths, with 40% of them involving cribs. In all of the deaths, the kids were under the age of 5.

The deaths from cribs revolved around pillows, blankets, etc. taking up too much space.

We received about 10 different blankets for my daughter when she was born. Needless to say, we really didn’t use many of them. We also didn’t pack her crib full of toys and pillows either. I’m thinking this stuff is commonly known, but you never know. Keep the child’s crib free of clutter and your little one will be that much safer.

(via dbTechno)

Online toy rental in the spirit of Netflix

Reader Lorena sent us a link to a wonderful article about Baby Plays, an internet-based toy rental company for U.S. residents. From the article:

“Baby Plays … allows parents to receive four or six toys in the mail every month, assembled and ready for playtime. Call it Netflix for the toddler set.”

There is a flat fee based on the number of rentals ($29, $32, and $36 packages), and all of the toys are guaranteed to be lead-free. According to the article, “the toys are sanitized with Clorox wipes and loaded with fresh batteries before being shrink wrapped and boxed for shipment.” Additionally, all toys come with a postage-paid box for returning the toy when your child tires of playing with it.

Toy rental sounds like a terrific idea for keeping play room clutter under control, especially if you don’t have a toy lending library like the one discussed in today’s earlier post. This service also seems like a perfect gift a grandparent could give a grandchild.

Conquer kid clutter

Having a 20-month old is a bit like taking care of a drunk friend. They don’t really know what they are doing, but they are having fun while they do it. My daughter is getting into the “terrible twos” a bit early, so hopefully they’ll end early.

One thing that seems to get worse as she gets older is the toy accumulation. I’ve mentioned this problem in some prior posts and I must say that my wife and I continue to struggle with it. I’m always on the lookout for new ways of curbing clutter that is kid specific. So, I was pleased to read this article in the Detroit News that had a long list of kid specific clutter tips. Tips such as:

  • Divide and conquer:
    Big toy boxes make it too easy for toys to get jumbled together. Better: a bin for Legos, another for action figures, another for dollhouse furniture, etc.
  • Toss the flimsy crayon boxes:
    Same goes for the marker and colored-pencil boxes. Instead, put drawing tools into lidded boxes or bins. And don’t bother saving every free crayon you’ve collected from restaurant visits. Teachers say most kids just grab the top two or three anyway.
  • Craft supplies:
    Keep a vinyl tablecloth with the art supplies. It’ll be on hand to protect the table or rug (skip disposable ones: not sturdy enough).

These tips aren’t earth shattering, but they are helpful. The accumulation of toys is the hardest thing to get under control, in my opinion. Forces beyond our control are at work. These forces, mostly Grandma and Grandpa, are unrelenting. Be vigilant in your removal of old and unused toys, and your toy clutter will stay manageable.