...because home doesn't happen overnight.
01.26.16 / Living With Toys

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If you have kids then you have kid stuff. Chances are you’re constantly trying to strike a balance between their stuff and your sanity. I’m a tidy person by nature. Clutter – whether messy or overly decorated – makes me a little twitchy. I live, work and sleep better in uncluttered spaces. With three kids, it’s challenging but not impossible. When people visit our home virtually or in real life, they want to know where all the toys are. I thought I’d share a behind-the-scenes look at the kid stuff in our home along with my thoughts on toys. I snapped some pics last week when the kids were at school and the house was tidy, but they are not styled shots. This is what our home looks like when everything is in its place…and the kids aren’t around ;)

Honestly, it would make my life so much easier if people would just stop giving my kids stuff (no more stickers at the grocery store! no more party favors! no more things just because the calendar says it’s a holiday and the stores say buy something to celebrate!) but that’s not my decision to make. Preserving my sanity is my decision though. Here’s how I do it…

Less is more. Honestly, we don’t have many toys to begin with and what we do have is mostly corralled out of plain sight in a bin or basket. But it’s here! We don’t have a ton of room for toys but even if we had more space it’s likely we wouldn’t fill it with toys. As a parent, I don’t believe it’s my job to buy all. the. toys. We maybe buy each kid 2-3 toys annually and that includes birthdays and holidays. There are no impulse buys at Target or the grocery store and the kids know it. If they ask for a toy at the store my response is, “Sorry, that’s not on our list today. Why don’t you put it on your wish list?”

I don’t think my kids need a bunch of toys to keep them entertained. In fact, they focus better with fewer toys. When they tell me they’re bored my response is, “That’s your fault, not mine.” I usually follow up with a verbal list of things they could do. The next few minutes are sometimes dicey as they whine, but eventually they always find something to do.

Having minimal toys keeps our house mostly clutter-free, saves us money and makes it easier to pick up at the end of each day.

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Quality > quantity. We would rather own a few quality toys that can be used long-term, passed on to siblings or other relatives or even sold, than a slew of meh stuff. Think wood > plastic, non-themed > themed and gender neutral. Hape is one of my favorite toy brands.

I think the biggest misconception is that buying quality toys equates to spending more money. But it’s quite the opposite. Sure, one single quality toy might cost more than one single plastic toy, but if that quality toy is the only toy you buy for 6-12 months, you aren’t spending as much in the long run. The grandparents are slowly catching on to this as well. They like knowing a toy they gifted made it past the one month mark unscathed.

Inevitably, toys will be seen and strewn about the house but they look less obnoxious when they aren’t all primary-colored plastic.

Toys are stored within reach and in areas where they are used most. Making toys accessible encourages independence. My height isn’t required to pull something down from a shelf or to put it back later.

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Three baskets on a low shelf in our living room hold a train set, Perplexus mazes and kitchen/grocery toys.

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Mabrey’s play kitchen sits out in the open because she likes to pretend she’s serving people in the living room.

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The fridge was a Santa gift after Mabrey requested it several times over the past year. I, um, I mean those nice elves used leftover paint, wood putty and two new handles to tweak it to match the sink cabinet. The mini ice dispenser drops wooden “ice cubes” and is Mabrey’s favorite feature.

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Board games are kept in one of the fauxdenza cabinets near the dining table where family game nights take place.

Give grandparents specific gift ideas. I think we can all agree that grandparents mean well, but their gifting can be excessive at times. Over the years, Steve’s parents and my parents have realized that we really don’t want a bunch of toys in the house. They’ve gradually cut back on buying toys which we’re extremely happy about, but when they insist on getting something, we’ve learned that it helps to be specific. Instead of saying general things like, “Mabrey likes playing grocery store” and ending up with all kinds of toy grocery paraphernalia, we specifically tell them we think she would really enjoy a cash register and, per their request, send a quick email containing a link to a specific item. That’s exactly how this wooden toy register came to be hers. She loves it!

Experience-based gifts, please! If given a choice, most of the time our kids will choose a fun activity over a thing. For their birthdays, we’ll often ask if they want that toy or if they would like to choose dining out, watching a movie, going to an indoor trampoline park, playing laser tag, visiting a museum, etc. If they do choose a thing, we encourage them to think about how they will use it and for how long.

Recently, Layne asked for a mandolin and Everett asked for a scooter to replace his wrecked one. While these are things, they provide experiences and learning opportunities that the kids will remember for years to come. At least, that’s my hope.

We also give experience-based gift ideas to family when asked. Over the last year, grandparents have gifted our kids tennis lessons, a trampoline, gymnastics classes, movie tickets, online music lessons (seriously, the best gift ever – no driving involved!), ballet classes, these awesome electronic snap circuits (the kids LOVE them) and tickets to see The Art of the Brick. My sister gave Layne airline tickets to visit her in Washington DC as a combo Christmas/birthday gift. He goes in a few weeks and is stoked. (I’ll probably be a hot mess watching his plane take off.) These gifts are so appreciated! The best part is that family members are able to experience the gifts with the kids if they want, watching them play an instrument or master a plié and greeting them after their first solo plane ride.

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Layne’s mandolin bag hangs on a hook in his bedroom closet (along with a Swoop bag full of Legos). He practices in his room so it makes sense to keep it in there.

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All the books! One area where we’re a little more lenient on quantity is books. My kids love to read and I want to fuel that fire as much as possible. We visit our local library almost weekly and the kids have many books of their own, too. I will periodically buy them books throughout the year. They read and reread them and share them with each other. I recently had to replace our eleven-year-old copy of Goodnight Moon because it had literally fallen apart and was illegible.

Get creative. We always have markers, crayons, pencils, watercolor paints and paper on hand to feed their creativity. Everett is in his happy place when he’s drawing. (In fact, I’ll often encourage him to draw when he’s having meltdowns. It helps him calm down.) Layne is on an origami kick so we have origami paper and a few origami books. He’ll also watch origami tutorial videos on You Tube for ideas. All these supplies are kept in cabinets in the office area of the kitchen so the kids can spread out on the island and make creative messes.

Frequent purging. Besides not bringing many toys into our home, we’re also adamant about getting rid of things that are broken or unused or things the kids have simply outgrown or lost interest in. I keep a laundry basket in Mabrey’s closet just for these items. As we go about normal daily life, we toss said items (toys and clothing) in the basket. Oh, look, there’s a hole in this shirt. Put it in the basket. Hey, this costume is way too small for you. Put it in the basket. This car is missing three wheels. Put it in the basket. When’s the last time you played with this? Put it in the basket. You get the idea…put it in the basket!

When the basket is full, I sort the items and deal with them accordingly. Items to be donated are put in the car right away so I have no excuse for not dropping them off the next time I pass Goodwill. (Also, the kids can’t suddenly decide they need that toy they haven’t played with in months.) Currently, I have three bags of kid stuff in the back of my car waiting to be donated. This is an ongoing process that will continue as long as my kids keep acquiring stuff. I find this method to be more efficient than big purges that consume an entire day or weekend, although I do make an effort to do a quick toy inventory check just before the holidays to make room for new stuff.

How do you keep toys in check at your house? Do you have any good non-toy gift ideas for kids? How do you handle overzealous grandparents?

P.S. – A dollhouse for Mabrey. Some toy favorites.

images: Dana Miller for House*Tweaking

121 Comments

28.January.2016

I think every parent struggles with the clutter and toys that come along with kids. I have three kids and one thing that I did for each of my kids before they were 6 months old was set up a 529 college saving plan for them. When you set it up, you can get donation slips or an online link to donate. Both my parents and my in-laws donate to my kids accounts on their birthday and Christmas, then maybe will get them a small book, puzzle or craft to unwrap. Although my kids are 9, 7 and 4 they already have a good chunk of change saved for college. My 9 year old is starting to understand this more and more and when he was little he never knew the difference of having 1 present to unwrap vs 15. Bonus for the grandparents (and us) is that in our state we can deduct the amount of our contribution on our state taxes. Believe me, when my kids are 18 they will be a lot happier having money for college than they will regret not getting a lifesize Lightning McQueen when they were 5!!!

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replied on February 1st, 2016

Awesome idea! Thanks for sharing.

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28.January.2016

I love your philosophy on toys and boredom and experiences. I don’t have kids yet, but with nieces and nephews who already have more toys than they can ever play with, I try to get an activity that we can all do and experience together to create a memory. So much better and more fun.

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28.January.2016

Just. Love. This. Post..

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28.January.2016

I completely agree! When kids have too much stuff they feel overwhelmed, are unable to develop focus, and play in less creative, imaginative ways. Have you read “Simplicity Parenting” and “The Soul of Discipline” by Kim John Payne? The books tout a similar approach, and provide real world advice for dealing with common parenting issues. Highly recommend!

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replied on February 1st, 2016

Awesome! More books to add to my wish list…

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28.January.2016

I’ve been wanting to ask. What will your plan be as the kids get older for a sort of hang out spot with friends. Generally a basement or family room? Curious for myself as I look at new homes. Thanks!

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replied on February 1st, 2016

Honestly, we haven’t really thought that far. Our goal was to buy this house, fix it up, pay off the mortgage and see what happens next. We’re in the “seeing what happens next” phase! We’ve never envisioned this house as our forever home. With long winters and growing kids, I do think we could benefit from a separate flex room of sorts that would serve as a hangout / guest room.

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28.January.2016

I also was going to inquire about your gorgeous beach print. Do you have the name of the etsy shop you purchased it from?

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replied on February 1st, 2016

I bought it from this shop but it looks like it’s currently empty.

https://www.etsy.com/shop/DarjeelingUnlimited

Maybe you can contact the shop owner?

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29.January.2016

This post actually made me sad. I’m an older mama. With my first set of children, I was the same way. No plastic toys, hiding-all-the-ugly-in-baskets kind of mom. No character clothes, character backpacks, or light-up shoes. Totally a minimalist and purging “treasures” when my kids were out of sight. It was utterly pretentious and ridiculous of me. I was a joy thief. With my second set of kids I lightened up a bit. I let some things go. I still bought cute wooden toys, but decided the wild plastic toys from grandparents made not only the kids happy, but the grandparents as well. Why take that joy from them? And now I’m on my third set of kids, almost 20 years later. Almost anything goes, provided it’s safe and not morally objectionable. My third set of kids are my happiest yet, and I am enjoying them far more than I ever thought possible. Loosen up, friends! Life is very short. Childhood is even shorter. Enjoy it!

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replied on February 1st, 2016

My kids actually have some plastic toys (look closely in the pics and you will spy them) and some character toys…but I’ve never been the one who buys them. I hide even good-looking toys in baskets just because we all function better with less clutter. My kids have also donned character clothing and light-up shoes. Typically, I don’t pick out their clothing. Most are hand-me-downs or things I’ve bought that they like and keep them comfortable. I’m not into styling my kids’ wardrobes because they don’t enjoy that kind of thing and I can’t see spending the money on something they’ll never wear unless I force them.

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29.January.2016

Dana, thanks for this post!
We live in a apartment and have less space than you. My son is just 2, but it is becoming a challenge to make room for his toys and books in his 10 m2 room (with no closet). I really hate toys in the living room after bedtime.
With baby number 2 on the way and our need to keep the 3rd bedroom as guest room (no family in the city) things will get much worse. I certainly share your toy/gift thoughts, but have to put it more in practice and I certainly need a better storage system.

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29.January.2016

Hi Dana, thanks for a great post. My husband and I have a 13 month old daughter and from the start we have said no to branded anything, she was gifted a Minnie Mouse toy by family and that is all she currently has. The Hape toys are great and she has a lot of wooden toys, some of which belonged to her older cousin and have been passed down. I have only bought her 6 toys so far , books are a different story, she got three just today. The idea of giving an experience instead of a toy is fantastic and I can’t wait to implement that idea. I have fortunately been able to convince my family and close friends that she doesn’t need more stuff. So far it is going fairly well.

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[…] Overload? I bet you do…  And, I don’t have kids but I found this article on life with toys interesting. I think it can apply to adults too, and “junk” that always accumulates in […]

01.February.2016

Great tips! We’ve never even purchased our daughter toys because of all of the birthday and Christmas gifts she’s received. Luckily, my parents are extremely receptive to requests for specific large item gifts and yearly passes to the zoo.

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01.February.2016

Fantastic post! Less is more. We try and keep the toys to a minimum. If they’re not playing with the toys we have a separate hall closet for storage. A lot of good tips here for parents. Thanks so much. :)

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02.February.2016

Hi, thanks for this generally very helpful post and for your voice of experience. In an otherwise super calm and compassionate post, it was surprising to see such a harsh word as “fault” for kids’ boredom… maybe there’s a different word like “responsibility” or “opportunity” that doesn’t hold such a sharp edge of blame and indictment? Yeah, I know concern trolling about your own business of parenting from a stranger on the internet is a lame thing, but I was moved to write, because that word “fault” came as such a harsh thing in such a thoughtful essay–like a splinter from a nice old table–and language matters so much as we all figure this stuff out.

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02.February.2016

I saw this article and thought you might like reading it for the stats. You’ve inspired me to believe less is more…that and I don’t enjoy cleaning up after everything we own. :)

http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/15-stats-show-americans-are-drowning-stuff

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replied on February 3rd, 2016

Whoa. That’s an eye-opener, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing!

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03.February.2016

Dana, thank you so much for this! My twin boys are hitting 18 months and I’ve broken all the rules I told myself. (I hate plastic toys, but it’s hard to justify buying a nice wooden one – expensive – when I’m getting a free plastic kitchen as a nice hand me down. So there you go). I think you’re right – my kids play with only a few toys a day, and mostly they just want their books. I love how you got creative and repainted your daughter’s dollhouse. I love your ideas and will take them and run with them in my own home!

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08.February.2016

We also don’t have *tons* of toys, however, my girls (twins age 4) LOVE doing art projects and cutting up paper is their favorite past time. I want to be able to let them be creative, but all the paper everywhere drives me mad! Any tips??
(As I’m typing this they are sprawled in the hallway cutting and coloring and creating a huge mess) :)

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09.February.2016

Curious where the rug in your daughters room came from. I scanned the comments to see if anyone else asked but didn’t see anything. Thank you.

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replied on February 10th, 2016

All sources can be found under the room tours in the “see my house” tab on the sidebar. The rug is from West Elm!

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23.February.2016

Where are the wood wall hooks in the nursery from?

Thanks,

Anne

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replied on February 24th, 2016

The dot hooks are from CB2.

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17.March.2016

You toy storage solutions are awesome! May I ask where you purchased the shelving unit in the first photo? I need to do something like that in my living room, but have yet to find the perfect shelving solution. Thanks so much!

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replied on March 17th, 2016

The shelves were a DIY. You can read more about them here…

http://www.housetweaking.com/2013/08/01/library-day/

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