How to declutter toys for good (plus save money and reduce waste)
There is research abound on how excess clutter impacts the mental health of adults. Anxiety, depression, stress, and overwhelm are common symptoms. But guess what? Our kids are no exception to these emotions when surrounded by too much stuff.
Why less toys are better
According to an Infant and Behavior Development study, fewer toys creates fewer distractions, which equals better learning. And since we know kids learn through play, this is important information.
Think about it: if you’re surrounded by ‘things’ it’s hard to focus on what to do first. The same thing, according to the above study, happens to our kids. With less toys, kids are able to focus longer on one item/type of play.
Additionally, less toys develops creativity by allowing kids to use their imagination to make ‘new’ uses for the toys.
Toys are definitely an important part of growth and development for kids. Playing with toys has so many benefits. And on a personal level, we certainly aren’t depriving our son of anything. We have just made it a point to be mindful about the number of toys that he has and try to focus on engaging him in other activities that we find important as well.
Decluttering kids toys
Decluttering kids toys may seem like an overwhelming area to work through, but my family and I found that it really helped to break it down into small areas. This made it not only manageable but doable!
One of the main things I recommend when starting to declutter is to be prepared (cue song from Lion King).
TIP: First, I want you to gather give bags/boxes/piles and label them with the following categories:
- 5 boxes/bags/piles:
- give away to friends/family
For the items you are keeping, put them back in the spot where it will be stored. This will come in handy later.
It may seem like a lot at first, but having these ready to go makes it a lot easier to keep track of what you are doing, and less likely to get overwhelmed. It also can help to track your progress and keep you motivated by seeing all the things you are giving away/selling.
Have a plan
The second thing I always recommend is to have a plan for where the particular piles/bags/boxes are going to go once you are done with your decluttering. Make sure you have specific people or places for the following categories:
- give away (to whom)
- donate (where to – see ideas below)
- sell (where?)
Knowing this ahead of time gives you fewer excuses to keep the items (trust me, I told myself all the excuses in the past), and allows you to DO SOMETHING WITH THE ITEMS as soon as you declutter, so they don’t just become clutter in another area of your house.
If you are in need of some ideas on where to give away/donate/sell particular items, I talk about it below, but I also have compiled a giant list of places in my post on how to declutter and stay eco-friendly. The idea is to actually do something with the items so they don’t end up in the landfill. That post will show you how!
The actual act of getting rid of the items itself is not the challenging part, in my experience. It’s everything you may come up against. More on that in a bit.
To begin, simply pull out the toys/books/stuffed animals (one category at a time, see more info below), and ask your kids (or have them ask themselves) the following questions:
- Do I use this?
- Do I love it?
- Would it make me (you) happier knowing someone else could use and enjoy it?
- Do I need this?
If you answered ‘yes’ to the questions above and you want to keep an item, put it back (you can organize later if you want, but the important piece is to make sure it has at least a general spot to go).
If you answered ‘no’ to any of the questions above and want to discard of an item, put it in one of your boxes/bins/bags right away.
Honestly, that is it for the actual decluttering piece.
The issues arise in other areas – all the external pieces. I’ll dive into those now.
Rules for decluttering toys
As I mentioned above, the actual act of decluttering is not the most challenging piece (in my opinion). It’s all the external roadblocks that can pop-up along the way of your journey.
Please note: as every family is different, you likely will not resonate with every single one of these tips. And that’s OK. Also, I’m just a mom working her way through parenting like you. I don’t have all the answers, I can only share what I’ve learned through research and my own experience. Please be kind if you find something you don’t agree with. Remember, we’re all in this together.
Here are some of the major roadblocks I often see come up (and that I experienced myself):
To involve or not involve the kids
This is always one of the main questions when it comes to getting rid of kids toys. Unfortunately, there isn’t a black and white answer. It depends on your family and your kid(s) age and temperament.
In my family, we involve our son 95% of the time. We started doing this around 2.5 years old. Before that, I did it alone because, well, he was two and a half years old or younger.
Side note: if this is helpful, Marie Kondo suggests kids as young as three can participate in their own decluttering process.
I’ll get into our decluttering process at home more throughout this post, but here is the gist:
If your kids are old enough to make decisions about their own toys, include them as early as possible (that is my personal opinion)! If your kid is someone who you feel the process would stress them out, or they’d want to keep everything down to a candy wrapper (hi, this was me), then maybe start out on the main project without them, and include them at the end or for just a small part at a time.
One final note: if you are planning on doing it without them, I would recommend doing it when they’re not home and making sure to hide or do something with the items right away. If not, this could lead to a lot of unpleasant things.
Make it fun
Ok- bear with me here. I know I’m the odd duck who actually loves decluttering, but listen up. I feel like there is always this immediate overwhelmed emotion that arises when the word ‘decluttering’ is mentioned, and I get it, I really do. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t make the process as fun as possible.
I recommend putting on your favorite (or your kids’ favorite) tunes, podcast, or show, grabbing some yummy snacks and beverages, and get started! I will caveat this: if you’re partaking in this process with your kid(s), a TV show or movie may be too distracting. Again, you know your kid(s) and what will set them up for success!
Putting a little pizzazz into process makes it much smoother than if you go into it already feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
Start with one ‘category’ at a time (ex. books, then stuffed animals, etc)
No matter what area of your house you’re working in, I always recommend breaking the area down into smaller categories. This helps for a couple of reasons.
First, it makes the area seem much more manageable.
Second, if you want or need to break up the whole project over multiple days, this gives you a clear stop and starting point.
Adding kids to the mix? Depending on the age, the kid(s) may benefit from smaller and shorter projects. For example, at almost four, I know I can keep my son’s full attention for about 15 mins. Anything after that, he starts wandering off, and if we’re pushing 30 mins, forget it.
A recurring theme: you know your kids and how long they’ll last. Try and work to help set them up for success. They’ll be more likely to participate in the future.
I had a piece in here about not forcing your kids to declutter (and note that I’m separating out decluttering from cleaning). In my experience, if you have a family member who is not on board, forcing them is not going to ‘get them on board’.
Nor is going through their things and doing it yourself.
Now. With kids, I realize this is a little different, especially depending on how old they are, hence why I took that piece about not forcing them out.
However. In my case, my son is usually on board with going through his stuff in small, manageable amounts. Therefore, when he says he wants to keep an item, even if I don’t think he plays with it all that much, I don’t force the situation and I let him keep it.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m the adult. But, I want to build trust with my son and the process. I don’t want our decluttering progress to get to a point where I ask him about an item, yet it doesn’t matter what he says because I’ve already made up my mind. That doesn’t sound like a collaborative approach to me.
Do I give my opinion? Yes.
Do I sometimes declutter an item that I 100% know he won’t miss? Yes. But this is about 5% of the time.
Do I sometimes hold on to an item that I think he may actually miss? Yes.
Building trust in this process will likely get you farther than if the whole thing becomes one big fight. And if your kid(s) starts to think they can’t trust you in getting rid of their stuff, that is only going to want to make them hold on to their things more.
Previously, I mentioned a question you can ask your kids (or have them ask themselves) to help determine if they should keep or give away an item.
As a reminder, that question was: if they would be happy knowing someone else could use and enjoy the item, OR, similarly, if we should give the item to a friend to play with.
This latter is the number one question my family and I use when we’re decluttering my son’s toys with him. The former is the number one question I go to if I’m having difficulty decluttering a certain item.
Why do I think these questions are important?
For my son, he knows he enjoys having toys. We talk about how having toys makes him feel (responses: happy, good). We’ve talked about how some kids don’t get to play with or own as many toys as him. We are big on empathy in our house (thanks, Daniel Tiger), so we talk about how we would feel if we didn’t have certain items and how others may feel if we give our toys to them.
Additionally, we really hype up how kind it is when someone gives my son a toy or clothes (response: makes us feel good and happy), and equate that to how others feel when they get toys/clothes that he gives away.
All this has resulted to when it comes to getting rid of his toys, my son has been able to determine toys he is done playing with and wants to give to a friend. In my opinion, a little empathy goes a long way, and it has certainly benefited us on our decluttering journey.
If you or your kid would benefit from a visual version of this, volunteering may be a good option too!
Do you have a kid(s) who is having trouble letting go of certain items? Or maybe there aren’t any you want to get rid of, but you don’t have space to keep them all out at once.
Rotating toys is basically as it sounds – you divide up the toys, store them away, and after a certain amount of time, switch them out.
How often should you rotate? That is up to you. The most common time frame I’ve seen is seasonally (also easy to remember), but I’ve seen as often as weekly.
The benefits of rotating toys is that it keeps the toys you own fresh and makes them last longer (minimalist and zero waste friendly). It also limits the number of items to clean and keep track of. Finally, it provides the benefits mentioned at the beginning of the post surrounding less toys.
What about frequently played with items? If your kid(s) has a certain item they LOVE and constantly play with, don’t feel you have to pack it up. Use your best judgement here!
Pick a certain number of items they can keep
I often see the question of ‘how many toys should I let my kids keep’? Of course, there is no magic number. It completely depends on your kid, the space available, and your mental and physical desire to clean (or argue with them to clean).
However, I’ve seen some decluttering guides suggest a good way to keep toy clutter down is only keeping a certain number of toys. Maybe that’s 20, maybe that’s 10…you get the idea. The benefits of this method include ensuring that you only have a small amount of toys at all time. And, it’s easy to know when you need to get rid of some.
This method personally doesn’t work for our family, and I don’t feel like spending my time counting up toys on a regular basis.
But for others, it works! If this seems like a good fit, try it out for a couple of months and see how it goes. You can always adjust as needed.
My family personally goes with the next method which is…
Make sure everything has a designated place
After decluttering over 140 large boxes of items, I’ve found a key to keeping clutter to a minimum is to make sure everything has a place. If something doesn’t have a place, that’s when it starts contributing to clutter. And it doesn’t matter how much you organize- if you don’t have enough room for all your stuff, you’re never going to be organized.
My son has his room and a designated spot upstairs and downstairs for his toys and that is it. If things start getting to a point where they’re overflowing and/or don’t fit into the storage areas, I know it’s time to declutter.
Note that this doesn’t mean his toys are never sprawled across the floor. Because they are. And often. But cleaning up doesn’t take a ton of time because there is a spot for everything. The problems we had before happened because there were too many items for the space provided.
Final note on this one: if you’re having trouble coming up with a space because there is too much stuff, pull all the toys/books/stuffed animals out and put them in the middle of the floor. From there, see what type of space you have to work with, and assign accordingly. Declutter using the steps mentioned at the beginning of this post.
Tips to further reduce clutter, save money, and/or reduce waste:
What to do with old toys
Now that you’ve gone through and decluttered the toys, what do you do with them? What if you find some that are broken? Missing pieces?
Here are some resources:
Broken toys/toys with missing pieces:
- Little Tykes has an option where you can purchase missing or broken parts to fix a toy
- Lego also sells individual pieces for missing or broken items. Additionally, they have a program where they accept old legos and donate them to kids in need.
- Have a lot of people in your community who may benefit from broken toy recycling? Terracycle has a zero waste toy box which accepts broken toys. It does cost money, so going in with other families or through an organization can be useful!
- Use broken toy pieces for arts and craft projects!
- Use broken toys as an exploration experiment. Allow kids to take it all apart, try and figure out went wrong, put it back together, etc.
- Check out sites like Angie’s List for people in your area who may be able to fix broken toys
- Have some pieces that could be considered e-waste or batteries (which should never go into a landfill)? Check with your local county to see if they accept e-waste, or try places such as Best Buy or using this e-waste recycling locator.
- Tiny Toy Company will take back broken toy pieces and upcycle them into other learning materials. Note: they are Canadian based.
- Stuffed animals in new or like-new condition can often be donated to local police departments for police officers to give to kids during emergency situations. Check with your local law enforcement department to see if they will accept stuffed animals
- Stuffed Animals for Emergencies: similar to above, this organization collects and cleans stuffed animals and provides them for kids in emergency situations. Visit the website for details.
- Some dog owners will happily take stuff animals for dog toys
- Offer them for free on local groups
- Call your local recycling center (or anywhere that recycles textiles) to see if they accept stuffed animals, or if they will accept certain parts
- Second Chance Toys: This organization is only located in a handful of cities, but if one of them is yours, this could be a great option for getting rid of toys.
- Consider a local toy library: Toy libraries often take donations. We have a toy library in our city and it is an amazing resource. We literally check out toys – just like you would books at a book library. It is a great way to save money and reduce waste.
- Host a toy swap with friends and community members! Mama Minimalist has a great infographic about how to host a toy swap.
- Donate to a local thrift shop
- Give away
Looking for more ideas on where to responsibly get rid of toys or other items? Check out my post: The Eco-Friendly Magic of Tidying Up.
Ways to prevent toy clutter from coming back in
After you’ve gone through a big decluttering project, the last thing you want is to have the clutter come right back in. While you can’t 100% prevent clutter from seeping back in, there are things you can do to prevent it and take care of it before it gets out of hand:
This may be one of the hardest areas, because often times it is completely out of your control. I have an entire post on minimalist and zero waste gift giving which goes through how to handle gifts after you’ve decluttered. Be sure to check it out to find tips on how to handle gift giving and receiving.
One item in, one item out rule
One way to keep clutter down is to get rid of one old item for every new item you bring in. I follow this rule 100% of the time with my clothes, and probably 75% of the time with other items. Because I am constantly decluttering, I’m often getting rid of stuff without having a new item to bring in (note that for this to be successful I considerably limit my overall consumption).
We’re not 100% strict on this rule for toys, but follow it pretty consistently for books. My son has four small bins available for his books, and they’re always full. Because we don’t have any other places for books, if a new one comes in, we find one to give to our local free little library. This prevents a stockpile of books that overflow and become clutter.
Overall it’s a good rule of thumb on keeping too much stuff from coming in without anything going out.
As I just mentioned, I continuously declutter. For my own items and household items, we have boxes in almost all of our closets that are specifically for clutter. That way, any time we come across an item we no longer need or want, it goes right in that box. When the box is full, I sort accordingly to the five boxes/bags/piles listed at the beginning of this post, and handle the items that way.
With my son, every time we clean his room we go through his toys/books/stuffed animals to see if there are any items he no longer wants/needs. That way, we stay on top of the clutter and it makes everything much more manageable.
Start putting value on experiences over material goods
Since my son was born, when people would ask what he wanted for (insert holiday here), we always included a few toys, but also a lot of experiences (classes/lessons, memberships to local museums and zoos, etc).
Why do we do this? We really want to put value on experiences and spending time with loved ones over ‘things’.
As adults, we don’t exchange gifts for birthdays, and usually only one gift for Christmas. Instead, we go for a hike or indulge in another experience.
We’re hoping by instilling these values into our son early on, he will realize that it’s not always about ‘stuff’. And that stuff is just that…stuff.
Does this mean he never asks for items that he sees in the store or on TV? Of course not. In fact, he asks pretty much all the time and, he constantly tells us he wants x, y, z.
On the other side, we don’t want to go so extreme that he feels like he needs to start hoarding items. We try to find a balance in knowing it’s OK to like ‘things’, but they’re not everything.
Evaluate your personal and family values. What are the things you love? Are they things? I’m going to guess if you really boil down, the answer is no. From there, simply change the focus on birthdays and holidays to spending time with people instead of making them all about the gifts! The process will take time, but will be worth it.
My family and I started practicing gratitude together when my son was around three years old. I’ve had my own practice on and off for years, and my husband has even dabbled in his own.
The research on having a regular gratitude practice are clear: it’s super beneficial. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty here, but if you’re interested, I’ve got a post all about the benefits of gratitude and how to start a gratitude practice here.
One of the benefits I will get into is that a regular gratitude practice can help us appreciate the things we already have. It can make us realize that we’re pretty dang lucky- which is great for when you’re trying to adopt minimalism, and reduce consumption and clutter.
What does our gratitude practice look like? It’s nothing official, I promise.
With my son, we reflect on our day during dinner and share one of our favorite things we did or had happen to us. That is it!
Additionally, when my son talks about all the new toys that he wants, we acknowledge him wanting those items (we feel it’s important not to shame here), and then remind him that he already has a lot of awesome things. We talk about how it’s not bad to want new things, but that we also want to enjoy the ones we already have. Nine times out of 10, he forgets about the item within 10 minutes.
For my practice, I (off and on) write down 10 things in a journal each day that I’m thankful for. My husband’s practice is similar.
Again – the focus here is not to shame our son because he wants new toys. Just as we wouldn’t shame an adult for wanting a new item. Sometimes it is fun to imagine and dream. As for my son? He’s a kid. And marketers know how to make things ‘super awesome’ so kids (and adults) want them. It’s OK that he wants them. And for gifts, he gets ‘things’. But we also talk about the other components and our other values as well- experiences, and how lucky we are to have the things we already own.
If you’re new to gratitude, try starting with your own practice . It’s easy and something you can do right now! Then, incorporate as a family. It can be as in depth or simple as you want. The important thing is to start appreciating the things you have and it can help you and your family discover the things that really mean the most (that likely won’t be physical things).
Buy/request (preferably secondhand) high quality toys
You know how I just said it’s OK to want (and get) items occasionally? Well, there are ways you can do so AND maintain your minimalist and eco-friendly journeys.
First, buy secondhand. The most sustainable item is a secondhand item because it’s already in existence. No new materials went into making the item. And besides, the way kids go through toys, buying secondhand is a great way to again- save on waste, but also save money!
Second, look for high quality toys. High quality toys may cost a little more upfront (look secondhand to get them at a better price!) they will last longer, and in my experience, have a better resale value.
Third, look for items that are multi-use. Think costumes that can be used year round for dress up (can reuse for Halloween), blocks, legos, dolls, and any other item that doesn’t just have one specific function.
Kids will imagine different ways to use that single item, which not only benefits their development, but also doesn’t require as many items!
Utilize community resources
One of the main components to preventing clutter from coming back in is lessening our consumption. A great way to do this is by utilizing resources in your community – specifically rental resources like libraries.
In regards to kids toys and books, we are very lucky to have a book library, free little libraries, and a toy library in our community.
Book library: You are likely familiar with a book library, so I won’t get into the details here. The only thing I will say is that if there is a particular book that we are looking for, I’ll immediately check the library before buying it. Getting into this habit has saved us a ton of money, clutter, and reduced waste. You know how you developed the habit to check Amazon for anything you want? You can do the same for the library.
Toy library: A toy library is exactly as it sounds- and it is amazing. To check for a toy library in your area, click on this link here. Just like with the book library, the toy library has been monumental in saving us money, clutter, and reducing waste. If there are toys that I know the toy library has, I don’t buy it! It is also a great resource for ‘trying out’ toys and finding out which ones my son will play with for a week and which ones he keeps coming back to.
Don’t have a toy library in your area? Consider a toy swap with friends, family, or neighbors! You can get the same benefits of a toy library with a swap. Google/Ecosia and Pinterest have a ton of resources on how to start one.
Free little libraries: We love our local free little libraries. They are a great resource not only for finding ‘new’ books, but also giving away books. This resource helps us follow the ‘one item in, one item out’ rule that we closely follow for books. To find a free little library in your area (or for information on how to set one up), check out the official page.
Request kids save for/buy their own toys
This tip is age dependent, but can be useful in managing how many toys/books come in your home. Once your kid(s) is old enough to start saving and spending their own money, requiring them to buy any new toy item they want can really limit how much comes in. Not only that, but it is a great way to teach them important financial habits!
Limit TV time
Before we get any further, note that I am not suggesting you don’t have screen time. Yes, I’ve read the research, but I’m also a parent. Let’s be clear. My son gets screen time. We watch shows and movies on DVD. He probably gets way more than he should some days.
I’m not preaching at you to not give your kid screen time (and alternatively I’d appreciate not being preached at for giving my kid screen time).
But here is what I’m suggesting. Limit the amount of actual TV time. We got rid of all our TV channels years ago, and haven’t looked back. We have Hulu (which only I use), Netflix, and apps like PBS kids video. We also check out shows and movies from the library (for free!). Finally, we ask for certain TV shows/movies for gifts, or buy them secondhand at thrift shops, Redbox, etc.
A few months ago we went on vacation. We stayed in a hotel one night, and let me son watch TV- specifically Nick Jr. After almost every. single. commercial, he would turn to my husband and I and say something along the lines of:
“That is super cool. I want that.”
I said it before: marketers know how to get kids (and adults) to want their items! To be 100% honest, it made me REAAAAALLLLY glad that we didn’t have TV channels.
Instead of constant regular TV, try switching it up to Netflix or Amazon Prime or another streaming service. Yes, they have ads, but for the time being, the ads are just for other shows- not things. See if you notice a difference in your kids asking for toys!
And that’s it! What tips do you have for decluttering kids toys? What has worked for you in preventing toy/book clutter from coming back in?
If you liked this post and want to see others in the series, check them out here:
- How to declutter your closet for good (plus save money and reduce waste)
- How to declutter your kitchen for good (plus save money and reduce waste)
- How to declutter your bathroom for good (plus save money and reduce waste)