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Smart and Simple Space Savers

The biggest issue for many parents, no matter what their child's age, is what to do with all the toys. Lorie Marrero, creator of The Clutter Diet (clutterdiet.com), helps parents "lose clutter, gain time, and reduce stress." Here's what she recommends.

  • Organize toys by category in small bins. "When children can't find what they want, they tend to dump things out, making a big mess. So avoid a big toy box that jumbles everything together," Marrero says.
  • Label bins for toys with a picture and a word. When toddlers see the picture of a toy car along with the word car, the connection will help their reading skills.
  • Put toys at the kids' level. "I've learned a lot from the way Montessori schools set up their classrooms," Marrero says. "The materials are placed in baskets, bins, and trays on open shelving. That way, it's easy for kids to help themselves to things and then put them away."
  • Periodically go through your children's toys. Separate out what they no longer play with, and give these items to less fortunate children. A good time to do this is before holidays and birthdays, when you can tell your kids they'll be getting new things. The practice helps them develop a habit of giving, and at the same time de-clutters your home.
  • Rotate toys. When it comes to playthings, less is more. Put away some toys where your child can't see them. If space is limited, she'll be more aware of what she has, and she won't be overwhelmed with too many choices. And when those toys seem like old news, you can refresh her collection with some new selections!
  • In your living room, put your feet up on a hinged ottoman with toys stored inside. You can find storage ottomans at stores such as Target and Wal-Mart.
  • Think outside the box. Stephanie Wagle, of Brooklyn, New York, mother of 2-1/2-year-old Jack, says that at first, she stored Jack's toys in the deep drawers of their coffee table for easy access. "When his collection grew, we bought some canvas bins and stowed them under a chair in the living room -- a total clutter disaster," she continues. "When his collection grew even more, I decided to convert the casual buffet in our living room that had been used to store our wedding china into a toy storage unit. It's working!" The buffet has shelves for things like puzzles and coloring books and deep drawers for stuffed animals and Jack's toy bus. Where's the china? "In the basement," Wagle says. "We never used it, so that's not a problem."

  • A feeding station can be as simple as a comfy chair with a side table where you can put tissues, a clock, a water glass, burp cloths, and bottles if you need them.
  • Organize a changing table by grouping the essentials together on the shelves or in the drawers. Dedicate one plastic or wicker bin to diapers, another to wipes and washcloths, and a third to ointments and lotions. Other bins could hold pacifiers and a diversion toy or two.
  • Maximize space under the crib or bed. Store blankets, sheets, or out-of-season clothes in containers designed specifically to fit in this area. They're available at mass-merchant stores such as Target and The Container Store.
  • Go double-duty: Elizabeth Babbins, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, mother of Leo, 3, followed the advice of an experienced mom friend and converted a dresser into a changing table: "We laid the high-sided changing table pad on top. All the diapers, ointments, and changing supplies fit perfectly in the top drawers. The dresser will take Leo through college and beyond, as long as the crayon wipes off."

This room is often the hub of the home, and once you have a baby, you'll find that you need counter space to wash and dry bottles and/or breast pump parts; cabinet space for baby's bottles, bowls, and plates; and pantry space for jars of baby food and boxes of oatmeal. Marrero offers a helpful technique to keep things organized: "We teach people to prioritize their things and their spaces by ABCD. A things you use daily. B things you use less often. C things are seasonal, and D things you don't use at all but are keeping anyway."

Here's how Marrero sees the ABCD strategy applied to a kitchen of parents with young children:

  • A things might be bottles, baby plates, and bibs. Spaces for them would be countertops, the bottom shelf of an upper cabinet, or a drawer below the counter.
  • B things might be cookie sheets, muffin tins, a blender -- things you use, but not every day. You can store these things inside the cabinets, or behind, beside, or below the A things.
  • C things might be an ice cream maker, or holiday-themed mugs or platters you only use few times a year. Keep this stuff on the highest shelves in the cabinets.
  • D things are items you never use -- the punch bowl (with matching cups) you inherited from your grandmother, or the cake stand you got as a wedding gift. Until the day comes when you have a party suitable for these pieces, put them in the attic or basement.

  • Fit corner cabinets with a lazy Susan -- it's a great place to store baby food.
  • Organize your whole pantry by category so everybody can find what they need. Rice and beans go here, cereal goes there. Corral smaller items such as spices in a bin. "And I always recommend using square instead of round containers to use the space more efficiently," Marrero says.
  • Attach narrow wire shelves for bottles, nipples, and lids to the inside of a pantry or cabinet door.
  • Purge old mugs and glasses to create shelf space for baby bottles, formula, and accessories.

Originally published in the August 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.