Busy Mom’s Guide: Managing the Mess

January found us this year coming off the biggest Christmas haul to date, with enough new loot to supply our local Toys R Us. Toys, toys and more toys. Not from us, mind you. Oh we had our fair share in the matter, but the majority of the overload came from generous and well-meaning relatives who couldn’t resist spoiling the only kiddos in the family.

We responded with typical post-Christmas protocol: go through all your toys and fill up a bag to give to kids who don’t have any + mom sneaks in at night and rummages through to find toys that haven’t seen the light of day in many moons and need to find a new home.

But it was still to no avail. Some toys found themselves re-organized and relocated to orderly abodes, such as the Playmobile or dress-ups. But unfortunately, the bulk of the inventory was miscellaneous 18-months-and-up busy toys that either make noise or have a gazillion pieces (or 450 to be exact, if we count the ball pit). You know the problem. Trucks strewn everywhere, dishes with the train set, puzzle pieces on the carpet, Legos in the book bin, and an abandoned baby doll forgotten underneath a pile of rubble from a recently destroyed tower of blocks. No matter how ‘OCD’ you naturally tend to be, no mom can turn a blind eye to the chaos forever. It begins to grate, like fingernails on a chalk board, and before you know it, you hear yourself making empty threats about giving away all their toys because they’re messy, ungrateful, little minions of destruction. It was time for this Mama to take action.

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The Problem

managemessba1You know it’s your responsibility to teach them how to clean up after themselves, but it seems an impossible task to keep up on, short of abandoning all other household duties and responsibilities and following them around with a trash can for a week until they catch your drift. Although effective, this method would not have worked with my kids. Our youngest, a 15-month-old-tornado-in-diapers, has absolutely no concept of cleaning up after himself. He also wouldn’t understand why I took all the toys away, nor would he care. With the attention span of a gnat, he would be off and running to the next thing in 2.7 seconds. And my oldest, a 5-year-old-mama-in-training, has slacked off her game and happily contributed to the mess under the new law of order, seeing that anarchy has finally overtaken the rule of tyranny. Mom can teach and remind and scold and teach and remind and scold all day long, but the bottom line is those kiddos are way in over their heads. I can’t expect them to utilize good stewardship over their belongings if I don’t first train them how to manage it.

That’s when we decided to train them. We are blessed to have a separate room in our house for toys. Our ‘Play Room’ as we call it, has seen some pretty horrific days as of late. This resent shot is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ll spare you the gory details. Let’s suffice to say, it ain’t pretty.

On any given evening after a good long day of learning through play {like kids are supposed to do}, our Play Room would look like a red-taped area. My oldest would do her best to clean up ‘her toys’, but for the most part it was incredibly overwhelming.

And so, after all were asleep, I would climb into my mental hazmat suit and move in. Meticulously at first, I would begin to tidy up, but inevitably by the end of it I was throwing everything in a bin, regardless of whether it belonged there or not.

Bins

mm5.jpgThis was my first brilliant idea. Bins! If I could have enough bins to house all the toys, at the end of the day, we could throw the toys into the bins and voila! the Play Room is clean again! It was a nice thought; sweet, almost, in it’s naivety.

For older children, this is ideal. My daughter’s ‘small pieces’ toys (too dangerous for toddlers) have been organized this way for quite some time. I don’t care if there are Barbie shoes with the Playmobile – just put it in a bin and be done with it.

But for toddlers, this attempt to solve the problem was actually making it worse. My son’s ‘job’ as we call it, is to take things out and put them in. He is very good at it, although, they often go out without finding their way back in. This is the developmental stage that he is in, and as a mom, I certainly want to encourage it.

The downside, however, is that when all of my toys were stored in bins that he could lift, not one was left untouched. First thing every morning he would charge into that Play Room like a man on a mission, find his targets (the bins of trains, Legos, blocks, dishes, balls, noisy toys, books, trucks, cars… you name it) and dump them out, one after the other, in quick, merciless succession. It was painful to watch. So I didn’t. I let him ‘play’ (wreck havoc on the defenseless room for 12 hours straight) and at night I would go and fill them all up again, ready and waiting for him to come dump them out in the morning. This, my friends, is no way to live!

The Solution

mm6.jpgKeeping in mind that I wanted to encourage his developmental growth, as well as re-establish the rules for picking up after ourselves with our daughter, my husband and I contrived a plan. We would let him dump things to his heart’s content and teach him how to put them back in. But to keep it manageable, we would do ourselves a few little favors.

1. Toy Weeding

This will not be an overly popular one with your kiddos, so I suggest you tackle it by yourself. Although it may come in the form of a Good Will run at your house, for us we had already gone through toys we didn’t need or want and we did not want to give away what we had left. We hope to have more kids, so the idea of giving away all of our infant toys was not a smart one. We also have lots of toys for ages 3-4 that our daughter doesn’t care for any more, but that Little Man doesn’t need yet. This meant we had to do some sifting and sorting, not just removing.

I went in with a garbage bag, a bag for Good Will and a storage box. Going through every bin, nook and cranny, I threw out, donated or stored as needed. This did help, but it didn’t even begin to touch the mess made by the toys we wanted to keep and still actively used.

2. Out of Reach Toys

One of my biggest pet-peeves with our previous way of playing was that if someone wanted to play with the trains, all the trains came out. But, if two minutes later, they wanted to play with Legos, all the Legos came out. This resulted for a huge mess that only yielded five minutes of play. To solve this problem, I took our old storage bins and reused them as permanent homes for out of reach toys. On a shelf high above anyone’s eye level now live the Legos, trains, most of our kitchen toys, and other odds and ends that create our ‘Discovery Box’. When asked for, these boxes come down one at a time, and are promptly cleaned up and returned after use. For a toddler with a sea of toys, these are not even remotely missed. To a 5-year-old who has more creative play, they are asked for periodically. Much better than cleaning them up every night! {Note: I will also add that there are some toys that are simply too big to have out all the time. For instance, we absolutely love putting on a show behind our puppet stage or jumping in the ball pit, but for every day play these toys are too big. We store them out of sight and bring them up occasionally for a few days at a time.}

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3. Free Play Boxes

This one is my personal favorite, a little invention of ours we like to call ‘Free Play Boxes’. We define them as:

Small amounts of varied toys or set of toys to provide a fun free play experience without overwhelming the child with possibilities (or clean up responsibilities).

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freeplaybx2The idea came from our son’s developmental need to dump out boxes or bins. Snatching an extra 3-drawer storage tower (ok, I stole it from my craft room, surprise surprise. But alas, sacrifices must be made. I’m still in the process of writing ‘How to Organize Your Craft Room’… stay tuned, but don’t hold your breath!), we went ‘shopping’ in through the toys to collect sets or random stand-alone toys to fill them up. With variety and the excitement of not seeing these toys every day, they keep him entertained just as well as a whole room full of toys used to.

But the best part is, at the end of the ‘day’, or whenever it’s time to clean up, the task is small enough that we can teach him how to clean up by re-filling the box that he emptied. In 5-minutes tops, his destructive work for the day has been successfully put back together again. He loves the game of collecting his things and putting them back in the box with Mama! It’s almost more fun them dumping them out in the first place.

It has also reinforced our previously established clean-up rules with our slacking 5-year-old and helped everybody do a better job keeping up on it.


As you’ve probably wondered, no, this box do not contain the only solitary toys we allow our child to play with at a time. I’m not a minimalist parent who thinks 4 plain wooden blocks are sufficient for my toddler’s growth and development. Besides…. {Mom Confession!} I like toys! I love bright colors, fun sounds and exciting patterns. I want my kids to be inspired to think and play creatively. But I have found that when it comes to toys, too much of a good thing is counter-productive. Children, especially toddlers, actually regress in their ability to play and problem-solve creatively when they are over-stimulated. Productive play results when a child feels safe and secure in his environment and is not overwhelmed by the abundance of stimuli around him. You want just enough to catch his curiosity without making the toy-equivalent of white noise. Walking into our old Play Room for our toddler was about as productive as sending an adult to Ikea without a list. You do a lot of wandering and occasional pick up an item, but for the most part your senses have disengaged due to over-stimulation.

We are still trying to gauge the sweet spot for our playroom occupancy. For now, we have several large toys (basket ball hoop, swing, slide, kitchen, ride-on, tunnel and train table) and a few small ones (trucks, balls, broom, baby stroller, etc.) lined up around the perimeter of the room leaving lots of open play space in the middle. As we continue to experiment, we may end up weeding out some more. I would not put another Good Will trip beyond the realm of possibility! But the toys that are still out and readily accessible are used daily, always a favorite, and easy to clean up.


In summary, I was relieved to find an organization solution that also encouraged development and growth in both my kids! The dreaded Play Room nightly pick-up has been reduced to a couple of 5-minute Mommy-assisted sessions a day. Their play has become less aimless and more purposeful. Like an adult trying to work at a cluttered desk, it’s hard for kids to play in endless chaos. Let’s give them a leg up, and save ourselves a headache in the process!

I hope our experience has helped you! What are some of your favorite toys solutions? Are you a ‘toys only in one room’ kind of mom, or do you find it easier to spread things out around the house? We would love to hear from you! Drop us a line or comment below.

❤ Jasmine

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