Small Space Solutions: Organize a Toddler’s Toys and Books

Is is possible to live in a small, uncluttered space with kids?

When we knew we were going to be parents, we wondered if we should look for a new home. Did we want to live in an apartment with a kid? The more we considered it, the more we realized we wanted to stay. We still live in the same apartment. Yes it gets messy, but it works.

Our one-bedroom apartment is small, but it’s not extreme. It has a small study with no closet. When Lane was born we turned it into her small bedroom.

Angie asked,
I don’t have children yet. I look around my house which is kept clean most always and has very little “stuff” in it… and I wonder how in the world will I manage having children with toys? Children don’t understand the simplicity of having a few things that you really want. How do you organize their toys, how do you keep them from stacking up, and how do you say NO to them?

I’m definitely not a parenting expert, but I’ve learned that it’s not the kids who need or want a lot of toys. It seems to be the parents or grandparents who lavish too many toys on kids. There’s a joke about how kids enjoy the box or the tissue paper more than the gift, and it’s really true sometimes.

One strategy is choosing toys that are small or things that are already around the house.

  • Sheets of paper or boxes can provide hours of creative play.
  • Crayons and finger puppets don’t take up much space.
  • I shortened the broomstick handle with a saw so Lane could sweep.
  • She uses my paintbrushes to paint with water on the patio.
  • She stands on a chair to wash dishes with me and play in the sink.
  • We turn on music and dance around the living room.

dressing up in high heelsLane loves to play with my things. I fill up a tote bag with little things of mine that she can play with. She dresses up in my clothes and clomps around in my shoes. And when she’s tired of those, I put them back and get something else.

When we’re out shopping, I let her pick up toys and admire them, but when it’s time to go home, she’ll happily put them back on the store shelf. She doesn’t feel the need to bring them home.

Occasionally I go through her toys to see what she’s not playing with. If a toy’s only use is to be tossed on the floor instead of played with, then we donate it. I’m hoping to teach her to do this with me, but it’s too early to tell how it will go.

To make Lane’s room into an open space where she could play, we removed some furniture and placed storage along the wall. Not having all the furniture makes it seem much bigger and more open.

toy organization

Lane hangs her umbrella, bag, hat and coat on hooks. A wood shelf is mounted on brackets two feet above the floor so she can reach everything easily. Baskets hold all of her toys ($10 for all 4 from IKEA). A magnetic board holds her alphabet letters (from IKEA).

rain gutter bookshelf

Her books are on display in a vinyl rain gutter ($12 from a hardware store). Seeing the covers of the books makes it easier to choose one. Not all of the books fit — more are stored in a cabinet, and I rotate them every once in a while.

child bedroom

In the other corner of the room, a flea market sewing cabinet makes a changing table, and the shelf above holds supplies. A duvet cover turns into a curtain with clips. A picture of Humphrey Bogart hangs above the door to the patio. (I don’t know- it’s Doug’s.)

In the dining room is her play kitchen, and I chose a small, wooden one so it would be nice to look at. We also have a small water play table on the patio.

There are days when her toys are all over the apartment. But even if every single toy has been brought into the living room, it only takes 10 minutes to put everything away with her helping me. We just scoop the toys into the baskets and put them back on the shelf.

What will we do when Lane is older? I have no idea, but I bet there are readers who know how to organize and keep their kids’ toys manageable. What do you suggest?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. I really think that you should consider submitting Lane’s “office” to the Unclutterer Flickr pool! This one is my all time fave, although there are a lot of good ones every week:

    She could win the workspace of the week. I’ve never seen a kid win, I think it would be really great.

  2. Rachel, I’ve read this post with so much interest! I have two small children, ages 3 & 2, and this is so helpful, especially your link to the oopmatoys site–fantastic! We’re currently in the process of majorly de-cluttering, and so far, it’s great. The toys are always a struggle, though.

    With the upcoming holiday season, I sent out a “Dear Santa” to help Santa’s elves get a better idea of what we’re looking for in terms of toys. We’re steering clear of battery-operated toys that basically play with themselves.

    We’ve also started talking to our kids about sharing some of their old toys with other children when the new toys come in.

    I really like your idea of only displaying a few books at a time and rotating them. I’ll be sure to edit ours today and place them in a way that our kids can see the covers, like Lane’s.

    Thanks again for all your inspiring ideas!

  3. very sweet
    very organized
    very cute

    she’s a lucky girl

  4. Rachel, is that Lane in the top photo? What a cutie.
    I am loving this series on small homes. We do many crafts in our house, and storing all the supplies has been an issue. I’m always looking for unused spaces that are also out of sight. I found that using clear, over-the-door shoe holders make great holders for other things too. Plus, when the closet door is closed, it’s out of sight. Check it out, perhaps it would help some readers?

    Elizabeth’s last blog post..Wordless Wednesday

  5. As a family of four (the kids are 6 & 7) we live in a 2 bedroom apartment which is under 1000 sq. feet (no outside area). The kids share a room, and bunkbeds were the most logical solution for beds. IKEA is also my friend, and last year I got a large wall unit with slide-out boxes. The kids each have half, and the boxes are assigned to different items (dinosaurs, Barbies, etc.). I only have the boxes in 8 of the 16 spaces, and the rest are used for games, big tubs of legos, etc. We have a bookcase full of books (we’re both teachers) which we go through periodically as it gets too full.

    As they’ve gotten older, some toys have gotten smaller, but some have gotten bigger. We have an art corner with storage drawers, and their outside toys (scooters, bike helmets, etc.) in a laundry basket in my hallway.

    The clutter is constantly a challenge, and as you mentioned, the grandparents continue to feel the need to keep bringing us STUFF. For the last few years the kids have been able to go through the toys with me (we do it before birthdays and Christmas) and donate what they don’t use anymore. The whole thing is definitely an uphill battle, which I seem to be losing!

    It was inspiring to see pictures of your space – very organized and pretty.

    Mother Necessity’s last blog post..Back in the Saddle

  6. Brilliant! I might be copying some of your ideas when I throw together my son’s room. I’ve really been needing inspiration for our small space, and you’ve provided it!

    Your home looks so beautiful and inviting…wow!

    Kacie’s last blog post..Time to renew our car insurance: Ideas for saving the most money

  7. My husband and I decided a long ago that since we pay for the house that we own all that is in it. Our four girls are between the ages of 2 and 7 so we need to have toys available for all of them to play with. Every six months I rotate our toys around and put away toys they don’t seem interested in (but are still good toys) in our storage loft. I throw away toys that are annoying or a pain to play with (always coming apart, etc.) without any guilt at all because every time I purge and rotate the toys, the girls are so excited. Suddenly they can play happily for hours with their “new” toys and I can get a lot of other stuff done. I bought cheap shelves and medium-sized wicker boxes and then organized each type of toys into their own box. Even my 2-year-old can clean up on her own. Actually my husband is the worse at putting things away in the right place and the girls always have to show him “the right way”!

    I love your rain gutter idea for a book shelf. Awesome!

    Sarah’s last blog post..darn the rain

  8. I can see why you and Doug decided to stay in your apartment. Beautiful and elegant.

    I love IKEA. Several years ago we purchased a loft bed for my son. He climbs a ladder to get into bed. I’m 5’2″ and can easily walk around beneath his bed. At 6’2″ my husband doesn’t do as well.

    Having this bed has really opened up his room and given him space to play. Having the extra space was an added bonus when our roommate moved in with us. We were able to relocate the desk with his computer that he uses for games from the spare bedroom.

    Monica’s last blog post..Do You Like to Cook?

  9. I love the book display idea – so much easier for a person to pick out what they want! We don’t have kids yet, but i’m tucking this idea away in my brain for the future……thanks!

    Sarah’s last blog post..garlic cheese twists

  10. I agree- kids do not need a ton of toys to have fun. I have three, ages 7-2 and they have the most fun with MY stuff!
    When I had my first child we lived in a small apartment. We kept her toys on shelves or those wheeled drawer carts which kept things easy to organize (and hide when necessary). A friend of mine thought we were depriving her of ‘enough’ toys because we didn’t have an overflowing toybox. Crazy!
    We have found that minimizing the exposure our kids have to advertising (tv, magazines, sales fliers) makes it much easier to promote a simple lifestyle (this works for mom too).
    Grandparents are the worst offenders it seems. I am almost dreading the onslaught of toys this Christmas. Even though we encourage them not to overdo it, they can’t seem to help it. Any suggestions? They ask for a list so I give them a few suggestions and they get all of it plus more! Whats worse is they seem offended if we ever get rid of anything. I’m thankful for their generosity but what do I do with all the stuff???

  11. I so agree with your point that toys are sometimes more for parents and grandparents. I used to think that I was buying a new toy to make my kids happy. When I realized I was giving them a new toy in hopes that it would occupy them for awhile so I could have a little breather, I stopped. I now know all they really want is my time and they will play with the same toys over and over if I’m playing with them.

    I also love the rain gutter idea – do you think it would work with a plastic planter?

    Alana @ Gray Matters’s last blog post..WFMW: Cheap Wall Art

  12. smallnotebook says:

    In our family, it’s pretty easy to talk to the grandparents and great-grandparents about our limited space. Sometimes we will suggest gift ideas. They know if they give something big, then it will stay at their house for Lane to play with when she comes over to visit.

    Aggie, I also like the wooden Haba play food that you can find at Oompa and other sites. Very cute.

    Alana, I think it should work with a planter box too. The main advantage to a rain gutter is you can cut it to a custom length and then put on the end pieces.

  13. Clutter is a huge issue in our house. We have about 7-800 square feet, 2 adults, 2 kids, 2 cats a dog…
    We do have a shed out behind our house so we store a lot of clothing out there for the season that we aren’t in. We rotate toys which adds “freshness” for the kids.
    Sometimes the grandparents understand that we don’t have space, sometimes they don’t and if there is a gift received that is just too big (uhm or too noisy) it goes to the house of who got it so that the kids can play with it there when they visit.
    And frankly, I am de-cluttering a lot. If it doesn’t have a lot of emotional significance, I have to issue with giving lots of stuff to Goodwill. My daughter who is 4 even looks for stuff and will say “this is too small” or “I don’t use this, let’s take it to Goodwill so someone else can play with it!”

  14. Thank makes a lot of sense. I thought that your daughter’s bed and toys were actually in the living room, which while not impossible or improper, would have been harder to manage. It seems like she essentially does have her own (very well organized) room.

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments about how to minimize the amount of stuff/toys a child has and how it’s the adults that create the problem. I found it so sad that someone even had to email you asking “how do I say no?” Seriously?? This is such a problem in America that adults can’t manage to say “no” to small children. It shouldn’t be difficult, yet so many of us are afraid of conflict, of managing a crying child, or of making our children sad for a short period of time. Children are resilient and can handle being told “no.” Children need to learn limits from their parents. Children need to learn to be happy from sources outside of material goods. Children benefit from the creativity that comes from imaginary play with all sorts of regular household items, art projects, etc. They don’t need fancy, modern, electronic toys. They also don’t need help in developing ADD by having more toys than any child could possibly play with in a day. Adults are the problem as far as children’s stuff goes, and then we pass on our problems to our children! I’m glad that you are teaching your daughter to be creative and content.

  15. smallnotebook says:

    I don’t know, we find it hard to say no too sometimes. Especially when the question is followed by a sweet “pweeeeze?” And Doug is a sucker for cute little girl clothes. But ultimately, it comes down to our own self-discipline. Because Lane follows my example, and I have to be willing to tell her no when it matters. There are still plenty of times that we can say yes!

  16. I bought 2 medium-sized bins with rollers on them at Target. We have a family room / office / piano room & a living room. 1 bin for each room. These bins fit all the smaller toys & I am constantly donating them (somehow they multiply!!!). Easy cleanup & they slide underneath side tables & are out of sight once he’s down for the night.

    Since we have a boy, there are several larger trucks, a big tractor, & a firetruck. I converted an old microwave stand from my husband’s college days & have that in the family room. It acts as a “shelf” to hold the trucks. I also have a small plastic bin for books so there are plenty of books in either room.

    We had a small bookshelf in his room for even more books, but he would constantly just tear them all off the shelf into a heap on the floor. I moved it out of his room & into a corner in the living room, threw a small blanket on the floor in front of it & that’s now become his own little “reading space”. A few times a week, he’ll just plop down there & spend a good hour “fishing” through all his books. It doesn’t bother me that they’re in a heap when he’s done because I know he’s actually browsed through them & didn’t just throw them on the floor & take off!

    I do have a plastic tub in the garage also filled with toys that I was planning on “rotating” every couple of months but I actually think I’m just going to donate all those since he really doesn’t seem to be missing them!!

    We really don’t have indoor space for an art station of any kind, so eventually I hope to get an outdoor cabinet & have that on the covered patio outside. I think I can keep anything wouldn’t melt (like crayons) out there & at least he’d have access to those kinds of things once he’s a bit older.

    Vicki’s last blog post..The wait is over

  17. I’m right there with another poster, Sarah. I love the visual beauty and simplicity of your “bookcase”. I tucked that away for my future use. Thanks for the great post and pictures of your beautiful home!

    Suzanne’s last blog post..Focus Challenge – Month 7

  18. We set up an art station in a corner of our kitchen. Basically, it is four plastic stacking tubs (the kind that are enclosed on three sides, but one is open so you can reach in.) We keep it next to a small plastic table (repurposed from its former life as a patio side table) and a small chair, and stock it with crayons, paper, finger paints/paintbrushes, stickers, play-doh, etc. All the paper goes in one spot, all the paints go in a bag on a shelf with another bag filled with crayons… you get the picture. We also have a small apron that hangs on the side of the stack of tubs. When it’s time for T to work on an art project, he can just slip the apron over his head, pull out the paper and whatever drawing supplies, and go to town.

    Plus it’s great having it in the kitchen because even if he’s not interested in helping with whatever we’re cooking, he’s near us (thus happy and satisfied!) while we’re trying to pull dinner together. And when it’s not in use as an art station, it’s still a great place for him to sit with a snack. He’s three now, and has been using the station for about a year. We love that he can be so self-sufficient with the art supplies!

  19. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your rain gutter book shelf and how you put everything at her level! So super cute!

    SDC’s last blog post..Nothing Makes My Heart Go Squeeze…

  20. I’m all for decluttering. The problem I run into is that my little one has moved 6 times in her 12 years and so she needs somethings that are stable. Her “things” are what makes each new place her home. I didn’t realize this till i got rid of an oversized coffee cup i had in the kitchen and it made her very sad, she missed seeing “big coffee cup”. I really had no idea.

    tabbyintexas’s last blog post..7 Oct 08

  21. Rachel — Lane’s space is wonderful! What a lucky girl. I love how you in no way sacrificed form in order to fulfill function. Everything is simple and lovely and clean. The rain gutter bookshelf? Genius.

  22. smallnotebook says:

    Thanks for the responses everyone, but I can’t take credit for the book shelf. I know I saw the idea somewhere before we used it.

  23. Good deal on the baskets. (We use baskets, but I didn’t get them for such a bargain, darn.)

    As the kids have gotten older, some of the toys in their repertoire have gotten smaller and have bunches of little pieces. We still store them in the roomy baskets like you have, but we keep the pieces grouped in sets with zippered see-through toy bags ( so the baskets don’t become a jumble of loose pieces.

    And wow, regardless off whose idea it was originally, I loooove the bookshelf. Brilliant!

  24. Jessica Lucas says:

    One idea for the ‘grandparent’ problem:
    My mom loves to buy things for my two girls. I suggested that for their birthdays instead of buying new toys she takes them out individually and buys them a couple of articles of clothing that they pick out together. I did this as a child with my grandmother for back to school shopping. We would also go out to lunch. Those trips are my fondest memories of her. The one-on-one time is so much better than a new stuff animal!!!

  25. The raingutter shelf is brilliant! Thanks for another great post.

  26. What an adorable photo of Lane! Great suggestions, I especially love the gutter idea for holding books! We cleared out much of our living room in order to babyproof, and it made the space look so much bigger! I have a few shelves and one big bucket where we put the toys at the end of the day. I have Sweatpea help me put things away so she gets used to the idea of cleaning up after herself (no idea yet if it’s working?)

    Great post, Rachel!

    Steph @ Problem Solvin Mom’s last blog post..Fun fall family activities – say that five times fast!

  27. Wow, Rachel! Some great ideas for you and from the other comments. Thank you all! Being inspired by your soap making series, I have been looking into making some myself. I ran across an idea of using capped guttering as a decorative mold. I guess when I run to the hardware store I’ll have to get extra to make a book rack in “Little Man’s” room. Very clever!

  28. This comment is from Rachel’s mom. Once when I was having a garage sale I asked Rachel and Adam if they wanted to get rid of any of their toys. Of course, no interest. Then I asked them if they wanted to have a toy sale of their own. When they thought about the money they would get they organized their own garage sale on a blanket in the front yard. After their first sale, they took turns going back in the house to look for more things to sell, just like I do when I have a garage sale. They were in elementary school at the time so it was a learning experience for them and they handled it all by themselves. That was the first of several toy sales they had and the following ones were all their idea. I can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure Rachel’s profits went into her bank, while Adam was ready to spend his on some new toys.

    Sarah’s last blog post..The New Me

  29. this message is for JESSICA LUCAS. I LOVE that idea better. Granma is coming around to the idea of more is NOT always better. I’ll be sure to mention the time together meaning more…thanks :0)

    TabbyinTexas’s last blog post..8 Oct 08

  30. My daughter (11) have an agreement. If she can figure out creative ways to keep her stuff off the floor she gets to keep it. So far it’s been a great compromise!

    Org Junkie’s last blog post..Craft goddess I am not

  31. That photo of Lane is just too precious! I LOVE the rain gutter idea.. brilliant!
    I love reading your posts :)

    Dana @ Letters to Elijah’s last blog post..Bored?

  32. This inspires me to get my kids rooms cleaned up. They each have their own room and before moving to where we are now, the toys had their own space in our loft. Back then their bedrooms were their bedrooms with the loft being a toy room (as well as my reading spot, a crafting spot, etc).

    Now their toys have exploded beyond my comfort zone. And my son doesn’t have a dresser. Maybe this weekend is a good time to get their rooms sorted out and get rid of things!

    Tsoniki Crazy Bull’s last blog post..Start of a Great Week

  33. Thanks for the inspiration! It’s encouraging to know that others out there are living simple, clutter-free lives.
    Laney is adorable. :c)

    Rachel’s last blog post..Feel better soon, Corrie!

  34. Hmm…nothing too deep here… I just have to say that I smiled when I saw Humphrey looking down on the crib, cuz you know he’s saying “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” :)

  35. Oh my goodness! I meant nothing too deep in my comment… I wasn’t referring to your post!!! Yikes!

  36. smallnotebook says:

    Don’t worry, I knew what you meant Kelli!

  37. Thanks for the idea about the vinyl rain gutter! I purchased my supplies a few days ago and was able to put it up today – with God’s help, of course! I love the space it created when I removed the overflowing basket of books…and the kids like it. I have two boys sharing a room, so my only hope is that they don’t tear it off the wall!

    I really enjoy your blog.

    joyfulmom2boys’s last blog post..I love yoga

  38. omigosh, I love the rain gutter full of books!!

    gidget’s last blog post..Weekly Surf Spots~ Sort of…

  39. I know you said you can’t take credit for the book shelf but I’ve been searching high and low for a simple, inexpensive book display option for my toddler and when I came across this post I knew I’d struck gold!

    I shared it with my neighbor who is also fighting the clutter battle and we got to work last night turning our 10 foot gutters into kid-friendly book storage. We are both so happy with the results we’ve posted our own blogs with links to you as inspiration.


  40. smallnotebook says:

    Stacey, I saw the photos on Haley’s blog this morning and they look great! Thanks for passing the idea along!

  41. Midwest Mainer says:

    Bubbles, balloons, and the moon are what work for us. However, the Millenium Falcon and dress up clothes work, too.

    Thanks for your contribution.

  42. Midwest Mainer says:

    Oh, I have that toy- the tree! It pops open.

  43. Awesome post.

    I use small pieces of copper rain gutter as planter boxes on my deck!


    Rain Gutters´s last blog post..Gutter Screen time proven leaf protection

  44. I have this challenge, giving my son enough play space and room for all his toys and books, at minimum cost.

    I feel that not spending a dime is impossible.

    Thanks for this post!

    ***jeannie´s last post…Medicine Cabinet

  45. What a bunch of good ideas here. Especially for small apartments.

    As a grandparent I tried to look a the problem of toy clutter from the kids point of view. Believe it or not, they like things in order as much as the parents do. It is just not easy for them since their attention is not focused on the consequences of spreading toys around when they are looking for toys.

    So I thought I could help them avoid spreading toys all over in the first place. In my garage I built a toy cabinet with a mechanism that keeps the other toys until the child puts one back. It is easy for them to put toys away one at a time.

    You can see a video of it here.

    What do you think?

  46. As usual, great suggestions. I love the idea of donating a toy for every toy received. There is no need for all that clutter and it will help your child appreciate each gift while learning the importance of sharing with others.
    Sarah´s last post…Forever Failing: Forever 21