According to Maria Montessori, “Play is the work of a child.” I know this is true. I know that my kids’ most important work and learning happens during play – learning about colors and geometry at the light table, physics on our backyard swingset, problem solving and critical thinking building with our blocks on the rug.
So I came to this realization the other day… if play is my kids’ work, then their toys are their office supplies. Our living room rug and their bedroom rugs… those are their offices.
And if this is true, my kids, they’ve got some messy offices. Really disorganized, messy, cluttered offices. Offices with lots of broken supplies laying around, supplies no one needs or uses. Offices where you can’t find anything you need, certainly not all of the parts for the task you want to accomplish. Offices where no one could ever get an iota of work done.
If I want my kids to be engaged in the work of play, I know I have to get their toys, the tools they use for their important work, their offices, their play spaces, organized and under control.
I read Marie Kondo’s The Magic Art of Tidying Up last year and found it pretty life-changing. She encourages people to keep only the things that they love, only the things that truly “spark joy” in their lives. She really highlights the importance of purging things, that without this step, you can’t be truly organized. And after doing some pretty serious purging of my things, I totally agree.
While I can purge my things pretty easily, it becomes a lot trickier the moment I step into my kids’ rooms or play areas. I’ve tried to purge toys with my kids’ input in the past and it has not gone well at all. Picture one toy in the donate pile. Not quite the progress I’m aiming for.
And if I just do it myself when they’re not home? I’m guaranteed that they will immediately ask for the toys that I threw away or donated. You know that broken toy that your kids haven’t played with in 2 years? That will be the one that they ask for when they come home after you go through their toys by yourself. Trust me. You’ll end the night fishing through your family’s trash.
So I sat down and really thought through a plan. How could I get my kids to actually sort through their toys? Willingly, without tantrums, without dumpster-diving.
I came up with a plan: 5 super-simple steps to teach my kids to go through their toys. I made the plan, tried it in our home, and it actually worked! My 3 year old actually sorted through his toys, happily saying goodbye to toys and placing them in a pile for goodwill and putting broken toy after broken toy in a trash pile.
Fingers crossed it’s as effective for you. (And that it continues to work for us.)
THE 5-STEP PLAN
Step 1: Decide on a manageable sorting task
The first thing that I did didn’t even involve my kids. I looked at the toys in our house and decided on one, small, manageable type of toy to tackle first.
I chose animals. My kids love playing with animals so they make up the majority of our toys. I knew that organizing our animals would make a huge dent in the organization of my children’s toys. But I also knew that this was a small enough pile of toys that it wouldn’t be too overwhelming.
After deciding on this type of toy, I collected all of the animals we have in our home and dumped them in the center of the living room floor. Now we were ready to go…
Step 2: Introduce your children to their job
Now you’ll start to involve your kids.
My kids walked into the living room to find all of their animals dumped in the center of the floor and 3 baskets along the side of the room. My oldest looked at me in confusion. I immediately started explaining to him that it was a really exciting day! We were going to sort through all of our animals and say goodbye to ones that were broken or weren’t interesting to us any more. It was finally the day that we got to make room for the new Christmas toys and make all of our things more easy to find, giving all of our toys more room to breathe, and us less work in cleaning up! WOOHOO!!
I was very animated. HUGE smile on my face. Very excited.
I introduced this concept to him as though it was the moment I had been waiting for all of my life.
And this is seriously key… because if this is a drag for you, if you find this hard and show your kids that in any way, they will pick up on it. And they will hold on to every single broken, baby toy like their life depends on it, refusing to part with anything. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Just smile and be excited. (Even though you’re feeling seriously terrified of what your child will do during steps 3-5.)
Step 3: Explain the three baskets
Now that my son was hesitantly excited to start, I explained the three baskets to him. I got out three blank pieces of paper, drawing and writing on each like this: (enter my fantastic art skills…)
I explained to him each basket…
- Trash: “Some of our toys are broken and will go here. These are toys that we used to love but we’ve used SO much that we just can’t use them any more. Since we can’t play with them any more, and other kids can’t either, we have this basket for toys that we need to throw away.”
- Give: “Some of our toys are great toys but they just belong in other people’s houses. We aren’t really interested in them, don’t play with them very much, and these toys would really be happier in a home where they could be played with and loved more often. So this basket is for the toys that get to go to a different home and a different family that’s going to be able to use them more.”
- Keep: “This basket is for the toys that we LOVE. These are the toys that we are really interested in and curious about and that make us smile. Only the things that we love go into this basket because this is our basket for our most special things that we’re keeping.”
Step 4: Model a sort
They say kids learn best by our example, right? That’s why you absolutely cannot skip this step. I’m convinced it’s the reason I was successful this time and haven’t been in the past.
I had planned for this step so had some things waiting on the dining room table to model my sorting. I told Ash that I had collected some things that I needed to sort through before he started… “Remember yesterday we were putting away Christmas decorations and this ornament fell off of the tree?” he nodded. “This used to be my very favorite ornament, but it won’t even hang on the tree any more so we can’t use it any longer, and neither can another family, so I’m putting it in our trash basket.”
I continued modeling with a few more things. Putting my old iPod mini in the Give basket because I used to use it every single day without fail, but didn’t anymore and it now belonged with another family. A Mickey Mouse dinner plate went in the Trash basket because the Mickey Mouse stickers were peeling off of it and it’s not safe to use with food any more. A shirt went in the Give basket because I just never wear it; I like it but I don’t love it enough to keep it away from someone else who will use it more.
Step 5: Start Sorting
Now that you’ve spent a lot of time preparing your child for sorting, it’s now their turn to give it a try!
This is the part of the process where you sit next to the big pile of toys in the middle of the room with a huge smile on your face, clapping, encouraging, praising, reminding “Is that something you really LOVE?”, and praying.
Hopefully, with all of your prep work, your child follows the example that you’ve set for them and they actually sort their toys between the three bins, putting some in the “Give” and “Trash” baskets.
I have to say, my son shocked me by his willingness to sort through his toys very practically, not tying too much emotion to his “things”. (I admittedly had a harder time than he did with this process. The stuffed animal he carried everywhere for 6 months last year may or may not currently be hidden on the top shelf of my closet, despite the fact that Ash had placed it in the “Give” basket.)
I plan on continuing this process with my kids a couple of times a year because I know that our toys won't stay organized unless we continue to purge and monitor what our family uses and needs from time to time. And I want my kids to be raised knowing that “things” are just that… THINGS. And that although all of our “stuff” has a place in our home, there also comes a time for it to go. So that we have more space and time to work. And more importantly, more space and time to play.