You love your kids.
You want them to be creative, to explore the world, to use their imaginations. You want them to learn, make connections, and grow. You want to encourage their interests, support their passions, and broaden their horizons.
And for many families, the playroom is where it all goes down.
But there’s a problem that happens in playrooms.
It’s the same kind of problem that happens in your own closet if you’re not careful. You know the feeling that you have too many clothes and nothing to wear? Kids get that too, with toys.
When they enter a playroom that’s full of toys, but there are things they’ve outgrown, things they don’t like anymore, and mismatched pieces, it’s pretty overwhelming.
What would make you look at your closet, let out a frustrated groan, and then choose the same yoga-pants-and-tank outfit you usually wear? That’s the same feeling that makes the kids leave their playroom and grab the pots out of the kitchen cabinets to play with.
There’s nothing wrong with wearing yoga pants and a tank top, and there’s nothing wrong with the kids playing with cooking pots. But wouldn’t you rather those things happen on purpose, instead of as the only alternative to an overwhelming number of choices?
Toy rotation is a huge help in those situations, and I’m happy to share with you how to get started.
But first, let me tell you where I’m coming from. If you’re already on my email list, you probably know that I used to be seriously addicted to office products, and you’ve seen the photo-proof.
And I was every bit as into “kid stuff” too. Before I even had children. Well before my daughter was born, I had a huge collection of children’s books, educational materials, and toys.
Why did I already have such massive numbers of toys?
I studied Early Childhood Education in school, where people were always telling me that my school would most likely not have the budget to afford even the simplest classroom materials. So I kept an eye open for great deals, and bought books and manipulatives to save for my classroom. Then I spent a couple of years teaching (where it was true that we didn’t have a lot of resources or much budget) and doing in-home childcare. After that, my husband and I were expecting our little girl and I transitioned into being a stay-at-home-mom.
Most of what I had was appropriate for preschool-aged kids. I even wrote in a blog post while I was pregnant, “I have a LOT of books and toys and stuff for 3-5 years old. Our baby girl is gonna be SET in a few years.” (You can also see pictures of the mess in that post.)
Nearly five years later, my little girl is a full-fledged preschooler, age 4. Plus, we have a little guy who’s 2 but likes to play with whatever his sister is playing with at the moment. Both of them have been on the receiving end of countless gifts and hand-me-downs. It’s so sweet that so many people care about and love my kids, and want them to be happy!
But it all adds up, and without a toy rotation system, my kids would have had a chronic case of “‘So Many Toys and Nothing to Play With.”
In the last 5 years (and 3 houses), I’ve learned SO MUCH about toy rotation, storage, and organization, beyond what I had learned in my early childhood education curriculum.
Why is a toy rotation system something kids (and parents) love?
- Kids don’t feel like there’s “nothing to play with” when all of the options are good (age-appropriate, in working order, no missing pieces, liked by the child) ones.
- Kids can get right down to business of playing when there are not too many choices causing “paralysis by analysis.” (Like when you sit down at Cheesecake Factory and receive their 38-page menu filled with delicious choices, which causes you to not be ready to order until 45 mintues later.)
- Kids periodically get fresh choices of toys to play with, so they have the same excitement of walking into a toy store or visiting a friend’s house, where things are DIFFERENT! and NEW!
- All of the gifts lovingly given to your kids have a chance to be really focused on, loved, and played with, because they won’t just be on a shelf or a cubby full of bins filled with 400 other toys.
- Clean-up is a cinch when there’s not too much stuff out at once.
Check out my simple, bright, open-ended playroom tour for an example of what all of this looks like when put into action!
If you’re just getting started with a toy rotation system, this is what you’ll need to do.
1. Gather EVERYTHING in one place.
If you plan to rotate books too, include them here. If not, just gather ALL of the toys from the far-flung corners of your house into one place. It doesn’t have to be the place where they’ll end up. So if your kids’ toys will normally be in the bedroom, you can gather them in the living room for now (so you can work on it while the kids sleep). The important thing is to find every toy.
Grab a few empty boxes for decluttering too, and any storage bins you plan to use for the toys.
Having everything in one place is pretty eye-opening. I mean, I knew I had a lot of toys and children’s books, but when we moved into this house and everything was in one place for me to deal with, I realized how insane the quantity of toys was.
Do a first-pass of everything, and declutter as much as you can. There’s no need to save outgrown toys, things you or your kids aren’t seriously looking forward to using in the future, or the less-favorites of several items in the same category. Broken toys and pieces of incomplete sets should leave too.
If you need some more encouragement to declutter, check out these 3 *Different* Questions to Ask Yourself When Decluttering. They don’t only apply to your own stuff… they apply to everything.
3. Organize like with like.
Building toys, dramatic play or imagination toys, educational toys, manipulatives, dress-up things, active toys, noisy toys, puzzles, and so on.
4. Declutter again.
When you organized the toys and put like items together, you might have discovered that you have a ton similar things in a certain category. Maybe you have 38 dollhouse dolls, dozens of puzzles, or 7 different sets of building toys. If you decide that’s too many, you can go ahead and get rid of some more stuff. Other kids will be happy to play with it, and your kids will still have plenty!
Double check that the toys aren’t using these 4 excuses to get you to keep them.
5. Determine your space and limits for “in rotation” toys.
I aim to have one toy or set of toys (like a basket of small cars) per cubby shelf in our playroom. Sometimes a few items are on the top of the shelves, and dress-up clothes or larger toys aren’t included in that limitation. But my general idea of checking whether too many toys are out at once is the same no matter what.
My other limit is that if the kids have all of their “in rotation” toys out at the same time, they still should be able to clean up without overwhelm (with some guidance since they’re small). If that isn’t possible, it’s too much.
I also want to be able to clean up the area in less than 5 minutes myself.
Your space and limits may look different than mine, but having guidelines like that will help in the maintenance of your toy rotation system.
6. Choose a collection of toys to have out together.
Remember your “like with like” categories you created? Now’s a good time to look at each one separately, and pick one or two from each (depending on your space and limits). Maybe one building toy, like blocks, would go well with the small plastic dinosaurs, and playsilks.
I always imagine what the kids could do with the toys together when I choose each collection. They could build volcanos and mountains out of the blocks, and the playsilks could accent the landscape with grass, water, and lava. Then, they could use the dinosaurs in the world they’ve created.
Of course, it never actually goes down like that (unless I guide it). But it’s nice in my head and the possibility is there.
If you’d rather just kind of randomly choose toys, that works too.
7. Store the rest, out of sight.
Keep your categories together, like with like, in containers if possible, to make rotation easy when you’re ready to swap the toys out for “new” ones.
Or you can do what I used to do when I did in-home childcare, and have one box for each month of the year, each with its own toys and books. This was a great strategy when I had a lot of seasonal or holiday-related manipulatives, lessons, and toys, and didn’t want to forget about any of them.
Wherever or however you store the out-of-rotation toys, make sure that they’re out of sight of the kids. This could be in a locked closet, on the top shelf in your bedroom closet, or in an area of the garage on shelves in bins. If you store the out of rotation things where the kids can see or access them, you’ll find they aren’t stored for very long
8. Decide on a rotation strategy.
Will you rotate on a schedule, or as you notice kids are getting bored? Will you wait for them to ask for something out of the closet? Will you allow them to “shop” for new toys, or will you choose which will come out?
When my daughter was a baby, I rotated toys about once a month, but kept the ones that still seemed challenging and interesting to her in rotation. I put away the too-easy or too-hard ones, and brought the too-hard ones back out a couple of months later.
I’ve been experimenting with something new lately. Instead of letting the kids “shop” in the closet like I had been doing recently, I ask them which toys (from memory) they’d like. They are ALWAYS happy with their choices, and I’m learning which toys are their favorites, and which I can declutter after a little while.
9 Maintain the system.
Make sure more things don’t “sneak out” without putting some things away first. If the kids get frustrated or have a hard time cleaning up, double check your space and limits and make sure you’re still honoring the boundaries you set up, or change your guidelines to fit your current situation.
Just remember though… if you have fewer toys to maintain (even out of rotation) in the first place, you’ll have way more time on your hands. Only keep the good stuff, and if you realize later something doesn’t make the cut, declutter it. Keeping an eye out for more to declutter is part of the maintenance!
10. Experiment, observe, and have fun with it!
What happens when your kids have fewer toys out? What if you only had building toys out (but all 7 types at once), or set up the play area as a miniature house, instead of having a wider variety of types of toys? What would the kids do if you put away all of the toys, and filled their playroom with blankets and pillows instead?
Now you’re ready to start a toy rotation system!
Go ahead and download my printable checklist of the 10 Steps to Starting a Toy Rotation System! That way you can work through them without having to constantly check back to this page.
And if you’re ready for even deeper toy organization, click over to grab some labels for your containers or shelves, to keep things in order.
It’ll take less than 15 minutes to print out the checklist, gather a couple of boxes for decluttered toys, and grab your containers for toy storage.
Put everything together in your work area so that as soon as the kids go to sleep tonight, you can get to work on your new toy rotation system the whole family will love!