Recently, my family and I moved from a small city apartment to our first house, a Dutch Colonial in the New Jersey suburbs. I set up the playroom as quickly as possible, before my sons, Conrad, 5, and Dashiell, 3, could even think of breaching the living room (after years of sharing it with an exersaucer, I was determined to keep that space toy-free). In the playroom, we installed a high bookcase with 16 shelves and filled each shelf with tall toy bins that brimmed with the boys' many toys. The result: At the end of each day, after the kids had spilled the contents out on the floor (usually in search of one obscure thingamajig), the room looked as if some Lego-eating giant had broken in and barfed all over the floor.
Every evening, I would insist that the boys pick up. We'd sing the cleanup song, and they'd throw everything in the bins willy-nilly. I would have liked them to be more precise, but I also needed them to get to bed. So I applauded their effort, and once they were asleep I would painstakingly put everything where it rightfully belonged. The problem I needed to face was this: Why couldn't I, a grown-up, highly educated woman, figure out how to deal with something as childish as toys?
Obviously, I needed professional help. So I called Tonia Tomlin, author of Chaos to Calm, to help me streamline things. After I explained the whole situation, Tomlin said, "Sounds like your kids need to be taught how to take ownership of their toys." Um, yeah.
Epiphany #1: Kids need a special place for special things.
The first eye-opening piece of advice Tomlin offered was to give each of my boys a box, bag, or basket for their current favorite toys. I decided to try it out that very day, as soon as Conrad walked in the house after school and asked where his Pokemon cards were. This time, instead of responding with my usual, "I don't know. Where did you put them?" I handed him a small bag and said, "Go find your cards and put them in here. It's a special place for your things. Your brother can't touch anything you put in here. And from now on, when you want to find your stuff, you'll always know where it is." I expected him to tell me why it was too hard, but instead he said, "Yippee!" He was as relieved to have a system as I was.
Epiphany #2: Toy bins are the handbags of the playroom.
When I carry around an oversize purse, who knows what's lost at the bottom? The boys' stuff, stored in deep, opaque bins, was suffering the same fate. The problem was, I could fit a lot in the giant containers but the boys couldn't play with the toys easily. Just as you need different bags for different outfits and occasions, toys cry out for a unique match too. So I studied the size of their playthings and bought bins that matched. Tiny things, like Playmobil accessories, got small, shallow baskets. Objects larger than my hand, like a truck or a spaceship, were matched with midsize ones, and dress-up clothes and balls were tossed into large bins.
Epiphany #3: The less kids have, the more they play with it.
During my great toy reorganization, I decided to pull certain playthings out of rotation. I moved all their least favorite games, puzzles, and figurines to the basement for a Christmas-in-July moment and cut our toy population in half. As soon as I did this, the room seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. The air was clear, and there was more white space. With less clutter, the boys weren't overly stimulated and played more calmly. They also had more room to spread out, and cleanup was a breeze.
Epiphany #4: You have to teach your kids how to let go.
Because Dashiell is only 3, I could get away with taking the toys he wasn't playing with anymore and tossing them in the dead of night. But older kids, like Conrad, are another story -- he would notice if something had gone missing. Tomlin told me that older kids should be included in purging to make sure they avoid getting caught up in a "hoarding syndrome," something she sees in children whose parents give them a new toy for getting rid of an old one, rather than teaching them to just let go. I resolved to sort through and clean out Conrad's toy bins with him every few months. Some toys we'd give to his younger brother, others would go to charity, and anything broken or missing a vital part would be disposed of -- permanently.
Epiphany #5: Different activities need different spaces.
The biggest organizational nightmare in my house was our older son's vast Lego collection. The thousands of pieces were stored in a clear plastic box hidden under the couch. the problem was that when he wanted to build something, he had to scatter everything on the floor to find the pieces he wanted. Then we would all be stepping on Legos for the next few days (Owww!). Even worse, though, were the creations, meticulously assembled, that were crushed in an instant by a 3-year-old running across the room. I decided to create a Lego "nook." I bought the perfect shelving system at Target and diligently sorted the blocks by size and color (an hour-long task that became almost meditative). I set up a desk with a chair to be his workstation and hung some shelves to create a gallery for displaying his masterpieces. When Conrad came home after school and walked into the playroom, he was speechless. He actually thought I had bought him more Lego sets until I explained I had merely organized his collection and put everything in the corner where he could create in peace -- and I also explained that if he put all the pieces away after playing, it would always be this awesome.
Epiphany #6: When your playroom is designed for playing, not simply storing toys, it really is the happiest room in the house.
After showing Conrad his new Lego corner, I left to make dinner, and five minutes later he called, "Mom, will you build something with me?" I stopped cooking, we sat down together, and to my surprise, the neat new arrangement made the experience fun -- not frustrating. I actually felt like I was in one of those make-your-own jewelry stores -- except instead of designing a necklace I was able to make a zippy red car in minutes. Conrad created a space-age garage, and before I knew it, dusk had fallen and I had forgotten about dinner. Later that night, after the kids were asleep, I went in to do my ritual cleanup. But, amazingly, everything was already in its place. Even the car I made was safely in its little garage. As I looked at the order I'd created, I felt like I really rocked. and I couldn't wait to apply my hard-won epiphanies to my closet.
Shelf Baskets: These handy baskets transformed my playroom from a toy storage room into a fun space to play for hours. $8, landofnod.com.
Backpack: The perfect place for storing your child's important things is in a backpack. That way he can tote them around wherever he goes.
Bookshelves: Let the toys and books breathe. It will be easier to keep them nice and neat since they're not all jumbled together or piled high.
Bin Organizer: When it comes to Legos, a simple system turned out to be ideal. It holds 12 bins that can be flat or slanted. $70, target.com
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Parents magazine.