live with less: toy clutter

minimalism, toys & toddlers

In the run up to Christmas, I’m growing increasingly twitchy about the deluge of toy clutter about to hit. It feels like I’m constantly trying to find equilibrium, walking a delicate line between a sea of pink plastic in the living room, and sad little Orla playing with a lone broken doll in a corner.

Simplifying is so much more difficult when it comes to Orla’s things – every thing has gooey sentimental memories when I hold it in my hands. ‘She loved this sock when she was two!‘, I sniffle, deciding to keep it for eternity. What’s wrong with me?!
This, plus I firmly believe that as her own little human, she’s absolutely entitled to her own stash of random stuff. We all have our crap piles. I don’t want to rob her of that.

But the truth is, we all benefit from a clutter-free home; with too many toys on show, Orla struggles to concentrate & flits from one activity to the next. I feel like this is a good analogy for my brain, too;  in a cluttered room, it buzzes from hyperactively around, compulsively registering and categorizing all I can see. I need a simple space to slow down, and relax.

So here’s how I’ve learned to keep the excess at bay. This is the first in a series of two posts – the second dealing with what to do with all the clutter you already have. Before that, let’s start with the obvious…

Buying fewer toys

THE VERY BEST TOY
Of course we know this already, but it’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time: the best plaything for your child is you. Our kids would rather have our time & attention than all the toys in the world – and unfortunately no toy will distract them from that fact!

BUY CONSUMABLE
Craft materials, colouring books, seeds, baking kits, bubbles, shaving foam, stickers, goldfish. Stuff to share that will bring hours of joy and then disappear in the bin. Marvellous.

BUY DISPOSABLE
In particular, I am slightly obsessed with cardboard toys, both for their lovely instagrammable aesthetic & their built-in disposability.  Recycling a slightly battered old box-house feels much easier than parting with a barely-used £300 plastic playhouse, I imagine. Making your own cardboard toys is even better – where else can you get a rocket-cum-teashop with built-in letterbox?

minimalism and toys
wooden keyboard c/o Oree

BUY TRANSIENT
Some toys are sort of guaranteed to have a limited ‘play life’ – shopping trolley, baby walker, ride-on car, etc. Loved for one brief, intense month of play and then relagated to background noise, I buy these things from the charity shop super-cheaply, imperfections and all, knowing that I will donate them again in a few months when the novelty has worn off. This somehow circumnavigates my sentimentality-instinct, meaning I find it much easier to re-donate them when they start gathering dust.

BORROW IT
I’ve noticed that Orla gets the most enjoyment out of toys that are new & novel; the play kitchen at toddler group is infinitely more inviting than the one we have at home. It makes lament the fact that we don’t really have toy libraries, as I can see how brilliant these would be both for families as well as the environment. In the absence of such a place, I ask friends, toddler groups and neighbours for swaps.

VISIT THE FUN
Whenever our child love something, it’s seriously tempting to buy your own – she loves the sand at the park, let’s get a sandpit for the garden. Except, in the long run this never seems to pan out the way I expect. I’ve come to realise that part of the fun is in the going, and I’m a much better mum when I’m away from the house and my neverending to-do list, anyway.

QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Not exactly news, but I find buying one really nice wooden or handmade item over a haul of plastic crap means toys last longer, are more engaging to adults (meaning we want to join in the play more!) and don’t clutter up our home as much. Because they’re more expensive, I don’t impulse purchase as much either, which leads me to…

RECOGNISE COMFORT SHOPPING
On days where Orla is sick/at the childminder’s/being hard work, I am much much more likely to spend on cheap, crappy plastic toys to medicate my difficult parenting emotions. Which is fine, but I find it helpful to stop and register when I am doing that, so I can try to make more mindful decisions.

slippers c/o Boden
slippers c/o Boden

Part two, looking at toy storage and stashes, is in the works, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Do you have too many toys? Have you found a system that helps you to buy less crap?

PS – A brilliant post on clutter-free Christmas gifts here

PPS – more of my posts on minimalism & living with less here.

  • Great post. I really need to de-clutter but with work, university and three children with more activities than I ever had I find it hard. I plan on starting to declutter in the new year and keep it that way.

    • Argh, I hear you Kizzy – it can feel too huge to even start when you’ve got so much on! Sometimes I find it helpful to just clear out one thing at a time – so every time I tidy up after Orla’s gone to bed I try to think, ‘do we want this?’ before I put anything away 🙂 x

  • Great post. This feels pretty relevant to me right now. We have do so many toys – I’m a childminder so I have to contend with Ofsteds obsession with “adequate resources”. It’s frustrating as I find its too cluttered and they just trash half of it up anyway.

    We are about to move house so everything is currently in boxes. I’m loving how minimal my house looks and actually Bear seems to play nicer with just a small selection of toys in his toy box. I really want to seriously cut back in our new house. Maybe clever storage is the answer?

    • Ahhh, the Ofsted toy rules! I remember my childminder being scolded for not having enough ethnic diversity in her dolls – such a lot of toys to have!
      Clever storage is totally the answer. My next post on this will talk about this – my childminder has a wall of those big ikea pull out boxes, and each is a category of toys. The kids are only allowed one box at a time, and there’s enough in there for all of them. She’s been doing it for about 40 years and so I’ve followed her wisdom, and it really works! 😀 xx

  • Oh I loved the toy library! Sadly it closed due to funding cuts. I try and rotate some toys, hiding them away so they appear new. But we have too many for our woeful storage. I found my daughters are especially drawn to plastic tat. I find just never going to the huge toy stores helps! And staying away from ebay bargains.

    • Yes! I remember there being on in Manchester back in the sunny days of Labour funding. Haha, you are SO right about just staying away from temptation and pester power. Right now Orla just thinks that toy shops are charity shops, and it’s the luck of the draw as to what’s available each time. I wonder how long I can keep this up? xx

      • My eight year old still thinks of charity shops as toy shops! I think she would hyperventilate if she saw one of the toy superstores.

  • Cariemay

    A proper toy library for big toys sounds like a brilliant idea – there’s a business plan in there somewhere! We try to go for longevity and on our favourite websites we keep a running favourites list so that we know that if we don’t get it this time we won’t forget, which stops us feeling like we have to buy everything right now!

    • Ah, a favourites list is so good, and a great way to make sensible ‘impulse purchases’ when the mood hits! I’m sure Orla would be happy if she didn’t get any new toys for the next three years, but as a parent I just get this strange compulsion to provide for her, and start buying her more and more. I wonder if chimp mamas do this with their babies? HERE BABY, more sticks and leaves! ??

  • I want to just casually leave this post open on so many computers for people to see haha 🙂

    • Hahaha! I like your style! In my old job I used to visit toddlers at home, and it was always fascinating the different attitudes to toys. Some homes had none – nothing but a widescreen TV, and some had so many that they literally filled half the living room.
      Regardless, both types of child just wanted to play with me and whatever I brought, which I guess proves my first point again 🙂

  • Maybe we should make an online toy library! I suspect the reason they always die out is kids get attached to things and parents can’t bear to return them, so they eventually run out of resources…

  • Sheepskins Fairylights

    I was lucky enough to have a toy library when mine were little (they are now 21 & 22 – yikes). We even borrowed Little Tikes climbing frames and play house, really cheaply.
    Now I am a granny I frequent charity shops for toys and always share articles like this with my daughter.
    I used to put toys away, when you then rotate you find that they are REALLY played with like they are new again 🙂 children can be overwhemed so they don’t actually play!!
    Like you Sara I worked in Community, going into houses with THE biggest telly dominating and no toys or toys EVERYWHERE…..& yes, the children always wanted to play with me with my simple bag of tricks!!! The best toy really is us!!
    Some good ideas, thanks for sharing 🙂 XX

  • Julie Robinson

    I’m so pleased I have just found this as only an hour ago, I came downstairs and said to my husband ‘I don’t think we have bought enough’. It’s the same every year, and every year I fail to remember the presents that she has waiting at both sets of grandparents as well as other relatives. And I always forget that I have to house them all!!

  • Fantastic post and thanks so much for the mention!