Ask these 3 questions when you’re decluttering toys

It’s now officially been five months since we returned from our family’s round-the-world trip and two months since we’ve settled in to our temporary rental house back in the States. (side note: I really can’t believe how fast time flies.)

Our year of travels gave us some incredible perspective on what actually matters to us—specifically when it comes to our stuff. Our things. I was already a massive advocate of not owning more than you need, but the definition of “need” gets redefined even further after you’ve lived without most of your stuff for a long while. And it’s been on my mind a lot as we set up this new pad.

As I mentioned in a recent episode of Brooke McAlary’s podcast, when we returned home, we got rid of truckloads—more than we did before we left (and we decluttered quite a bit!). We’re still getting rid of stuff, in fact. We loved living with so little so much that we want to recapture that lifestyle as best we can in our “normal” life.

Right now, I want to talk about how we chose what to keep, and what our travels taught us about the necessity of playthings. It’s a frequent question I get—how do you handle toys?—and since the last time I wrote about toys was during our travels, I thought it’d be good to re-address it, now that we’re back.

toys in croatia
the kids, window shopping in Croatia

We got rid of a lot of toys this summer. Here are the questions I asked myself during the decluttering process.

1. Do the toys play, or do they allow the kids to play?

I’m highly sensitive to noise, so noise-generating playthings were already my arch nemesis. This meant we didn’t have much to declutter in this department, but it was still a good reminder to ask this question as we sorted through our stuff. Does this toy do all the playing, leaving our kids to do nothing but sit back and watch? Well, then it’s an entertainment piece, not really a toy.

I’m cool with radios, movies, and certain screen-based games—but those are for entertainment. I want our toys to provide the tools our kids need to truly use their imagination.

2. Are the playthings open-ended?

Which is pretty much what I mean when I refer to the imagination. Can this toy be a hundred things? Can the kids use it five different ways today, and still use it five different ways tomorrow?

This is why kids love cardboard boxes more than the toy itself.

3. Do I love the idea of this toy more than my child actually loves it?

This was a big one for me, and a new question I hadn’t before thought to ask until I heard someone else mention it. Am I keeping this cool-to-me, vintage action figure because I want my kid to like it? Or does he actually like it?

If I’m holding on to it only because I like it, I’m adding needless clutter to my kids’ choices for play—and studies show that fewer toy options mean a higher likelihood they’ll be played with (for more on this, I highly recommend Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne).

playing with LEGO in our campervan in New Zealand

Our current toy collection

There’s no magic number of toys I think a family should have—we’re all different, with different needs and personalities and preferences. But some of you are curious, so here’s a list of all the toys currently in our home.

(For reference, our kids are 10, almost 8, and 5.)

• Snap Circuits
Wooden marble run
• Matchbox-style cars
• Wooden blocks (homemade, but similar to these)
Lincoln Logs
• A few Green Toys trucks
• A bit of spy or adventure gear—binoculars, compasses, walkie-talkies
• About three stuffed animals each
• A few balls and frisbees, left outside
• Bicycles and scooters
• Card and board games

Out of all this, you know what gets played with the most? Our craft cabinet. It’s full of paper, markers, pencils, glue, duct tape, yarn, stickers, cardboard tubes, cardboard scraps, and random leftover packaging. And it’s everyone’s favorite. It’s the first thing they go for after schoolwork. They also grab our stack of throw blankets and build forts near daily.

our current craft cabinet
our current craft cabinet

In all honesty, about a third of the toys listed above still aren’t really being played with, so we’ll probably get rid of more (starting with garage storage, as a test). I’ll update this post when that happens.

Our backpack living taught me first-hand how few toys kids really do need. Maria Montessori was right; when kids don’t have something to play with, they’ll still play with the crumbs on the floor. I still smile fondly at the memory of our kids having the best time with a paper notepad cube in a guesthouse in Christchurch, New Zealand—they created hours of open-ended play with little squares of paper, creating board games, playing store, and crafting miniature paper airplanes.

I’m learning to trust my kids’ imagination, and to not stifle it with toys they simply don’t love or need.

my oldest, showing me the Terabithia she built with her siblings and friends when we lived in southern France

After we publish a post here on toys, people usually ask for our opinion on how to handle well-meaning gift givers who give toys we’d rather not have. Megan addressed this beautifully a few years ago, but I’ll add my own thoughts to the blog as well, closer to the holidays, so look for that.

A few more helpful posts from around here:

3 helpful questions to ask when you're decluttering kids' toys. Helpful when you're overwhelmed!

P.S.—If you miss my blog writing right now, that’s because I’m completely focused on my book deadline (except for occasional posts like this, obviously). But I have been keeping up with my monthly personal newsletters, and it’s one of my favorite places to write these days. You can sign up for those here, if you don’t yet get them.

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