Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Toy soup- 15 tips for letting kids play without it taking over the entire house

If any of you are just starting out on this whole parenting thing, take heed and avoid our stupid pitfalls. Because we were stupid, very, very stupid!

We recently went to look at a 5 bedroom house and were dazzled by all the space!! We were giddy with how big it felt. But then we got home and thought hard- yes we're feeling crowded in our current house. Yes it would be nice to stretch our legs. But did we really want to add another 100k and 15 years to our mortgage in these uncertain economic times just to have a bit more space? We only have 2 kids, and we live in a reasonably spacious 3 bedroom house. Surely there was something we could do to make it work?

At first we thought the answer was more storage bins and shelving so more things could be put away. I am a firm believer in the 'rotating your toys' system that daycares and schools use. When all our toys were out in the open they would all get dumped on the floor, never played with and then dumped back into toy boxes in what I like to call 'toy soup' so that nobody could ever find the pieces to anything to play with. So now most things are packed away for weeks or even months and brought out a few at a time until they get tired of them.

You know what it's like when your child gets a new toy and spends the next 3 days playing with it like it's the best thing they've ever seen, then never touches it again? Well when we were new parents we were only aware of the first half of this cycle. Our daughter decided she loved cats- she was given about half a dozen stuffed cats before she completely lost interest. Loved her musical activity table- we bought 3 of them. Bead sorter? Bought 3 of those too. She has SIX train sets. SIX! Anything she was remotely interested in we ran out and bought for her-usually brand new, often in multiple amounts. It was fun for us, and it was addictive. Our living room looked like toys r us and we didn't care. Being a parent was fun!!!

Then we had a second child and all those toys weren't so fun anymore. Not only did we lose our spare bedroom to house the baby, the swing and exersaucer and playpen and vibrating chair and baby toys were all competing for floor space with the train table and play house and rocking horse and ride on cars. We had to throw out our couches just to make room, but it was still really stressful.

A lot of the baby stuff has been slowly exiting the house as our youngest grows, but the space gets filled instantly with more toys. The funny thing is that even with hundreds of toys my kids play with the same few over and over. Even more shocking is that they would rather spend hours running around our yard than playing with any actual toys at all.

When I thought harder about it I realized that it would cost us roughly $50,000 for each additional bedroom we wanted, so that each big bulky toy was actually 'costing' us thousands of dollars in real estate. Wouldn't it just make more sense to get rid of things?

I've been on a major purge the past few weeks. Selling things, donating things, lending things, throwing things out. I am amazed at how huge our tiny house is starting to feel now that we can easily walk around in all the rooms. The only thing my kids have noticed is how I have more time to play with them, because I'm not constantly tidying and rearranging their stuff anymore! It was a vicious cycle- they needed the toys to entertain them so I could clean up their toys. What's the point?

As I've been cleaning I've realized that it comes down to two factors- how much use something gets vs how much space it takes up. So some things are big but used often enough to justify it, some things are small and don't take up space but aren't even used. But the best is finding alternatives to the well used big items that work just as well. So I'm going to give you some tips.

1. Easels

My husband INSISTED on buying one of these for our oldest daughter brand new. She loved it for one day and now rarely touches it. She wants to paint at the kitchen table, not standing at an easel (especially one that is rapidly becoming too short for her). Sure it's got the dry erase board on one side and the chalk board on the other, but you can buy each of those at the dollar store and store them flat on a shelf, rather than have a big clunky item.

Or even better, patio doors and windows make the best dry erase boards. When I was taking university calculus and working on giant solutions I found it easier to write them out in dry erase on the giant dorm lounge windows rather than on several sheets of paper. Kids think it's SO much fun to draw on the windows!

Walls make great chalkboards in winter (face it, even if it scuffs your wall you've got kids. You're going to have to repaint at some point). In summer everything outside is a chalk board- the fence, the deck, the driveway, patio stones.

A pack of sidewalk chalk and another of dry erase markers takes up so little space and is all you need.

2. Train tables.

When our daughter decided she was majorly into trains we couldn't wait to buy her a train set with a table. It looked awesome!

The problem is that they don't just stand there playing with it for hours. After a few minutes they start taking it apart, and it's a giant pain to set it up perfectly again so it all fits on the table. Some people glue it to the table, but then you're stuck with it like that. Other companies make tables that look just like coffee tables so you can convert them when they aren't in use. I say just spend less than half the money to buy them a train set without a table that they can set up on the floor like they are going to end up doing anyway...

3. Play houses.

Kids love to play in these.

But this play tent from Ikea is about 1/10 of the cost and does the same job. The big plastic play house takes up a ton of space, the tent can easily be folded up and tucked behind a shelf until the next use.

4. Indoor climbers.

My kids are major climbers, so they need something to burn off steam indoors in the coldest winter months. This one (a loaner thank goodness) was huge. And would have been expensive.

This one purchased for our younger daughter was only $20 new and folds up nicely for storage.

5. Doll houses.

We NEARLY fell prey to this one but decided against it in the end. It's tempting to buy a big wooden, fully furnished doll house. But then you have a big wooden dollhouse.

Neither of my girls are in to dolls, but if the younger one expresses an interest later on we're going to do something a little different. The cube shelving in our living room is the perfect size for a temporary doll house. You can buy a couple sets of dollhouse furniture to make 'rooms' in each cube and easily put it away in a box when they get bored with it.

6. Play kitchens.

I've heard many many families tell me how much use their play kitchen gets and how great they are. We bought a big wooden one for our daughters last Easter and they loved it for about one day, and then sat there collecting dust. If you're going to buy something big and expensive like this it's always a gamble. If you can, buy used.

7. Cardboard boxes.

Everybody jokes about this but it's completely true- buy your kids every toy in the world and they end up playing in a cardboard box.

On spring break I was looking for something inexpensive to do so I got a bunch of large boxes from the Vietnamese grocery store on the corner for free and my daughter and I made them into a fleet of buses using crayons. The kids played with them non stop and when the week was over some went out with the recycling and some got used to store old clothes to drop off at Goodwill.

Cardboard boxes are free, versatile and temporary. They can be made into anything- forts, vehicles, kitchens, doll houses, ect for a short period of time and then discarded at no cost to you or the environment.

8. Books.

This is one where the amount of use justifies the cost and space for us. We use the library a great deal, but I also purchase cheap books from the dollar store or library discard shelf for 50 cents- $1 each to add to our library.

Each of our girls has a reading nook in their room.

For my toddler we have our board books stored in dish bins which we rotate. She has a little toddler chair next to a bin to sit in.

But... an expired or extra car seat makes a great toddler reading chair.

Our oldest daughter has a book sling shelf for picture books and early readers. We keep the bulk of them on a regular book shelf and rotate a few on her sling shelf every week or two. She's old enough not to dump them all on her floor but her sister isn't...

She sits on a bean bag chair. Which brings us to...

9. Stuffed animals.

Ugh. Just ugh. Unavoidable, especially with daughters. Only mine don't even like them! But people keep buying them. Donating is an option, but people don't like to buy used stuffed animals because of the potential for lice. So we took all of this..

And stuffed it into this...

We bought a large bean bag chair cover from Walmart and stuffed it with 50 random stuffed animals. It gets them out of the way, keeps them available should they ever want them back and saves you money (and potential disaster!) from stuffing them with those little pellets you buy for inside the chairs. They are super soft to sit on this way too!

Each girl has a small basket filled with stuffies they actually play with or sleep with sometimes.

10. Toys with a million parts and pieces.

This one is the biggest creator of toy soup. And once it goes into the soup it renders the toys useless. I keep a large bookshelf in the baby's room covered in labelled dish bins for different types of toys. Ones with really small parts also get stored within the bins in big freezer bags. I keep the most perilous ones (ie the biggest PITA to clean up) on the really high shelves and the not so bad ones (mini board books, dinosaurs, ect) on the lower shelves.

I have bins for board books, mega blocks, little people, puzzles, crayons/paint/coloring/stickers, play dough, dinosaurs, random little toys, blocks, rainy day toys and activities left from birthday loot bags, toys they are still too young for, baby dolls, doll clothes ect. I also have a zipper bag full of dress up clothes and costume jewelry.

I bring out these bins ONE at a time. Sometimes the novelty lasts a few days, sometimes it can last a week or two. When they are clearly bored with that type of toy it's easy to clean up and put back away and swap out with something 'new'.

11. Sand boxes.

Lucky for me I learned my lesson on this one at a play date before actually purchasing one. My daughter sat and proceeded to dump all the sand OUT of the box onto their lawn. We quickly moved into the house to play. Sand is expensive. And just asking to be dumped elsewhere.

What works better is a 'toy garden'. Dole out (or dig out) a garden to the kids without planting anything. Let them use their sand toys and dump trucks and whatever. It will entertain them for AGES for free. When they grow too old for it you can either plant it into a real garden or seed over it.

12. Car mats.

I don't mind these because it can easily be rolled up and put behind the shelf. I also plan to use it for a front hall mat for wet boots once the girls get too old to play with it. We have a large bag of matchbox cars in one of the dish bins that come out every few months and we unroll the rug to play on. Some people make it even easier and just draw roads on a roll of paper but I'm too lazy for that...

13. Arts and crafts.

Keep it simple. Paper, crayons, markers, sidewalk chalk, watercolors, stickers. Play dough and cookie cutters. A few coloring books. Perhaps some simple rubber stamps and ink. They have so many fancy 'craft kits' on the market, but I find that they stifle true creativity and take up space. The great thing about the basics is you only have to have enough on hand to last for the time being and once you use them up you just replace them. This takes up so little space for the amount of time they spend using them.

14. Big plastic thingamajigs.

You have three options for this.

1. Buy the smallest version you can find. We found the small ride ones got far more play time than the big clunky cozy coupe.

2. Shove it all outside. Hide it in the shed or under a tarp in winter.

3. Buy it really cheap and used and then sell it for the same price or slightly less when they never play with it without feeling bad.

15. Just wait.

It's really tempting to run out and buy the latest whatever. Sometimes shopping for cute toys and clothes for kids is more gratifying for the parents than anything, and it can almost get obsessive and hoarder like for some parents. Take a deep breath. Give it some time. The toys will still exist. Make them wait until the next major holiday. Make them 'earn it'. Make them trade something else in by selling or donating it. If they really, really want it, they will still want it later. They will actually play with it. You'll have more time to track it down used.

Having less toys makes kids play more with the ones they have. It frees up space for them to move around, forces them to use more imagination, and makes for less clean up for parents. What lessons have you learned the hard way that you can share with the rest of us?


  1. Who needs a tent when you have couch cushions haha :) I love some of your ideas

    1. Doesn't work when you don't have a couch! We got rid of our couches to make room for more toys :P

  2. I needed this article today as I am living in toy soup. The tip about the bean bag chair is awesome, I'm totally doing that!

    1. The next step for me was getting rid of more than half of the toys altogether, especially the really big ones. We're now down to just the stuff they really really love and play with on a regular basis. Which is still a lot!!!

  3. Play with toy is a great way to tech your kids. They learn it with interested. has the best learning toy. You can chose the best one among the various type of toys.