I find it hard to clean out my kids’ toys too, mostly because I’m sentimental about things from their childhood. What if I give away something they like? It’s hard to make decisions for other people.
I decided to teach my kids how to clean out their own toys, starting at age 3. The first time I let my three-year-old daughter reduce her toys, I was shocked by how many she didn’t want anymore. She let go of more toys than I would have if I had done it for her.
The kids decide which toys they are finished playing with, and I decide whether those toys go in the donation bin or the storage box.
At ages one and two, I clean out their toys for them when I see the toys are being thrown on the ground instead of played with. By ages two and a half or three, they start letting me know their opinions. I still second-guess them a little, but things can stay in the giveaway basket for a few weeks to give our decisions time in case they change their minds.
The biggest challenge is to not let myself get in the way of their willingness to give things away. When I ask them if they want to keep something and they say no, I stay very impartial in my reactions. I don’t say, “Oh, but you used to love that!” or “But your grandmother gave it to you!” Instead I say, “That’s fine. You don’t have to keep it. Can you tell me why you don’t want it?”
Things to Say:
- “I understand you’re bigger now, so you don’t have to keep the toys that you used to like.”
- “Thanks for telling me you don’t want this toy. That really helps me to know what kind of things you like.”
- “It’s going to be a lot easier to keep your room looking beautiful when there’s not so much stuff in it.”
- “Some of the toys will go in a storage box so we can play with them later, and some toys we’ll give away to kids who don’t have very many toys and need some more.”
Stuffed animals are not exempt even though they have names and faces. I noticed my two-year-old son wasn’t interested in two of his bears.
Me: “Tom, do you want this bear?” (What I don’t say: Who gave it to him. How nice it is.)
Tom: “No. Big.”
Just to be sure that he understood what I meant, I showed him a smaller stuffed animal that I know he likes. “Do you want this one?”
Tom: “Yes. Small.” So that helped me confirm his preference for the smaller ones. Since he’s only two, I didn’t go through all of his toys with him. I just asked him about a couple, and before putting them in the donation box, I offered them to my other kid.
Me: “Do you want these two bears?”
Lane: “No, those bears are boys. All my stuffed animals are girls.” Okaaay then.
The stuffed animals to keep go in a basket, and the ones that don’t get played with go in the giveaway box. I explain to my oldest that we’ll give them to another family, and she lights up and gets excited about that.
I don’t keep all of the toys immediately accessible. The ones that aren’t age-appropriate right now are in a storage bin that I lined with poster board so the kids can’t see what’s inside, and I put it in the closet. The puzzles and games are kept in a cabinet in the living room which helps to keep them organized. We’re trying to teach the kids to get one out at a time and put it back before they get a new one.
They also have a bunch of little plastic toys, prizes, and trinkets, and they LOVE this stuff. I don’t mind if they have it, but it all has to fit in one basket so there’s a limit. They pack their backpacks with it and go on adventures.
Since my kids both have summer birthdays, it’s rare for them to get new toys apart from Christmas and birthdays. At Christmas we buy each kid one special toy, but not a lot else because we know they’ll receive more gifts from relatives.
I also try clutter-prevention by not browsing at Target with my kids and avoiding the toys that don’t give kids anything to do other than collect more.
We try to foster the idea of “family toys” that they share. Most of our toys so far are gender-neutral. When I bought a play kitchen, for example, I didn’t buy the pink one.
When we went to Italy for three months, my kids shared one backpack of small toys. I still had to pick up things every day, but they enjoyed all of their toys, and that was nice.