If your house is like my house, toys rule the roost.  I find toys in the washer, in the dryer, in the refrigerator, on the stairs, under the couch - pretty much anywhere you'd think to look.  With three kids under 4 we have plenty of toys, and plenty of enthusiasm while playing with them.  We've gone through many iterations of toy tidying, and here are our family's top ten tips for keeping things neat:

1) Create a No Toy zone.  There are some places in the house where toys simply don't belong.  When my kids were very small, their bedrooms were No Toy zones.  We didn't want the kids staying awake to play when they really needed sleep.  Now that they're better about bedtime, we've moved the toys into their rooms and the dining room has become a No Toy zone.  No more tripping over riding toys while trying to put the soup on.  The locations will vary for every family, but try to establish some areas where toys are not allowed.  Limiting the rooms that contain toys will limit the clutter and the likelihood that toys will be lost.

2) Store toys where they are used.  Keeping each type of toy in its appropriate area will also limit the likelihood that toys will be lost and lessen the amount of hauling required to return them to their rightful homes.  Keep tub toys in a slotted bin by the tub.  Keep outdoor toys in boxes under the porch or in the garage.  Stash a flat box of puzzles under the living room couch, keep dolls and stuffed animals in bedroom closets, and store the giant train table in the basement.  Or, keep often-used toys in a caddy with a handle or wheels so it's easy to move from room to room.

3) Choose appropriate containers.  A giant toy box may seem like an efficient use of space, but if the tiny cars and doll shoes get lost at the bottom, you might as well not have them in the first place.  Keep each type of toy in an appropriate sized box.  Large toys fit well in large toy boxes.  Keep Hot Wheels and other smaller cars in special car boxes or in shoe boxes with lids.  Store Lego bricks in tubs with locking lids, medium sized cars and toys in carts with drawers, and art supplies in bins with handles for easy clean up. 

4) Label everything.  When possible, keep toys in clear bins so your child can see what is inside.  If your child is not yet reading (like mine), attach a photograph or magazine cutout of the items that belong in the bin to the outside.  If your child can read, a simple list of items affixed to the container can help children when it comes time to sort and clear away her toys. 

5) Rethink your space.  Try to use your storage space creatively.  Stash tiny toys or craft supplies in a hanging shoe holder in the closet.  Put wheels on the train table and trundle it under a bed.  Set up vertical toys like the HotWheels Wall Tracks and get your storage off the floors.  Run a shelf around the room near the ceiling and store lesser-used toys up there.  See where you've got the most space and make it work for you.

6) Rethink your toys.  Toys that promote imaginative play are the most versatile.  Keep around a box of blocks, a pile of costume pieces, a bin full of art supplies and the like.  Not only will these guide your children in expanding their creativity, you can save space by purchasing fewer toys. 

7) Rotate. Don't set out all of your children's toys at once.  Give them a set of toys on a theme (cars, musical instruments, blocks, dolls, etc) and keep a few other sets in reserve.  Rotate on whatever timetable best suits your child's personality (daily, weekly, monthly, etc).  Children are suckers for novelty and this way they will appear to have new toys to play with frequently without actually increasing the size of your stash.  Also, when overwhelmed with too many toys a once, a child's creative abilities will be diminished.  When they have a small selection of toys to choose from, they are better able to engage in play.

8) Donate.  If your child has toys that they haven't touched lately, despite continual rotation, it might be time to donate the toys to charity.  Also, if a child's toy collection grows beyond a reasonable storage configuration, it is also time to donate.  Explain to your child that he or she is fortunate to have so many nice toys to play with, and that it is time to share some with other children who are not so fortunate.  Have him or her help you gather up a box of toys and take them with you to the donation center.  Conversely, you might consider hosting a toy swap with friends of a similar age.  The children can bring toys they have outgrown or no longer enjoy and swap them for 'new' toys that have been brought by their friends. 

9) Motivate clean-up.  It may seem harsh, but in our house we have the rule "you may not eat dinner until your toys have been picked up."  I can guarantee you that since we put this rule into place, our 2 and 3 year olds have not missed a single supper, and their rooms have been tidy at bedtime (no more stepping on HotWheels while kissing them goodnight).  Sometimes all it takes is a simple, kind ultimatum to get kids to put their things away.  And I haven't met anyone yet who sleeps better in a messier room. 

10) Teach responsible ownership.  Teaching kids to take care of the toys they have will guide them in becoming responsible with pricier possessions as they grow.  If a child breaks a toy (willfully or accidentally) do not replace the toy.  Tell the child that if he or she really wants a replacement item, it will be added to a birthday or Christmas list.  I am always amazed in our house how quickly broken toys are forgotten anyway. 

If you follow these Ten Step to Tidy Toys not only will you hopefully have a neater home, but you will be teaching your children valuable lessons in responsibility that will prepare them for adulthood.  And don't forget to look for other areas of your home where some of these organizational tips might be of use.  You just might be surprised what labeling, donating, rethinking, and appropriate storage can do for your pantry (or laundry room, or kitchen, etc)!
Please note:  I wrote this blog post while participating in the SocialMoms and HotWheels blogging program, for a gift card worth $40.  For more information on how you can participate, click here
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