The Toy Dilemma: Living With Little Kids (and their toys)


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So I’m reading on the GHF Facebook page and they posted this image:

from the Fowl Language comic by Brian Gordon.  (note: go read if you have a few minutes – hilarious!)

It got me thinking about our toys and how we handle the whole first-world problem of too much stuff.   Even though our house is pretty spartan (as much as it can be with kids in it) my husband swears it’s wall-to-wall toys.  It’s really not that bad because we have three kids at different developmental levels, plus we have “school toys.”  Everything has a place, but it certainly doesn’t look like those home organizing tips that interior designers come up with.

Anyway, this post is about handling the little kid toy mess: our best picks, our storage ideas, and tips for downsizing.

Top 5 Toy Picks:

1. Lots of Empty space.

Best toy ever!  Why? Because the kids need room to run, to dance, to build things.  You can’t do any of that without empty space on the floor, the table, or even the walls.  Our family doesn’t have a “no running in the house” rule because they need to get their energy out.  That means decor sacrifices on our part: you can’t leave breakable things like vases or lamps out if the kids are going to run.  You can’t have slippery rugs on the floor if the kids might crash because of them.  You can’t have a kid death trap: a coffee table.  Hence the spartan look.  Not bare.  Not empty.  Just, not cluttered.

2. Hotwheels and Matchbox cars. 

I have never met a kid who didn’t like zooming a car around.  They’re not gender specific, they’re open to all ages (well, not babies, but the Destroyer can’t resist them.)  Best of all, they’re cheap.  Dirt cheap.  And they’re just as fun as more expensive things.  Cheap means we have whole boxes of the things because we tell distant relatives Hotwheels are always a great choice if they can’t think of something else for holidays.  We take them everywhere.  They’re in the car, they go to playgrounds (zooming down the slides) and grocery stores.  They’re little talismans against boredom.

We even use them for school.  Sorting by colors or by types.  Driving on letters.  Designing roads, bridges, and parking lots for them.  Counting them and doing “real world” math: the parking lot has 5 cars in it and 1 drives away.  How many are left?

3. Wooden train track and trains.  

All of the kids love these.  They build long, crazy tracks that go around the living room, under the dining room table, and split into bewildering cross-sections that meander all over the place.  Yes, they’re expensive.  Especially if you fall into the trap of Thomas the Tank Engine’s super extended family.  Most of ours came from consignment sales where we find bundles of used track, but we started our collection at Ikea.  Their wooden train track fits other standard track and is usually about half the price.  Add in a few specialty pieces from Brio (sold individually on Amazon) and you too can have train track all over the floor!  Ikea also has trains, but a lot of our trains came from the $3 bin in Target; usually right there with the pricy Thomas trains.

4. Legos

I couldn’t write a post on toys without adding Legos/Duplos.  The classic building blocks are perfect for open creative play, and the sets are great for practicing following directions.  We have a special  basket full of Lego sandwich bags: whenever we get one of the small Lego sets we put the instructions and the parts in the bag.  When the Engineer feels like doing Legos, he’ll go grab a set and a craft tray and sit at the kitchen table putting it together independently.  He knows if he doesn’t put everything back in the bag when he’s done, he won’t have all the parts needed for next time.  It teaches responsibility in a subtle way.

5. Marble Tracks

We started with the basic versions you see at Toys R Us, but now we’re headed into the full collection of tracks with motorized lifts and rollercoaster versions.  We have several versions, but for now we’re sticking with the Quercetti skyrail tracks.  Endless configurations, building options, and lots of fun with marbles.  The Engineer loves watching the YouTube videos people have posted of marble runs that go through their entire house: his favorite is the one that ends in the pool.  Marble tracks are good engineering practice for him.


Top 5 Storage Solutions:

Moving on: how do  you store all this crap with all the small, teeny parts?  There are a lot of different ideas and suggestions, and our choices reflect the presence of a baby in the house.  While boxes with locking handles don’t keep the Destroyer out, they at least slow him down enough for me to catch him.  In a nutshell – we have a lot of boxes and bins.

1. A Cubby Organizer

I know it’s cliché, but we have a cubby bookshelf.  One from Ikea called Nornas – unfinished pine that I painted.  Each kid has a cubby of their own, and we added a few wine bottle holders in spots to hold oddly shaped toys.  The cubby also has a costume box, a hotwheels track box, and a junk box where all the fast food kids meal toys live.


2. Milk Crates

We also have sturdy but unlovely plastic milk crate replicas.  We tried different bins and boxes but only the milk crates stood up to the heavier items like wooden train track or Duplos.  They may not look pretty but they can hold the toys, stack as high as we need them, and they have handles for easier carrying.  Works for us.


3. Bookshelves

School things are in a different spot in our school bookshelves.  At first I set up the school area as a storage area for me, but as I posted in a different article, we’ve changed things up so that the kids can get to anything they want.   This means that item locations are fluid and it’s generally rather messy looking.  That’s ok – it’s more important that the kids can get the learning tools that they need.


4. Drawer Dividers

Anything small and annoying I tend to shove in some sort of container with divided portions.  Ikea has some good children’s options, and I’ve found quite a few drawer divider things that work well too.  Lunchmeat Gladwear-type containers also work well for things like marbles that I don’t want rolling all over the house.


5. Craft Trays

While not exactly a storage option, these have helped us keep things off the floor and contained.  The kids know craft trays are required if they want to pull things like Legos or popbeads out, and they will often ask for a tray if they want to scoot things around without them falling off the table.  We love our craft trays from Lakeshore Learning Store, but I’ve seen similar ones in the kids craft section at Michael’s craft store.   A set of baking trays works fairly well too.


Getting rid of them:

This is the dilemma.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a gift or they begged and pleaded for it, eventually they’ll stop playing with it.  What do you do then?  Store it? Rotate toys? Give it away?  Sometimes all of the above!  It’s the nature of kids to want bigger, better, newer, cooler stuff.  Short attention span and all that.  Given that fact, I’ve come up with some strategies that help us manage the toys with the least amount of fuss.

1. Rotate toys

Kids get bored easily.  But, if you pull something out of storage to give it away they’ll protest because it’s “new” to them again.  To solve this dilemma I started rotating toys out of the closet every few months.  We’ll fill a milk crate with things they’re tired of playing with and I’ll swap it out with one in the closet.  Things seem new: kids are happy.  If something is consistently being ignored, I’ll consider doing the next strategy.

2. Get rid of it

In our area, thrift stores don’t want toys.  They feel that selling used toys skirts the lead laws too closely, so it’s better to just avoid it altogether.  I can’t find a local charity that takes used toys either, so the “give toys to needy kids” idea doesn’t work for us.  Needy kids apparently only want new toys, and I don’t blame them.  So I found another option: consignment sales.  Every few months when I’m gearing up for a consignment sale, the kids will help me sort toys and pick out ones they don’t want anymore (must be good quality.)  They know that I will not buy any toys at the sale for them unless we get rid of the dreck.

Focusing on what we really love has been a great life lesson for the kids.  We don’t need five different types of building blocks when one will do.  Even if the other four were gifts from someone and very fun to play with, we just don’t need them.   Pick the best and ditch the rest.

3. Don’t buy it in the first place

Exercise your editing muscle.  Pare down the Christmas list, restrain eager grandparents from going crazy, and put a limit on the holiday spending.  Kids don’t want a ton of gifts (well, most of them) and by limiting things to what they’ll really enjoy, you can help reign the greed monster in.  I know it’s hard when you really want to make your kid happy and you’ve saved for X amount of months for this, but ask yourself: will they play with it in 6 months?  If no, then don’t buy it.  Or find a used one.  It’s not worth it.

4. Store it for the next kid (or grandkids)

If you have multiple kids, this may be a valid option.  Some things that the Engineer loves the Princess isn’t really interested in.  The Destroyer is, so I may box it up, slide it under the bed, and wait until he’s older.  I don’t want to get rid of things that he’s interested in.  It seems like a stretch, but ask yourself if you want your grandkids to play with this toy.  Most of the disposable toys we have these days won’t last that long.  Things like Legos, train tracks, and so on probably will.  It might be worth keeping.

The Engineer was astounded by the set of Legos that I wrangled from my mom.  He couldn’t believe that I played with them when I was his age, and he thought it was wonderful that grandma kept them that long.

5. Donate it

This one is easy but I probably should add it anyway.  If charities won’t take your toys, try giving them to places like doctor’s offices or church nurseries.  Often these places need or should have toys for kids, but buying new ones is way too expensive.  Places like this go through toys fairly quickly and your donation helps offset their costs.  And if you’re thinking “doctor’s offices?  They can buy it themselves!” consider people like me, who live in dread of the grimy, damaged toys in doctor’s offices being tossed in the trash.  Sometimes they’re the only things that gets us through our visit because of the “new and interesting” factor.

What about you?  How do you handle getting rid of toys?  What storage ideas have been genius for your family?

Here are a few of our favorite toys:

(links will take you to Amazon)

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