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.

What to do with those old toys

Five years ago I wrote an article on what to do with old toys. Now that the holiday season is here, I’ve decided to revisit it. For many, the holidays means the acquisition of new stuff, and that can lead to clutter, especially if you have young children. Here’s another look at what to do with old toys, with a few updates for this year.

Donate

Donating is a fantastic option (for clothes, too).

  1. Charities are always looking for new and gently used toys. Many deliver toys directly to those who are in need while others may sell them in a thrift store. In either case, your donation can make a child’s day. Just make sure toys are undamaged and in good working order before going this route.
  2. Doctor’s offices. Many pediatricians have a “prize box” to reward their younger patients for getting through an unpleasant appointment. Books are often welcome as well, so give them a call to see if they accept donations.
  3. Daycare centers. Good luck finding a daycare that doesn’t want donations!
  4. Military families. Operation Homefront knows that military families are move frequently, and not every toy can necessarily make the trip. This great organization can help welcome the children of military families to a new city with toys just for them.
  5. 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

As I said last time, “repurposing is where it gets fun.” Repurposing lets you get creative and even offers a way for kids to hang onto a toy (or part of it at least) they’ve grown attached to. Here are a few fun options.

  1. Animal head toy coat rack. I’ve pointed this out before and I still think it’s absolutely adorable. A very clever and useful project from Make: Craft uses the heads of discarded plastic animals to make a good-looking coat rack.
  2. Make something functional, like this Playmobil clock. It’s cute, useful and a great way to keep these adorable, vintage toys around without generating a mess.
  3. Unwanted LEGO bricks can be turned into just about anything, like this clever charging station. When they cease to be appealing toys, consider them building material.
  4. Brighten up the fridge with these great-looking puzzle piece magnets
  5. Create some art for the playroom or kids’ bedrooms.

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.

My wife and I have two shadowboxes in our home: each with two or three items from when the kids were newborns. They are decorative, provide a nice memory for us and most importantly, do not waste space. Kids’ toys can be made into memory display boxes too.

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 treasures online, you will need to take some photos. A good photo can make or break a sale. Here is a fantastic tutorial on how to photograph your items for auction sites like ebay.

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 will feel a part of the decision and enjoy seeing the toy’s new role.

Ask Unclutterer: Where can I donate stuffed animals?

Reader Darlene recently asked the following question in the comment section of the post What to do with those old toys:

I have bags of slightly used stuffed animals. I’ve found most places like hospitals and day care center don’t want them because of germ contamination. Where can I find a site that would welcome them? How about for the flood victims in Texas or hurricane victims in Florida or even … victims in California? Give me some ideas please.

Darlene, this is a common concern, so I’m very glad you asked the question. The following are a few suggestions that may help anyone with gently used stuffed animals looking for new homes.

Give them away directly to people who want them

I’ve successfully used my local freecycle group to give away stuffed animals. It doesn’t always work, but it sometimes does. Other similar possibilities are Facebook, Nextdoor, and the free section of Craigslist.

Give them to Goodwill or other thrift stores

While many thrift stores don’t accept donations of stuffed animals, a number of them do!

Each Goodwill chapter has its own policies regarding what it accepts — and some specify that they take stuffed animals, such as Goodwill of the Heartland in Iowa and Goodwill of San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo Counties in California.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County in Oregon is another example of a charity that takes stuffed animals for its thrift stores. Again, each local organization will have its own policies, but you might find that yours will welcome your donation.

Note: These policies can change over time, so be sure to check before each donation.

Donate via SAFE: Stuffed Animals for Emergencies

SAFE is a 20-year-old non-profit organization that helps get gently used stuffed animals (as well as blankets, children’s clothes, and other items) to those who need them. You can donate through one of the chapters in Florida or South Carolina. Or you can send them to one of the urgent needs locations that SAFE has identified. Here’s just one of the places currently listed:

Edmund D. Edelman’s Children’s Court is the court that handles all the juvenile dependency cases in all of Los Angeles County. These cases usually deal with abuse and neglect issues. Annually they handle about 30,000 cases, and some of these cases require the children to speak. The courthouse has asked us if we could donate stuffed animals to help ease these children’s fears during a very stressful time in their lives.

SAFE also has good instructions for cleaning stuffed animals (PDF) before donating them.

Donate to police or fire departments

An 8-year-old girl in Colorado who had been in an auto accident donated her stuffed animal collection to the Denver police department to give to other children like herself. You could certainly ask if your local police or fire department would like your stuffed animals to hand out to children in similar traumatic circumstances.

Give them to animal shelters

As reader Monique mentioned in the comments, this is always an alternative to consider. And it will work for toys that have stains (even after washing) that would make them unsuitable for giving to children. Please check with the shelter you have in mind, as not all of them will want such donations. But some, such as Four Peaks Animal Rescue in Arizona, do include stuffed animals on their wish lists.

Donating to help needy animals

A friend recently told me that a local wildlife center welcomed donations of Beanie Babies and other such small stuffed animals because baby raccoons and other small animals like to cuddle with them.

Your local humane society, animal shelter, or wildlife rescue organization may be able to use many things you might be looking to unclutter.

Many such organizations take blankets (especially fleece) and bath towels, but always check with your local organization before bringing in donations. Many do not want sheets, but some do. Other obvious potential donations, depending on each organization’s policy, are pet care items in good condition: food, food bowls, grooming supplies, cat trees, laser toys, catnip, cat litter, pet carriers, etc. The SPCA of Solano County wants cardboard flats or beer trays to use as disposable litter boxes.

A lot of these organizations also need office supplies, which many people have in excess. Pens, highlighters, copy paper, staplers, rubber bands, and Post-its are just some of the items I’ve seen on numerous wish lists. The San Diego Humane Society has surge protectors and calculators on its wish list, and I’ve seen many homes with unused calculators sitting around.

Cleaning supplies are also on many organizations’ lists: laundry detergent, bleach, hand sanitizer, trash bags, dish soap, hand soap, etc. Humane Animal Rescue specifically wanted Original Dawn liquid dish soap, but many organizations don’t care about the brand.

Rather than recycling your newspaper, you might give it to a shelter or rescue organization that asks for it, as many do. Some also want shredded paper. There might be some restrictions — for example, Humane Animal Rescue specifically notes the shredded paper should not include shiny ads. The Humane Society of Missouri can use long-cut shredded paper, but not confetti-like crosscut shred.

I’ve also seen a number of organizations, such as Heart of the Valley Animal Shelter and the SPCA of Solano County requesting gardening tools: hoes, shovels, rakes, garden gloves, garden hoses, etc. Flashlights and batteries are popular wish list items, too. ASH Animal Rescue in the U.K. also wanted general tools to be used in maintenance: screwdrivers, drills, hammers, pliers, etc.

Some of these organizations, such as the Peninsula Humane Society and the Humane Society for Southwest Washington, run thrift stores whose profits support their work. These stores can be a great place to donate a wide range of items in good condition.

Then there are the requests that are more unusual:

So if you’re in an uncluttering mood, you might check with your local animal shelter or rescue organization and see what’s on its wish list.

An April opportunity to recycle old, broken toys

Many parents face the issue of toy clutter. Their children have more toys than they could ever need or want, often gifted by well-meaning friends and relatives. Or they just have toys their children have outgrown.

If the toys are in good condition, they can often be passed along to other families. But what do you do with the toys that are broken or missing parts? Sending them to landfill often seems like the only answer.

However, through April 30, those in the U.S. have a cool alternative. Tom’s of Maine and TerraCycle have joined forces to provide free recycling of these toys. Just go to the Tom’s of Maine website and click to get a free shipping label. Then fill a box with up to 10 pounds of toys and ship it off at any UPS location.

TerraCycle has a number of ongoing free recycling programs for Clif Bar wrappers, Brita items, Solo cups, Wellness pet food packets, and more — including Tom’s of Maine toothbrushes and much of the company’s product packaging. Tom’s worked with TerraCycle on a toy recycling program in April 2015, but that one was limited to 500 of TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes. The boxes were all claimed within four days, so this year’s program was designed to allow more people to participate.

What happens to the items sent in through the Tom’s of Maine Toy Recycling Program? Lauren Taylor of TerraCycle gave me the answer in an email:

The collected waste is mechanically and/or manually separated into fabrics, metals, fibers, and plastics. Fabrics are reused, upcycled or recycled as appropriate. Metals are smelted so they may be recycled. The fibers (such as paper or wood based products) are recycled or composted. The plastics undergo extrusion and pelletization to be molded into new recycled plastic products.

So if you cringe at sending things to landfill, here’s your opportunity to gather up those dilapidated stuffed animals, the puzzles with missing pieces, the mystery toy pieces, the torn playing cards — and any other broken, worn-out, or incomplete toys — and ship them off for recycling.

Getting Things Done: The 2015 revised edition

David Allen’s Getting Things Done was first published in 2001, and Allen released an updated version in March. So, what has changed?

Long-time fans on GTD will be glad to learn that the fundamentals are the same as they’ve ever been. If you have the original edition, there’s no need to rush to get the new one. However, if you’re buying the book for the first time, you’ll want this new version.

There are a number of small changes, all good:

  • Outdated references to phone slips, faxes, answering machines, Rolodexes, and VCRs are gone. Certainly some people still use these things, but they aren’t as central to most people’s lives as they once were. Now there are references to text messages, mobile devices, and scanners.
  • References to specific computer programs (Lotus Notes, etc.) which were used as examples have been removed.
  • U.S.-specific references have been replaced with more international wording. For example, a reference to U.S. K-1 tax forms has been replaced with the more generic “tax documents.” This K-1 change also illustrates the move away from examples that apply mostly to business executives — not everyone, even in the U.S., will know what a K-1 is. (It’s a form showing income from a partnership.)

But there are more substantial changes, too. There’s a new chapter about GTD and cognitive science, talking about studies that support the GTD methodology. However, I found this chapter to be a slog to read, and the connection to GTD seemed tenuous in some cases (although quite obvious in others).

There’s another new chapter entitled “The Path to GTD Mastery,” where Allen acknowledges that it can take some time for people to get proficient at the GTD basics, much less moving beyond that to his other two levels of proficiency. But here’s the part that caught my eye:

Even if a person has gleaned only a few concepts from this material, or has not implemented the system regularly, it can bring marked improvement. If you “get” nothing more than the two-minute rule, it will be worth its weight in gold.

The two-minute rule, by the way, says that if a task is going to take two minutes or less, you should just do it now rather than adding it to a list. And it was nice to see Allen say something I’ve long believed: You don’t need to do everything the GTD way to get some benefit from the methodology he proposes.

There is also a new glossary and much more discussion about how the GTD processes work in a world where information is increasingly found in digital forms, and where people may work from a coffee shop, not just an office.

But some of my favorite changes were random comments added throughout the book. For example, here’s the new quotation, from Mark Van Doren, which opens the book:

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give … our attention to the opportunity before us.

Of course, I noticed what Allen wrote about being organized:

Being organized means nothing more or less than where something is matches what it means to you. If you decide you want to keep something as reference and you put it where your reference material needs to be, that’s organized. If you think you need a reminder about a call you need to make, as long as you put that reminder where you want reminders of phone calls to make, you’re organized.

And here’s his advice on uncluttering (or not):

People often mistake my advice as an advocacy for radical minimalism. On the contrary, if throwing something away is uncomfortable for you, you should keep it. Otherwise you would have attention on the fact that you now don’t have something you might want or need. …

You like having and keeping your twelve boxes of old journals and notes from college? You like keeping all kinds of nutty toys and artwork and gadgets around your office to spur creative thinking? No problem, as long as they are where you want them to be, in the form they’re in, and you have anything you want or need to do about that captured and processed in your system.

Note: There’s a footnote explaining this advice is not intended for those with a hoarding disorder.

While Getting Things Done is still a ponderous read in some places, I think there are enough good ideas that it remains my favorite book on time management.

Donating unwanted items: going beyond the usual suspects

While there are many organizations, such as Goodwill, that accept donations of all sorts, there are also specialized organizations you might wish to support that collect very specific items for the programs they sponsor. As you’re clearing the clutter from your home, consider the following donation alternatives:

Art and craft supplies: In San Francisco, we have SCRAP, which “collects donations of quality, clean, reusable materials such as fabric, paper, arts and crafts supplies, wood, beads, buttons, and so much more and makes these materials available as supplies for teachers, non-profits, parents, artists, and students.” RAFT in San Jose does something similar, with an emphasis on serving teachers. In New York, there’s Materials for the Arts. In Chicago, there’s Creative Pitch. There’s a second SCRAP in Portland, Oregon. There’s also the Pittsburg Center for Creative Reuse and the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse (in Oakland, California). A Google search can help you find if there is a similar program in your area.

Binoculars, birding field guides, digital cameras and more: Birders’ Exchange collects these supplies and sends them to “researchers, educators, and conservationists in Latin America and the Caribbean working to protect birds and their habitats” who lack these basic supplies.

Furniture: The Furniture Bank Association of North America has a list of furniture banks that accept donations. “Furniture banks are not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organizations whose mission is to provide free furniture to families struggling with poverty and other severe life challenges. … Furniture banks collect donations of gently used furniture, and provide the furniture for free to families in need via referrals from other social service agencies, churches, schools, employers, etc.”

Fur coats: Each year, Buffalo Exchange runs a Coats for Cubs fur drive; the coats are disassembled and shipped to animal rehabilitation centers to serve as bedding. The 2014 drive has ended, but the Humane Society of the United States suggests you contact wildlife rehabilitators in your area to see if they can use the coats. There is also Born Free USA’s “Fur for the Animals” drive, which runs until June 30 this year. However, there are only a couple drop-off points for this program.

Gloves: Glove Love is “a matchmaking service for single gloves who have become separated from their partners.” Sadly, it’s in the U.K., or I would have a lot of donations to send in!

Musical instruments: Various organizations around the country collect instruments for those who can’t afford them. The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation accepts donations of gently used band and orchestral instruments in playable and good cosmetic condition; they need to be shipped to the foundation, in California. The instruments get refurbished, and sent to programs throughout the U.S. The LINKS program — Lonely Instruments for Needy Kids — does something similar specifically for those in the greater Cincinnati area. The Carroll County Arts Council in Maryland has a Musical Instrument Bank. There are other local programs, too, so you can look for one near you.

Pet care supplies: From blankets and towels to pet toys to litter boxes, your local humane society or other animal shelter can probably use it all.

Yoga mats: Various yoga charities — groups that run after-school programs, work with children on the autism spectrum, etc. — can use the yoga mats you no longer need.

Ask Unclutterer: A reader is finding it difficult to part with her children’s old stuff

Reader JJ submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I badly need to clear out my loft as it’s full of a lot of my four children’s used things — such as clothes, books, toys, school books, mementos, etc. I try to part with it but am very sentimental about when they were younger and I find it so hard to let things go. Any ideas?

I understand the sentimental mindset, especially when it comes to my son. I have a lock of hair from his first haircut, the shoes he was wearing when he took his first steps, and his baby blanket. These sentimental treasures are just things — and if they were to be destroyed in a fire, all of our lives would continue — but I still want to keep them and that is okay.

It is okay because there is nothing wrong with keeping a few sentimental treasures from our lives and our children’s lives. Problems arise, though, when we start confusing sentimental treasures with sentimental clutter and try to keep everything.

Clutter is all the stuff that gets in the way of the life you would rather be living. And, from your note, it sounds like you are looking for ways to sort out the sentimental treasures from the sentimental clutter so you can have more room in your loft. Think of it this way — you can’t keep everything, so if you’re going to live happily and safely in your space you are going to have to let the clutter go.

The way I control sentimental items is to get two plastic storage tubs per person. The first is for baby stuff — baby book, baby blanket, first walking shoes, etc. The second is for ages 2 to 18. Items that are making their way into the second tub include favorite assignments, art projects, mementos from vacations, etc. The size of the tub or tubs will be determined by the amount of space you have in your loft to devote to this type of storage. My guess is you won’t be able to work with anything over 20 gallons total of storage per kid, if that.

The benefit of using the tubs/bins is that nothing can be kept that can’t fit in the tubs/bins. The size of the bin will force you to decide what items are actually treasures and can be kept and what items are clutter and should leave the loft. If there are one or two toys the kids want to keep to pass along to their kids, great! But, if it doesn’t fit in the box, it doesn’t get kept. With four kids, you may want to only have one tub/bin per child to save on space. And, based on the kids’ ages, they might be wonderful helpers at deciding what goes into the bins and what doesn’t. Remember, eventually, your kids will inherit their bins, so you might as well have them help decide what should go into them.

A few additional tips: Be sure to leave room in the 2 to 18 tub so you can be sure to fit all 17 years worth of stuff into it. Also, if you’re going to keep this stuff for the longterm, please store it appropriately using archival-quality materials. Having a different color of tub for each kid can also be a way to make organizing the items easier. The only exception to the tub rule would be if you want to hang a treasure on the wall and permanently display it in your home, which might be possible with one or two items. (A child’s art gallery: examples 1 and 2.) Follow the container rule and sentimental treasures shouldn’t take over the space.

Finally, anything in good condition that you and the kids decide not to keep can be donated to charity, especially clothes. Toys in really good condition can be given to charity, too, or sold at yard sales (or some equivalent). When you’re able to see that another child can benefit from using the item, it can help to take the sting out of parting with sentimental clutter.

Good luck!

Thank you, JJ, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please be sure to check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Don’t swat a fly with a Buick

Several years ago, I purchased David Allen’s landmark productivity book Getting Things Done. Allen describes an elaborate and effective method of, well, getting things done. One ingredient is the “ubiquitous capture tool,” which you can think of as a mobile inbox. It’s something that’s always with you, ready to capture anything you need to remember (David uses “capture” as a fancy way of saying, “write it down.”).

When I finished reading the book for the first time, I was inspired and eager to start. I bought some equipment, like a plastic in-tray for my desk, some 3×5 index cards, a label maker and a pricey Palm Treo (I realize I just dated myself). The Treo would be my ubiquitous capture tool. It was sleek, powerful and portable. I imagined myself using it to complete important and productive tasks. I’d whip it out at meetings with an air of gainful nonchalance. “This thing? Oh it’s just my electronic capture tool. Watch as I use it to get many things accomplished.”

Two months later, I recognized what was really happening: I was making lists. I was using a two-hundred dollar PDA to write lists. In other words, I was swatting a fly with a Buick. I sold it on eBay, put a stack of index cards in my pocket, and haven’t looked back.

Today, I use a pocket-sized notebook and a Fisher Space Pen (they write in any condition or orientation). That experience prompted me to examine other areas of my life in which I was prone to overkill. Computers are one of those areas. As a nerd, I’m often tempted by the latest and greatest piece of technology. Yet, I keep an 8-year-old iMac around because it’s great for writing. (The keyboard attached to it is 20 years old.)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having fun toys, especially when it comes to productivity. If you like the tools you have, you’ll be more likely to use them. So use what you like. At the same time, be aware of any instances of overkill.

So, are you swatting any flies with Buicks?

What’s on your summer to do list? Organizing your car

The summer months are a good time to tackle many projects, including organizing your garage and closets. Today, we’re sharing tips on how to shape up your car. Though some may walk, ride a bike or scooter, or take public transportation to get about town, many people (raising my hand) travel by car. For some, it’s a second home or main “office.” When you spend a lot of time in your vehicle, keeping it organized is a necessity as you’ll need to not only feel comfortable, but also find what you need with relative ease.

To begin a car uncluttering and organizing project, take everything that doesn’t belong in your car out of the car (check under your seats), looking for things that are obviously trash (empty water bottles, food wrappers). Next, categorize the remaining items (chargers with chargers, first aid supplies with first aid supplies). Then …

Be selective about what you need to keep

Depending on your lifestyle, you could have a variety of things you need to regularly keep in your car. If you’re a mobile entrepreneur, you may need office supplies, brochures, or client forms. If you’re a parent, toys, books, or hand sanitizer may be more important things to keep in the car. For people who do a fair amount of long-distance driving, street maps, money for tolls, or audio books are the likely must-have items. Think through all the things you need to have with you on a regular basis so that you can …

Decide what will live inside your car and trunk

You will want to store some things inside your car (e.g. in the glove compartment, center console, pockets on the backs of each seat, side door pockets) and other items inside your trunk. Use frequency of use as a benchmark along with size and volume of specific items. For things you use often, store them inside your car and think of your trunk as archival or large item storage. And, if you live in an area where there are seasonal extremes, you may also want weather appropriate items (ice melt, gloves, sun shades).

Based on the size and features of your car (or truck or SUV or minivan), place things in the locations that make sense to you — like in a kitchen, store things where you use them. And, consider keeping a container inside your car to collect garbage. Here are suggestions on where to keep some things:

Glove compartment

  • Registration, insurance card, and emergency numbers
  • Car manuals
  • Collision kit
  • First aid kit
  • Cell phone charger (this can also be kept in the center console along with a tire gauge)

Door pockets

  • Maps
  • Container or resealable bag of coins (for tolls or parking)
  • Coupons and gift cards
  • Trash bags

Trunk

Choose your containers

Containers help you keep everything in its place and easily accessible. They also can help keep loose items from shifting and flying about if you have to stop suddenly or in the event of an accident.

Here are a few to consider:

  • Milk crate. A crate is great for keeping sports equipment, toys, and things that you need to do something with (packages to mail, things to return). Consider putting a milk crate (or laundry basket) in your trunk.
  • Trunk organizer. The compartments in a trunk organizer make it easy to keep similar items together and separate them from others. They can hold many things (like groceries and car care supplies) and have outer pockets for papers or maps.
  • Mobile office organizer. Use this mobile unit on the passenger seat to hold hanging file folders and to keep pens and note pads close by if you often work from your car. Some organizers have lids to keep items from slipping out and others forgo file storage and give you enough space for keeping CD’s, tissues, and other items.
  • Plastic envelope. Plastic envelopes are great for keeping coupons and receipts and can easily be stored in door pockets or behind-the-seat pockets. Or, put your registration and insurance card in an envelope in your glove compartment.

Create a maintenance routine

Once everything is arranged in the way that works for you, make a plan to keep your vehicle organized and road-trip ready. A simple way to stop the build up of trash is to empty your garbage container each time you fill up your tank. Because you refuel on a regular basis, combining these tasks will almost guarantee that your ride will be clutter free. What about all those supplies that you need to have all the time? To be sure you don’t run out, check your stash once a week (or once every two weeks) to make sure you have all you need and can restock if you don’t.

As with any maintenance routine, keep it simple. The more complex the steps, the more difficult it will be to maintain. Don’t wait until you get your car detailed to focus on keeping it clean and orderly. Do a little bit each week and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much easier it is to keep everything in its place.

Encouraging young children to clean up their toys

A common topic of discussion among the parents in my son’s playgroup is:

How do we teach our children to put away their toys?

Our children are only one year old, which means we don’t yet have much of a problem, but we’re eager to ensure we don’t have problems later. We want our children to develop life-long skills that help them to be organized and respectful of their things in the future. We might fail miserably — kids have amazing will-power — but here is what we’re trying:

  • Model the behavior. It’s tempting, especially with small children around, to wait until after the kids go to bed to pick up the house. However, children should watch and “help” you clean up so they can start to mimic your actions. Otherwise, they’re under the impression that a magical fairy appears and cleans up the toys, coloring books, and wooden spoons.
  • Explain the process. As you put away toys and project materials, talk through what you’re doing. “I’m putting the lids on these markers so they won’t dry out and you can use them next time you want to color.” “I’m putting these books on the bookshelf because it’s where they belong when you’re not reading them. The bookshelf protects the books from being damaged so you’ll have them the next time you want to read them.” I should admit that this narration is extremely tedious, but I’ve noticed my son incorporating words into his vocabulary like shelf and cap, so I at least know he’s listening.
  • Be positive. Look for ways to make the clean up process as interesting as the play. Put on fun, fast-paced music your child enjoys every time you pick up toys and dance while you work. Make up a cleaning song to sing or play a counting game. Voices shouldn’t be raised and threats shouldn’t be wagered.
  • Give your child time. Clean up for young children shouldn’t be rushed. If the child has an hour to play, budget the last 10 minutes of that playtime to picking up the toys. Let your child know that playing with toys involves taking the time to put them away. This is similar to dinner not being finished until the dishes are cleaned, the table is wiped off, and all of the ingredients returned to the pantry or refrigerator. Playtime includes putting away the toys.
  • Be consistent. This is the hardest part of the teaching process for me — making sure I always leave time for picking up toys. If we’re in a rush to get out the door to run an errand, it’s difficult to pause and make sure the toy is returned to it’s storage place before we leave the house. The consistency and repetitive action, however, are what instill the positive behavior. If a child doesn’t know there is the option to leave his toys strewn about the room, he won’t make that decision. (Well, at least in theory.)

Versions of this can be used with older children. When I was teaching high school, I’d let the students know when they had three minutes left in the period so they could gather up their materials and be ready to leave when the bell sounded. When the students were working in groups, I’d have them race to see which group could clean up their workstation the quickest. I’d award imaginary points to students when they found something of mine left in the classroom: “5,000 points to Gryffindor!” But, I never gave real rewards (no points, no gold stars, no treats), since I believe that cleaning up is a sign of respecting materials the school provided and an expected behavior of all the students.

What techniques have you used with your children or students to encourage them to pick up their toys? Share your tips in the comments.

Ask Unclutterer: Trash or treasure old stuffed animals?

Reader Kay submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’m trying to figure out what to do about all my old plush toys stored in *mumble mumble* cardboard boxes in the *mumble mumble* basement. I know the Unclutterer idea of taking pictures of sentimental objects before taking the next step; what I don’t know is what the next step should *be*. I doubt that Goodwill wants them; I don’t want to pass them on to young relatives — I’m not convinced they’re still healthy. Is there another option I’m overlooking?

You can have them steam cleaned, which will kill viruses, mold, dust mites, and other creepy crawlies. If you know someone who works in a hotel, the enormous steamers they have there will definitely do the trick. Otherwise, check with your local dry cleaners, who may have one in their facilities. They’re giant machines, a lot like dryers, that blast the contents with heated steam while tumbling things around to make sure all surfaces are affected.

Once this is done, you could pass them along to your young relatives without worry.

However, if these are elderly stuffed animals, they may not survive the cleaning process. For the more delicate ones, the trash may be your best option.

Actually, unless your young relatives are clamoring to take the stuffed animals off your hands, I suggest throwing all of them in the trash. Even though you once loved them, there is no guarantee your nieces and nephews will enjoy playing with a worn-out toy. So instead of dealing with your clutter, you’ll just be passing the responsibility of getting rid of it along to someone else.

Peter Walsh, in his book It’s All Too Much, makes a point about donating worn-out clothing to charity that applies equally to your stuffed-animal situation:

Goodwill receives a billion pounds of clothing every year. Ultimately, they use less than half of the clothes they get. Clothing is cheap, and the cost of sorting, cleaning, storing, and transporting the clothes is higher than their value. If you wouldn’t give an article to a family member, it’s probably not good enough for charity. Sure, it’s great to get the tax deduction and it makes you feel like you didn’t waste money buying the clothes, but if you’re truly charitable, be sensitive to the needs of the organization. Charities aren’t dumping grounds for your trash.

If throwing them in the trash brings you to tears, contact a local professional puppet group. Maybe they could reuse the pelts? However, I think this is one of those situations where these items belong in the trash.

Thank you, Kay, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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