Updated: Sep 29
With charity shops about to re-open and Spring arrived bringing longer days, now is a good time to sort through the toy cupboards and give the toys you have a new lease of play life, whether through donation or through re-igniting play with unused toys in your home.
Clutter in the home makes me as an adult feel stressed, so its unsurprising that children too can feel overwhelmed with access to a lot of toys, which then can reduce independent play, imagination and concentration and lead to increased sibling squabbles.
A UK study from 2015 found that children on average receive 38 new toys per year. A typical child owns 238 toys but parents think they play with just 12 'favourites' on a daily basis making up just five per cent of their toys. Whilst a survey by the British Heart Foundation discovered that, on average, a child loses interest in a toy within just 36 days.
'An avalanche of toys invites emotional disconnect and a sense of overwhelm'
Dr KJ Payne (Author, Simplicity Parenting)
But what's the best way to declutter so you keep the toys that are most beneficial for long term play-value and independent play?
How To Declutter:
1. Remove anything that is broken, has missing pieces, has dried up (playdough/felt tip pens), is a duplicate or is not age appropriate - this includes toys that they find too difficult to play independently with.
2. Unless it is well loved, remove anything noisy and battery operated that creates passive interaction and tends to be overly 'busy' with buttons, lights and sounds. Toys that offer high play value should be 90% child, 10% toy. The more passive the toy, the more active the play.
3. Sort their toys into:
Cognitive (thinking) – puzzles, jigsaws, games, shape sorters, stacking rings, colour sorting …
Gross Motor (active movement) – ride-ons, push-alongs, pull-alongs, walkers, balance boards, Pikler frames…
Building & Construction – blocks, railway and road systems, rainbow stackers, marble runs, domino runs…
Creative – arts & crafts, music, mandala pieces, tangram sets…
Social & Emotional (pretend play) – dolls, animals and character figures, dressing up, role play, play sets, vehicles…
4. Be ruthless and remove and reduce toys within each group where there are far too many of the same type of toy. Does your child need 50 cars? Do they need 15 soft toys? Are they into Paw Patrol anymore? Remove anything that irritates you as the parent - we have all received annoying gifts from well-meaning friends and relatives, and remove anything that frustrates your child because it is still too advanced for them or it falls apart too easily and is poorly designed, and if they cannot play with it without help, it doesn't foster independent play.
"As you decrease the quantity of your child's toys and clutter, you increase their attention and capacity for deep play."
Dr KJ Payne (Author, Simplicity Parenting)
5. When putting toys back on the shelves think 'display' not 'storage'. Displaying toys creates an invitation to play. It allows for them to capture their attention and spark imagination, but don't overcrowd the shelves. Also group toys together on a shelf or in open baskets if they are similar or can be themed such as farm animal figures and a tractor can be displayed together.
(Here my son's building blocks are separated into magnetic and non-magnetic blocks but stored out together in the same area.)
If you still find you have lots of toys remaining but can't bring yourself to remove them completely, a popular way of decluttering is toy rotation. Toy rotation allows your children to focus on a particular group of toys and learning in their play rather than all the toys being all out together but it is also a great way to reinvigorate play with unloved toys. As a general rule, a pre-walking child should have 4 toys accessible at a time, a crawling child, 8 toys and a toddler up to 12.
Some families put their toys into two groups and rotate fortnightly or monthly, some choose to sort them into four groups and rotate weekly. It's really what works best for you and your child(ren).
Steps to rotation:
1. Set aside the much loved favourites which won’t be rotated. It's good for children to have some 'staples' that enable familiaritiy and consistency when toy rotating. Try and have these as your more open-play toys.
2. Put the toys you have sorted into their five learning groups into two equal groups – a set of toys that will remain out and a set of toys that will be put away. Grab a large box. Place one of the new groupings into the box and store out of sight. This works really well for toys such as puzzles and games, animal figures (rotating them by type), art & craft sets and we rotate my son's train set with his roadway set.
3. Rotate the two sets of toys either weekly, fortnightly or monthly depending on what works best for you and your child. With rotation it can take a few attempts to find what works naturally for your family, not only in timing, but also with what and how to put items away and how to display the toys you have. Don't be afraid to rotate large items too. We find rotating ours three-ways works well for us - a box of stored items under the bed, a few toys like my son's fire station moved to his bedroom where he plays with it far more there than he did downstairs, and the main toys in use in our dining room/play room.
I hope this helps give you the confidence to have a sort out if needed.
Dealing with broken toys & missing pieces
Repair if possible
Seek out missing pieces from the relevant toy brand. Many now offer replacement parts or will take back broken and incomplete toys.
Remove and recycle any batteries within broken toys.
Many artists work exclusively with donated waste materials. Ask local artists/galleries/art studios and universities if they can make use of toy pieces.
Use broken and incomplete sets to make treasure trays, tinker trays or Mandala sets. Loose pieces are great for counting, colour sorting, shape recognition, categorising and sensory play.
Can any pieces be repurposed? Broken toys can be turned into coat hangers, fridge magnets and picture frames.
See if you have a TerraCycle Zero Waste toy box collection in your area.