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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 an 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:

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Reading Time:

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  1. Suse Fish

    Brilliant. x

  2. Jessica

    Number 3, ouch! I don’t even want to think of the number of times the kids have put a toy get put in the giveaway pile only to have me reel it back in. I always want to wail, but it will promote your STEM skills or it’s an original Tonka, how can you NOT want to play with it?

    Glad to have you back here, even if only for a drop-in. We’ve missed your voice!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Totally understand! Been there before.

  3. HokieKate

    Ugh, my kids have too much. My four year old LOVES EVERYTHING. Last night she was in tears because I threw away a scrap piece of paper, not realizing that was the paper that she uses to measure her puzzles. I don’t know why she’s measuring her puzzles.

    What happens when the toys meet all of your criteria, but it still feels like you have too much?

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      It’s more art than science, but I feel like we all “just know” when it’s finally the right amount. You know? So I box up toys until what’s left feels like the right amount—and then put that box in storage. In 3 months or so, if the kids haven’t asked about those things, either rotate them out with the toys that were previously out, or let them live elsewhere in some capacity.

      That’s just me. 🙂

  4. Brandi

    And now I have Christmas present ideas to give the grandparents. They tend to go overboard sometimes. Thanks for this list!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Sure thing!

  5. Angela @ Setting My Intention

    these are great questions. We did a massive toy purge without kids and with kids but we still have too much. There are things I’m holding onto more for me than them. Thanks for this reminder to let it go!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Isn’t that funny, how we can massively purge things and then still have too much? Wild.

  6. Tricia Paoluccio

    love this article …we live in nyc and my husband and i are freelancers and so our apt is our office….i always joke it looks like we dont have kids bc we have so few toys hanging around! we have one wall of baskets labeled with little tags: blocks, legos, play dough, puzzles, games, cars and trucks and things that go, trains etc etc…there’s only 12 bins and if things dont fit something has to get thrown out. we also have a huge arts and crafts supply cabinet. basically that is it. what i’ve found is that kids really only need very few things and less truly is more. i’m sure reading this blog over the years, and that great book simplicity parenting, have influenced me so much that now it just feels totally natural to who i am and our lifestyle! so thank you!!! also thanks for the post about how to gently tell family members about gift giving…i find this the hardest bc we dont want stufF! we want experiences! and so i’m glad to be reminded how gently and gracefully i need to communicate this to my family…people are more important than things. YES!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Oh, I love this, Tricia! I’d love to see your place. It sounds just right to me. 🙂

  7. Liza Wilson

    Sth-Thank you for this fantastic article! It basically sums up all of these reasons why I created my toy lending library. I would so LOVE for you to come give a talk at my store!
    Please email or call me at your convenience. 512-765-4174. Thanks, Liza

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Hi Liza! Thanks for your interest. Head to our contact page and tell us your details, and someone will be in touch.

  8. Beth

    Speaking of playing with crumbs…I distinctly remember playing “imaginary UNO” a few times with my siblings and my amazing Grandma while we were stuck waiting somewhere with nothing to do. We’d pretend to hold cards and then call out what we were playing. There wasn’t really a competitive point – we just laughed and had silly fun as we pretended to play (and occasionally make the next person draw four 🙂 ). Kid’s don’t even need crumbs to have fun with each other – don’t underestimate them!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Love that. Yeah, kids pretty much need brains to play and that’s it, eh?

  9. Nat

    Great post. No 3 is so true and something I’d definitetly caught myself doing in the past. Another great idea about rotating toys and not having much at home is a toy library. Not sure you have those, but here in the UK (or at least in my town) we have such a library. There are loads of different used toys that you can borrow for a few weeks.

  10. Kim

    All such great reminders! I have a question for you or any readers with crafty kids…what do you do with all of the creations?!? My 5 year old daughter spends hours a day drawing and crafting and everything is a treasure to her…everything. We gave her a “special drawer” in her bedroom dresser to keep all the special paper but it cannot be contained. So, what’s your policy on keeping all the crafty things? input from anyone and everyone is so appreciated.

    • Liza

      We had the same problem. Once the “special box” got filled, then we went through and chose only the best artwork to keep. If there were still too many papers left, then I chose the best out of that. We kept going until there was a reasonable amount (10 or so papers/crafts?) and had plenty of room for more. By working through it with my son, he learned to recognize what’s worth keeping and what was fun for the moment but not necessary for long-term. Several years in to doing this, my son now self-regulates and we no longer have need for that “special box”. I do have a separate file folder for what I call frame-worthy art (and I do frame and hang some of it), which is the truly exceptional art.

  11. Liza

    In my house, the only toys that are played with on a regular basis are the Legos. We’ve pretty much gotten rid of everything else. We have some hot wheels and a couple of nerf guns and that’s the bulk of our collection. Our art cabinet is big but I recently pared that down, too. If they’re not building with Legos, they’re drawing and crafting. Often, they’re crafting things to go along with their Lego city. At first the boys wanted to hang on to toys because they thought they wanted them, but as time went on, they realized that they weren’t using them at all. And when I asked “What about this? Will you play with it?”, they told me to get rid of it. So I did. And those toys haven’t been missed.

  12. Diane

    The two best toys in our house have been PVC plumbing pipes cut into 10″ pieces with various connectors (elbows, tees, etc). They are used everywhere, sandbox to bathtub, instruments to play weapons. We used 1/2″ pipe.
    The other is a huge stack of foam connecting mats I bought for the basement floor. They build forts, mazes, tunnels, everything but what was intended 🙂
    Have had both for years.

  13. Sandy

    I love the picture of your kids playing with the lego. The towel on the table is brilliant: noise-reduction (I am also super-sensitive to noise), and they probably don’t slip off the table as easily!

  14. Amber Joy

    3. Do I love the idea of this toy more than my child actually loves it?—-why is this one so hard!!!

    we declutter toys every few months, i’ve just recently started asking myself this. genius!

  15. Meredith

    Thank you for sharing! My kids are young and we haven’t accumulated *too* much yet in terms of toys, but I can already tell that it will take serious work to keep our house from becoming completely overrun! I also find that right now, my kids (toddlers) don’t even seem to enjoy what toys they do have. Hotwheels cars are a near daily staple, but otherwise nothing will capture their interest for very long. I’ve decided that open-ended toys are definitely the way to go, and that it’s better to wait and see what sorts of things they are drawn to, rather than just buy everything I think is cool or would be fun 🙂

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