Pro organizers share their best hacks for a tidier, happier playroom, plus clever solutions for how to store stuffed animals, art supplies, and other awkward items.

By Ingela Ratledge
August 07, 2020
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Credit: Lumina/Stocksy

Matching bins can get you only so far when it’s you versus a mountain of Hatchimals and LEGO bricks. That’s why we’ve called in a fearless mom crew of pro organizers, who shared their secrets for conquering playroom overload and keeping it under control.

Plan for Today—and Tomorrow

Your kids’ interests are going to evolve, so lay the groundwork accordingly. “One of the biggest mistakes I see parents make is trying to fit the child’s immediate needs only,” says Azure MacCannell, a Deerfield, New Hampshire–based mom of four and owner of Composed Kids, an organizing service. Instead, look for pieces your brood can grow into, like adjustable-height tables and large storage cubbies that can be filled with items and bins of various shapes and sizes. The same rule applies to layout and design. (Meaning ixnay on the PAW Patrol wall mural.) “It shouldn’t be difficult to make changes to the room when your child hits a new phase,” says mom of two Naeemah Ford Goldson, founder of Restore Order Professional Organizing, in Atlanta.

Once you get into organizing mode, resist the urge to fill every nook; allot empty space for the inevitable stuff to come. “When you’re starting out, aim to fill the room by only about a third,” advises Jessica Litman, a mom of two and founder of The Organized Mama, in Chicago. Trust us—it won’t stay empty for long. Instituting a “one in, one out” policy is a surefire way of keeping clutter in check. (Holidays and the turn of the seasons are other golden “out with the old” opportunities.)

Share Mindfully

Got older and younger sibs using the same space? Place small items, mess-making craft supplies, and any potential choking hazards in closable bins that are kept up high, if not in another room. “Peppa Pig figurines, Barbie and her tiny shoes, mini-wheel cars with small tracks—all those should be stored up high,” Litman says. Also earmarked for higher shelves: breakable items, family heirlooms, completed models, and anything that requires adult supervision, such as a science kit. To help differentiate what belongs to whom—and keep squabbles at bay—Goldson suggests designating an area for each child’s collection. “You can also assign certain colors for each kid,” she says. “Ethan can have the blue bins; Gavin can have the green. That way they’ll know what’s theirs.”

Tally Up

Once you’ve done a purge, eliminating anything broken, obsolete, or leftover from a party-favor bag, it’s time to take stock. “Lay everything out and group like with like—you often won’t realize how much of one category you own until you see it all in front of you,” MacCannell says. Don’t skip this step: You must get a firm grasp on what you have in order to figure out how to properly house it. “Once you know what you have and decide where it will live, it is much easier to figure out how to maximize the space,” says RíOrganize founder Ría Safford, a celebrity organizer and mother of three in Orange County, California. “The biggest mistake people make is buying bins and baskets before starting an organization project. When this happens, you’ll try to force stuff to work with the products instead of the other way around.”

Group and Sort

What plays together stays together. For example, everything your kid uses for arts and crafts needs to be corralled en masse and then, within that grouping, given an appropriate container. When in doubt, summon the kindergarten-classroom model, with its distinct activity zones. “I define art stuff as any fine motor medium that can be explored with your hands, which helps my clients figure out where to put things like Silly Sand, Play-Doh, and putty,” says Litman.

But the logic doesn’t have to appeal to our adult minds. “I work with children when organizing because it has to make sense to them,” says MacCannell. “Sometimes the criteria is ‘Transportation’ or ‘Things With Legs.’” If a toy defies categorization, don’t chuck it into a “Miscellaneous” abyss. “There shouldn’t be any items left without a home,” Goldson urges. “Mr. Potato Head can go in a bin by himself; binoculars can be stored with other items used for exploring, like a magnifying glass.”

Contain It All

Depending on their ages, kids have different requirements for toy storage. An inverse age-to-size formula applies here: The younger the kid, the bigger the vessel. Oversize bins or chests are just right for the hodgepodge of bulky musical cubes, plush balls, and sensory toys that dominate the early days. “At that age, there’s no rhyme or reason to what kids will play with—it all ends up on the floor anyway—and you’ll be the one maintaining the organization system,” Safford says. For your own sanity and to start building kids’ good habits, assign broad categories. “You could divide them up by ‘plush,’ ‘wooden toys,’ and ‘blocks,’ ” Safford says. Make the items accessible to littles by storing them on low shelves in soft- sided bins labeled with pictures. For big, irregular items—hello, Arendelle Castle from Frozen 2—experts recommend neatly lining them up along the perimeter of the room. “Let the play kitchen or dollhouse be the star of the playroom,” Goldson says.

As kids mature, get more granular about grouping and label as much as possible. “Don’t use oversize storage pieces—they become pits of doom,” MacCannell says. Divvy up that jumble of Shopkins, L.O.L. dolls, and Calico Critters into separate, smaller bins. “With tighter categories, your child can remove a toy, play with it, and put it back,” MacCannell says. Try to avoid towers of bins that will make it a chore to get to whatever’s at the bottom of the pile. “We never stack more than two deep,” MacCannell says. After all, if they can’t see it, they won’t play with it. Once you’ve chosen a spot for a category, stick with it, Litman says. “Over time, your kids will learn where things go.”

Make It Comfy

A playroom shouldn’t just be a stockroom of stuff. Add a rug or a playmat to give the room a more inviting feel. “Something with a little give is always nice to break falls,” says MacCannell. Don’t forget about your own bum too. “There’s nothing worse than being stuck on the floor or in a toddler chair for hours,” Safford says. Whether it’s a beanbag, a rocker, or a sofa, include seating that’s welcoming to multiple generations. Other creature comforts that might be a boon to Mom or Dad: a spot to rest food and drinks, floor pillows, and a clock so you won’t have to keep checking your phone for the time.

Genius Toy-Storage Hacks

Stuffed Animals

  • Use them as the filling for a beanbag chair.
  • Display them in wall-mounted hatboxes.
  • Clip them up on a clothesline.

Dress-up Clothes

  • Hang them from a tension rod installed between bookshelves.
  • Mount adhesive hooks to the wall to create an instant “dressing room.”
  • Stash them in a laundry basket you can hide in a closet.

Art Supplies

  • Sort them in a divided lazy Susan.
  • Subdivide markers, pencils, and crayons in a utensil organizer.
  • Add them to the pockets of an over-the-door shoe hanger.

Lego Pieces

  • Stow sets in clear food-storage containers.
  • Use a tray as the base for in-progress projects so it can be slid under a bed.
  • Color-code bricks in a multidrawer cabinet from the hardware store.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's September 2020 issue as “Tame Toy Chaos.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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