...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

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If you live somewhere that experiences colder weather or dry air, chances are you know first-hand the detriments of low humidity: itchy skin, chapped lips, cracked knuckles, staticky clothes, bloody noses, parched throats, increased vulnerability to respiratory illnesses, etc. Here in Ohio, humidifiers are almost a necessity during the winter months.

In our previous home, we installed a whole house humidifier right onto the upflow furnace unit in the basement to combat dry air. Our current house sits on a slab with a downflow furnace blowing heated air through ductwork that runs through the slab. (There’s no crawl space or basement.) Installing whole house humidifiers onto downflow furnaces isn’t impossible, but our current setup won’t facilitate it. There’s just not enough room. Additionally, we often use the gas fireplace in the living room to heat the house during the day which keeps the furnace from kicking on so, even if installation wasn’t tricky, a whole house humidifier still might not be the best choice for us.

We lived through our first winter in this house sans humidifier and we felt it. Someone was always sick. We all had cracked knuckles. I experienced nosebleeds. There was so much static we were afraid to touch each other and folding laundry was almost painful. The following winter I purchased a standalone humidifier and we’ve been using it during colder months ever since. It makes such a difference!

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After doing some research, I bought a Honeywell cool moisture console unit. (If there’s one thing I learned in pharmacy school, it’s that you should always use a cool mist humidifier. Warm units are breeding grounds for bacteria.) This is the third year we’ve used it and we’re extremely happy with it. It has a small footprint (~20″ x 12″) and can provide moisture for up to 1,900 square feet making it ideal for our 1,600-square-foot home.

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The humidifier must be placed on a flat, hard, water-resistant surface at least 6″ from any wall. I place it on the tile floor in the Everything Room. (You can add Humidifier Room to the running list of purposes that room serves.) It plugs in to an outlet hidden within the fauxdenza.

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The unit is relatively quiet. You can hear it running from the living room but it’s definitely not loud enough to disrupt conversation or TV watching. Every once in a while we hear a little glug-glug as water is released into the base but even that is miniscule. It doesn’t rattle or vibrate. I keep the fan speed on low and the humidity level somewhere between the two lowest settings depending on the day. Once the dials are set, the unit automatically turns on/off as needed to maintain the desired humidity level. It shuts off when the water tanks are empty. In contrast to traditional humidifiers, this unit is evaporative meaning you don’t see a visible mist or get water droplets on surrounding surfaces.

Standalone units do require some attention. The water tanks must be refilled periodically with tap water. Typically, I refill the tanks 1-3 times per week during the winter but, right now with outside temps barely in the double digits, I’m refilling the tanks every 1-2 days. The tanks and base must be cleaned regularly as well. I use the ProTec tank cleaning cartridges to extend the time between cleanings. I usually clean the unit at the beginning of the winter before the first use, once or twice during the winter and once at the end of winter. I flip the filter with every other water refill and replace it annually. When not in use, I keep the humidifier in its original box up in the attic.

I brought the humidifier down from the attic last week and set it up. Right away, I noticed a difference – not only in my skin (no more chapping and cracking!) and eyes (no more stinging!) but also in my houseplants. They were looking pretty droopy and sad but perked right up. We’ve also noticed that the humidifier helps prevent extreme shrinkage in our wood floors. Before, a gap would develop at the entrance to our bedroom (probably due to the leak we don’t speak of) in the winter, but it’s been nonexistent ever since we starting using the humidifier.

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Low humidity negatively affects so many things: people, pets, plants, wood floors and even furniture. If you’re looking for a small, effective standalone whole house humidifier that is easy to operate and maintain, I would recommend this one! (not sponsored, just sharing what has worked for us) I tried explaining the basics above, but the manual is easy to follow and gives more details on proper setup, maintenance, operation and storage.

Do you use a whole house humidifier? What about a hygrometer to monitor indoor humidity levels? Maybe it’s not necessary for your location or method of heating. I can remember my dad placing a pan of water on top of the wood stove in the house I grew up in to increase humidity. I’ve always wondered if homeowners with steam radiators or radiant floor heating need humidifiers. Anyone?

P.S. – Our biggest renovation regret. My winter essentials.

images: Dana Miller for House*Tweaking

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I’m often asked about the swing arm wall sconces flanking our bed. Are they adjustable? Are they hardwired? At what height are they mounted? How do you power them on/off? What types of bulbs do you use? This is my attempt to address those questions but I should give you fair warning: There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Different people have different needs when it comes to bedside lighting. You should choose what works for your lifestyle, but maybe the information below will give you a gauge if you’re considering bedside sconces.

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We have a pair of the House of Troy Addison swing arm lamps in antique brass. The sconce is adjustable horizontally, not vertically. The arm is hinged and the brass shade rotates. It is a little stiff to move but holds positions well. Typically, we don’t adjust the sconces. We purposefully mounted them so that they were in functional positions from the start.

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The sconces are not hardwired. They plug in to an outlet behind the headboard. Each sconce came with a matching 30″ brass cord cover which we used in the space between the top of the nightstand and the backplate. If you like the clean look of a hardwired sconce but for whatever reason aren’t able to install one, a plug-in design with a quality cord cover is a great option.

Before mounting the lights, I searched for hard and fast rules regarding the recommended height of bedside wall sconces. What I found were general guidelines. The most practical tip I came across (and ultimately used) was to get into bed in my regular reading position then measure from the floor to a few inches above my shoulder. The measurement is a rough estimate of how high the bottom of the shade should be positioned.

Of course, this measurement is influenced by numerous factors: the height of the bed, an individual’s height, preferred reading position, the needs of sleeping partners, etc. Our bed is relatively low. It’s 24″ from the floor to the top of the mattress. I’m relatively short. I’m 5’4″ with shoes on, on a good day. I prefer to read in a reclining position with my knees up, not sitting straight yet not lying flat. Steve isn’t much of a bedtime reader and, on the rare occasion he does read in bed, he usually lies flat with only his head propped on a pillow. That’s why our sconces are mounted mostly to my specifications. (If you have a shorter/taller sleeping partner, you may need to compromise on the height of bedside lighting or consider a sconce that adjusts vertically as well as horizontally. Obviously, you don’t want to mount one sconce higher than the other.)

When I stepped back and eyeballed the lamps at the height just above my shoulder, they felt too low. (Probably because our bed is low and I’m short.) In the end, I decided to mount the bottom of the shade 50″ from the floor, roughly 8″- 10″ above my shoulder when reading in bed. This height is consistent with another tip I came across which was to mount the shade ~24″ from the top of the nightstand. The distance between our nightstands and sconces is 26″.

Personally, I like the look and function of sconces mounted off to the side rather than directly above a headboard. (Additionally, the placement of a window above our bed wouldn’t allow for sconces mounted above the headboard.) For swing arm lamps, I like the shades to overlap the width of the headboard just a little for a layered effect. The distance between the cord cover and the edge of our headboard is 8″.

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There is a small rotary switch at the shade to turn the light on/off. It’s easily reached from bed so there’s no need to walk across the room half-asleep to flip a switch. Initially, I put a 60 watt incandescent bulb in each lamp. Steve was always complaining the bulbs were too bright. I tried a small book light but it didn’t pass the Prince and the Bulb test either. Steve bought me an e-reader for my birthday to try to resolve the problem (and because I asked for one). It works great for most books but I can’t completely quit real books and glossies.

Recently, the kind folks at Ace Hardware offered to send me LED replacements for the sconces. I was put in touch with one of their lighting experts to determine which bulbs would be the best fit for our needs. I learned so much about LEDs! For instance, when it comes to LED bulbs “lumens” refers to brightness. 800 lumens is comparable to a traditional 60 watt bulb. Also, different LED bulbs give off different temperatures of white light. “Soft white” bulbs give off warm and cozy light while “daylight” bulbs have a cooler tone. For LEDs, the higher the Kelvin (K) temperature, the cooler the light. Bulbs <3000K are considered “soft white”; bulbs >4600K are considered “daylight.”

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When it came to choosing LED bulbs for the sconces, I knew I wanted them to be comparable to 40-60 watts of incandescent light. Since the sconces are in our bedroom, I wanted a soft, warm light as opposed to a cool light. A 500 lumens 3000K LED bulb ended up being the sweet spot for our bedside lighting needs. (All images in this post except the one above labeled ‘incandescent’ show the light given off by the new LED bulbs at dusk on an overcast day.)

I can’t get over the difference. The LED light is pure yet warm and cozy at the same time. It’s the best of both worlds. The incandescent reads orange and dirty in comparison. The LED bulbs better portray the true colors of the walls and textiles in our north-facing bedroom. Steve still says my reading light is too bright when he’s trying to sleep. At this point, I think he would say any light was too bright. So I ordered a manly sleep mask for him ;) These are the little secrets to happy marriages, folks!

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Truthfully, I have been slow to jump on the LED bandwagon. We installed LED over- and under-cabinet lighting in our kitchen and, at the time, it was an expensive extra. However, after realizing how much we use it and how much it affects our everyday living, it’s been a worthy investment. We use the cabinet lighting as ambient lighting during early mornings and late evenings. By day, we let natural light from windows, french doors and skylights do its thing. By night, we mostly rely on ambient light for a soft glow. Steve and I are both strongly averse to harsh, blue lighting. I swear, we’re part vampire.

A few weeks prior to collaborating with Ace Hardware, the incandescent above our kitchen sink burned out and I hastily grabbed an LED replacement at a local grocery store. I didn’t pay attention to the specs (size, lumens, Kelvin, etc.) and, as a result, the bulb is way too bulky, bright and cold for my taste. And I’m stuck with it for at least the next 15 years! Bummer. But now that I’m familiar with the LED lingo, I’m looking forward to switching out our remaining incandescents with soft white LEDs as they burn out.

Do you have any tips for mounting bedside sconces? Do you and your spouse have different bedtime lighting needs? Have you figured out which LED bulbs suit your home best? I inadvertently came across these easy plug-in LED dimmers that allow dimmable LED bulbs to be dimmed when/where hardwired dimmer switches aren’t possible. Pretty cool!

*This post sponsored in part by Ace Hardware. Thank you for supporting the brands that support this blog.

images: Dana Miller for House*Tweaking