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. Years ago I read an article in the Detroit News that had a long list of kid specific clutter tips such as:

  • Divide and conquer:
    Big toy boxes make it too easy for toys to get jumbled together. Better: a bin for Lego, 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 younger 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, often grandparents, are unrelenting. Be vigilant in your removal of old and unused toys, and your toy clutter will stay manageable.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

25 Comments for “Conquer kid clutter”

  1. posted by Monica on

    The large box from the baby wipes is a great place to store crayons. Also, be flexible in your storage. We’ve reconfigured things countless times since our daughter was born 5 years ago. As they get older, the needs of their “stuff” changes.

  2. posted by Michele on

    Your last sentence says it all. Going through all of my daughter’s stuff several times per year does wonders to keep the clutter down. Having her go through her stuff herself helps her learn to value an uncluttered living space. It also helps her not become too attached to things (as opposed to people and experiences).

  3. posted by Jenny on

    You say the grandparental forces are out of your control, but I have to disagree. Imho, anyone who feels the need to shower your child with gifts is also able to share in the responsibility of managing the clutter those gifts eventually become. As a parent, it is well within your domain to regulate what comes into your child’s life and your house. Yeah, grandparents love to spoil their grandchildren, but as the parent you have to provide some guidelines for helping them do it more productively.

    How about asking them to be a bit more discriminating in what they gift your child and even how often they gift? Instead of 20 toys at every holiday, how about 5?

    How about striking a deal where, for every gift they give your child, they add a corresponding amount to her college fund? Thus, if they spend $100 on toys & gifts, they also invest $100 in her future education.

    Getting that flood down to a trickle makes a world of difference in how you organize and later declutter.

  4. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jenny — I really like your idea for the toy/college fund matching … I know two sets of grandparents who will be hearing about that one in my future! Great idea!

  5. posted by Jessica on

    We asked all of our folks to please not buy the children any gifts unless it was a holiday (then we defined holiday. “No Arbor Day doesn’t count”) And also suggested that books make wonderful gifts. Pleading extremely small living space helped ease the blow. We also told them that we didn’t want our children to be greedy or see their Grandparents primarily as people who buy them stuff. Everyone was actually very understanding.

  6. posted by Liza Lee Miller on

    And they hold up as the kids get older too – – especially that one about the vinyl table cloth. My kids are old enough to be doing posters with Sharpies now and a vinyl tablecloth would have saved my lovely living room game table from having a new and unusual pattern of black marks all over it. Sigh. I’m sure when they are gone away to college, I’ll moon over those marks and miss these years but this month I’ve just been kicking myself for letting it happen. 🙂

  7. posted by Caitlin on

    Between my son being the only grandchild on my side of the family, having a Christmas Day birthday, and living 1200 miles away from both sets of grandparents, we were very overwhelmed with gifts. They’d overcompensate at Christmas, so he could “feel special” and they’d send huge boxes of small toys through the year. It felt like they had some 6th sense about when we were decluttering toys, because a couple of boxes would show up shortly after we finished.

    The turning point really came on my son’s third birthday. I managed to convince the grandparents that my son would rather they do things with him, since we only visit a few times a year. I also suggested that my son would enjoy taking some of the kids’ classes at the county rec center or would enjoy season tickets to the zoo or waterpark. This year, he ended up with a few token presents to unwrap, but most of his presents were activities.

    For the first time, I didn’t have to ship things back to my house because they wouldn’t fit in the car. I actually had plenty of room left over. My son enjoys his zoo season pass and his “Zoom around the room” class much more than he enjoys the toys he received. He also talks very fondly about riding the antique train with my parents and going to play mini golf with his other grandparents.

  8. posted by Mary on

    We talk about birthday and Christmas toy purchases for our grandchildren with the parents. We informally take turns buying toys or adding to their savings depending on what’s going on. One year, we really wanted to buy the oldest grandchild a bike and that worked out well for everyone. As they get older, I’m considering stock purchases too; they are clutter-free but give me an opportunity to give an educational gift. We can watch the market together, discuss business and even pick stocks together! Another clutter-free gift is a kid’s magazine subscription. Some are designed for 2-3 year olds!! The child gets something every month from Grandma and Grandpa and there are some excellent magazines on the market!

  9. posted by Faculties on

    The trouble with one bin for Legos, one bin for action figures, and one bin for dollhouse furniture is that then you can get frustrated when the right thing is not in the right bin. And it won’t be. There will be Legos mixed in with the action figures, and action figures mixed in with the dollhouse furniture… I think it’s a triumph when stuff gets put into any bins at all. If you need to keep something totally separate from other things, such as puzzle pieces, the trick is to store it separately, take it out to be played with specifically, and make sure it’s put back before the next thing. But about too many toys in general — my little boy loves to gather up toys he no longer plays with for me to “sell” to Good Will. After taking them, I return with some money (the equivalent of the tax deduction) and he can buy some new toys. Ten old toys produce money for about one new toy, so the clutter is reduced and he’s delighted because he gets a new toy.

  10. posted by Jude on

    I purchased brand new school supplies for each of my kids each year, probably because as a child, we were so poor that I’d have to make do with three-year-old broken crayons. By the time my youngest son entered 3rd grade, I announced that I’d no longer buy anything except paper, new backpacks as needed, and an occasional binder. I used my retired mother to sort all the left-over colored pencils and crayons, and brought them to school where I always have a (broken) pencil, pen, colored pencils, and other supplies for students to use. I recommend that you pass along excess supplies to your local school district. Someone can definitely use them there.

  11. posted by Sarah on

    The one tip that works well with younger kids (but goes against the divide and conquer above), is to use large bins for toys. My 2.5 year old can’t remember where each little toy goes in a ‘each thing has it’s place’ kindof home. But he CAN put all of his toys up in three cubbies we keep in the living room at the end of each day.

  12. posted by Ethel on

    We have almost-two-year-old twins, and one thing we do is hide 90% of their toys (except stuffed animals, which are “stored” on their bed). We store them in nice bags and containers out of sight. Other than their large toys that can’t be easily stored, only one bag of toys is allowed out at a time. It keeps the toys fresh, keeps things organized, and limits clutter.

  13. posted by Dr. Nicole Sundene on

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  14. posted by Liz on

    I’m trying to do one ruthless sorting of clothes and toys for my three year old every month. (Just finished both for January.) Since I have a sizable basement, I have one plastic container that I keep with great toys that my daughter’s outgrown–we obviously get things from it when people with smaller kids come over. And I have one other container and I throw things in it that are currently out of favor (Mr. Potato Head just went in it)…when they reemerge in a few months, they will be exciting again.

    I’m a big fan of the plastic tablecloths from the dollar store–I just toss them when they get a lot of paint on them.

    Decided today that the time had come for our first 64 box of crayons and was happy to find that someone (Rose, maybe?) makes it in a plastic box.

  15. posted by Gina on

    We love IKEA’s drawer-style toy storage. You can customize with three different sizes to accomodate all your kids’ toys. We’ve got small drawer/buckets for little toys like Matchbox cars and Polly Pocket, larger drawers for medium toys like tea sets and doll clothes and jumbo buckets for larger toys or collections like Barbies or Legos. For little ones who can’t remember where things go, using stickers to identify the type of toy inside really works. You’d be surprised how early a little girl learns to identify the word “Barbie.”

  16. posted by Kimberly on

    Well my dog is my child and it is a battle to keep friends and “grandparent” from showering him with toys and clothes (he HATES clothes!) We do have a toy box for him that closes so we decide when it’s time to play and we are teaching him to help pick up toys each night before going to bed. With that being said he really only LOVES 4-6 toys and the rest take up space. So when we get a gift for Peanut, we take a picture (digital so no paper or film) of him with the toy or in the clothes and email it or print if needed to the person who sent it then we re gift it or pass it on to a needy dog. People never ask about the gift months later!

    However I have so many friends with “traditional” kids- the two legged kind I have tried not to add to the clutter and buy them a season pas to the Zoo, McDonald’s gift cards, or even gift certificates to the movies. Think “consumable”. Any kid over 3 knows what a gift card it and they love them because it gives the control of what they get.

  17. posted by Colin on

    At the risk of being pilloried, we’ve got enough space that there’s a kid play room in the basement – all toys live down there. There’s plenty of buckets and drums and whatever to collect toys in rough categories, such as “dress-ups.” But we don’t get crazy about organizational schemes for toys because the kids are 5 and 3, they’re not there yet for maintaining it themselves. They do have tidy up under supervision though.

    The main thing, as others have said, is to to periodically filter out the stuff you don’t use and find somewhere else for it to go.

  18. posted by Jill on

    I recently got an awesome idea for the kids toy storage system. Just as an aside here, I find it almost shameful that in our very rich society we have so much that we have to go through what we have and get rid of stuff. People in 3rd world countries would not be very understanding of our need to de-clutter regularly. Anyway, I’ll get back to my suggestion. I photographed the contents of what was in each container and attached the picture to the front of it so that even the non-reader in the house could put away toys and find what he needs. Amazing how it helps the big kids too. I’ve never had a system in 10 years of having a family that has worked like this does.

  19. posted by Courtney on

    I havn’t read all the comments to see if anyone has already thought of this – but lego was a huge thing in our house of two boys and when they were younger I cut up an old quilt cover (dinosaurs) and backed it with a plain red sheet, sewed around the edges,added large heavy duty eyelets to the four corners and bought a hook from bunnings. Lay it flat on the floor and it’s a play mat, ready to pack it all up, just pick up the four corners and hook the four eyelets over the hook in a wardrobe and the lego is all packed up!! it worked well and the boys didn’t mind cleaning up. Quick and easy.

  20. posted by skyler on

    Having an overwhelming number of possession underfoot all the time can be overwhelming to a child, so adult assistance is valuable in keeping what a child has to deal with in manageable limits.

    Their possessions are a child’s world. Children have so little control over their own lives that their toy/imaginative world can give them the feeling of being capable and in control. This is their own little world to make decisions about – in preparation for making decisions in the adult world.

    Children do not always categorize things in the way an adult would. If a child is given just Legos to play with and must put them away before taking out another toy, she misses the opportunity to see a doll shoe lying near a lego block and getting the idea to create a lego shoe store for a Barbie doll. A certain amount of disarray can lead to highly imaginative play, and in fact has lead to some wonderful inventions by adults.

    If we are bringing out certain toys at a time, it would seem a good idea to mix and match a lot, so children has an opportunity to see how various combinations of things can work together.

    I suggest also that we be careful about the sense of loss a child may feel when a toy disappears. I still regret a baking powder tin with my doll’s dresses I had carefully packed when we moved. I felt very grown up and responsible like a real mommy packing her baby’s things. It still bothers me that I did not take care of it better and I looked for it for years. I had just turned four.

    skitter (a primary school teacher)

  21. posted by Anne on

    first off…I love this site!!
    The purging of stuff is SO SO important…four kids here and my kidlets 11, 9 and twins 8, already know the value of correct storage (mom is a fanatic)…when they purchase a toy (via savings), a storage place is brought into the thought process. This has really helped. It isn’t perfect, but it is helping. the person who suggested one bin at a time! YES YES!! We did that for years, and now I know they can pull every single bin out and it will be put away almost(lol) perfect!
    Having a place for anything is a great attitude!

  22. posted by Chris on

    As my 14 month old gets more adventurous on a daily basis the tip regarding being vigilant in the disposal of older toys is spot on. It seems we’re donating a couple grocery bags every month.

  23. posted by Megan @ Disorder2Order on

    You had me at the analogy of the 20 month old and a drunk friend. Great post Erin!

  24. posted by Lucy on

    All of our toy bins, baskets, boxes, and open containers were overflowing with a jumbled mess of mismatched (and therefore unused) wooden and plastic pieces of toys, until recently… Another mom told me about a great inexpensive solution that doesn’t involve accumulating and stockpiling even more bins.

    They’re zippered mesh fabric toy bags called Kids Klutter Katchers (

    We use them to keep the toy parts grouped and sorted within the bins. Since they have a zipper, the toys stay put and we don’t have to use a separate bin for each toy. Since they’re mesh, we can see what’s in them and, as opposed to the plastic baggies we thought were a great solution for awhile, these are more durable, can be more easily opened and closed by my toddler, and are not a suffocation hazard for the baby.

  25. posted by Preventing kid clutter | Bohemian Revolution on

    […] clean up after your kids with a few simple preventative measures. Unclutterer talks about ways to organize and store kids’ toys so they make less mess to start […]

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