Minimalizing kids’ toys (a different kind of spring cleaning)

We’ve been living out of backpacks for more than six months now, which means even though I often write about spring cleaning and decluttering this time of year, it’s a bit hard to write about the obvious nuts and bolts of home life from a personal perspective. And I prefer to write from a personal perspective.

So this year, I’m still writing about spring cleaning (last week's was on beauty routines), but from the angle of someone who’s learning to live with less in a very real, albeit very unusual method. We’re living large (= the globe) by living small (= a family of five with backpacks).

Today, I thought we could talk about kids’ toys.

In the past, I typically pick a day or three a la my Organized Simplicity method, and I work through every square inch of our kids’ toys with a simple declutter-clean-organize routine. I ask, “Is this truly beautiful or useful to someone in the family?” (this quote is our guiding principle), and if it is, we keep it—so long as it has a definable home. If it’s not, then out it goes.

I’m still a believer in that simple method, but right now, there’s really nothing for us to declutter, other than a few random drawings on paper scraps, a couple dried up markers, and a plastic toy or two a kid somehow picked up from a restaurant. Or a rock or seashell. That’s it for us right now, literally.

All the other toys we have, the kids value as prized, prized possessions. Here's what they currently have:

• LEGO (just simple bricks, no sets)
• blank notebooks for drawing
• markers, crayons, and pencils
• a couple matchbox cars for the boys
• a few card games (Spot It, UNO, Timeline, and basic playing cards)
• my daughter’s doll
• knitting needles and yarn
• Kindles (with books only—we like the Paperwhites)

The only time they ask for something else is either when we walk by a toy store or souvenir shop, or when they see a photo from their “real” life and suddenly remember a toy waiting for them in storage. Otherwise, they’ve been content with what they have.

kids window shopping

Now, this doesn’t mean they’ve never complained about being bored on this trip, or that sometimes they wish we were done and they could go back to their rooms and toys and be regular kids. But on the whole, they’ve made do with just these toys, and imaginatively added whatever’s around them—leaves, rocks, dirt, water, guesthouse furniture and blankets, towels, tin foil, even food wrappers and containers. It's been fun to watch.

Here’s what the kids are teaching me as I watch them play:

1. Limits are healthy.

All this is really the simple idea of lovely limitations—when you don’t have all the options you’d like, you make do with what you have. And as you make do, you discover that you don’t really miss those things you wish you had.

Limits foster creativity. Limits temper our spirit that cries out for more. Limits breed contentment.

2. As they get older, I’m still a big believer in open-ended toys.

I can deal with LEGO everywhere because they’re a never-ending source of imagination—they’re a spaceship, a castle, a village, a jungle, a robot, a thingamabob. Blank paper can be drawn on, you can scribble out stories and checklists and notes, you can fold them in to paper airplanes, you can create money and play store, you can make signs all over the house. Hooray for open-ended toys!

I’m a massive fan of toys that allow the child to play, not toys that play while the child watches, and thus is passively entertained (aka, most electronic toys). Open-ended toys mean infinite options—they’re more bang for your buck, they’re usually timeless (save them for your future grandkids!), they’re pleasing to multiple kids, and higher-quality ones will last much longer than their plastic, battery-operated counterparts.

3. It’s okay to (sometimes) want more.

I don’t really blame the kids when they pass a toy store and wish they had a New Thing. I do that, too, when I pass a shoe store or a market stall with 5 euro scarves. Admiring and desiring something beautiful isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

We have a finite amount in our bank account, which means very few new purchases as we travel. But I totally get why my 7-year-old son wants a Big Hero 6 action figure, and that doesn’t make him a greedy, ungrateful kid. He just likes it. And that’s okay—I don’t need to correct his desires, or constantly preach to him the gospel of minimalism. He can wish for it, and cross his fingers that he might get it one special day.

We can sometimes read too much into the basic human desire of loving beautiful things.

4. Kids really, really, really don’t need much.

When we return to our normal life in a few months, I hope we keep our lifestyle of minimal playthings. The kids have shown me true childlike contentment with little more than what can fit in a quart-sized bag, so even though we didn’t have a ton of toys back home to begin with, I plan to declutter even more, before we even bring it out of storage.

For over six months, they’ve really and truly been just fine with a smattering of toys. Maria Montessori was on to something when she observed children in povery—given nothing to play with, they’ll still play with the crumbs on the floor.

Limitations are invitations to limitless imagination: why kids don't need many toys. (Actually, this is true for all of us!)

I’m grateful we can afford more than crumbs, but I’m actually doing my kids a disservice when I overload their senses with too many toys. Limitations are invitations to limitless imagination and creativity. And it's not just with kids' toys—I’m learning this with my own entertainment choices, too (more on this soon).

How have you learned this with the children in your own life? And what are your favorite open-ended playthings that stand the test of time?

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53 Comments

  1. Megan

    My kids are teenagers now and finished with toys but if I had to do it over again there would definitely be fewer toys. Our favourites were Playmobil, Schleich animals (especially horses for one horse crazy girl – we saved those) and dolls got a lot of mileage when they were little.

  2. Carrie Willard

    Definitely a minimalist parent here!What convinces me that kids really don’t need toys is how they manage to entertain themselves when we camp … the only toy we bring are bikes, and the kids have a blast.

    • Hannah

      Carrie, that’s a great point! My family moved overseas and, due to some visa challenges, ended up “camping” for six months. We each had one backpack with all of our possessions (clothes, toys books, everything) so our kids had to make some tough choices about what was really important to them. They did an amazing job finding new ways to lay with the few toys they had, but mostly, like you said, they played outside. Water, rocks, and sticks are pretty much endlessly fun for kids of every age (ours range from 1-13). The most amazing part for me as a mom was watching them give away most of the treasures they had collected when we reached the end of that journey.

  3. Suse Fish

    This post really grabbed my attention as only yesterday I was dealing with an upset daughter because I’d slung out the boxes her Furbys came in! Gah.

    I feel like there’s a point at which I’m comfortable with the amount of stuff she has, but it’s so hard to keep it within that. Birthdays roll around all too quickly and she’s worked out that we’re very pro-Lego so that’s kind of lost it’s appeal.

    I suspect that soon I’ll have to enforce some sort of ‘one in-one out’ policy, as we can’t just keep accumulating. Thanks for this post, Tsh. xx

  4. Miriam B

    I remember playing with Legos and Lincoln Logs growing up. Truly some of the best toys out there.

  5. Heather H

    Tsh, I love your blog and follow it closely. I’m surprise to see no ball, skipping rope or frisbee listed among the few travel toys. They are all small, open ended, and encourage physical play in any environment. Those would be items I’d think you’d want the kids to have?

    • Angela

      A balloon ball is great! You have a cloth outer that takes up little space, and simply insert and inflate a balloon inside it (there is a small opening). Let the air out of the balloon when you need to put it away again. You can get these on etsy and small online stores, just search balloon ball.

  6. Brittany Bergman

    Tsh, thanks so much for sharing this gentle wisdom. I’ll admit from the beginning that I’m not totally qualified to speak on this, since I’m not yet a parent. But as a parent hopeful, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this topic, mostly because I’ve seen so many of my friends’ homes become overrun by toys. As a former teacher, I totally agree with the sentiment that toys should be open-ended and breed imaginative play. I sometimes wonder how I’ll handle baby showers (if I’ll want one at all) and birthday parties. I’m considering making them no-gift occasions to avoid the influx of stuff and the hassle of returning or giving much of it away. Like you said, I certainly am okay with desiring things, and I think when I don’t give in to my every desire, it makes each new piece (whether it’s shoes or throw pillows or whatever) that much more special, and I care for it more sensitively. I’d imagine the same is true for kids!

    • Susan

      Our birthday parties consist of very close friends; the same 3 kids every year. Those 3 moms know that I would prefer a gift that is consumable, an activity, or needed clothes. If they ask me, I let them know what piece of clothing my daughter could use and the size. The best gifts are activities, like a pass to the children’s museum!

      • Brittany Bergman

        I love that idea! It’s like a celebratory extension of doing life together. I will keep that in mind! And I totally agree, activities are my favorite gifts to give and to receive!

    • Jeanna

      We’ve had some excellent parties where we request certain kinds of gifts. One year we asked people to bring a photo of themselves and a note about a favorite memory of my daughter. We compiled them into a small notebook for her. It was meaningful and takes up very little space. 🙂 Another time we asked for the name of favorite books so we could check them out and read them together. One year my daughter loved rocks so much that we threw a rock themed party and asked friends to bring a small rock painted or decorated somehow. Then we kept them all together and used them for playing with and sometimes as story rocks. So there are ways to still do gift giving and be fairly minimalist. You just have to be creative about it. 🙂

    • mreeanne

      For my kids’ birthday party, (their birthdays are a week apart so we have a joint party) we ask for toys to donate to Operation Christmas Child and for the fire fighters’ Christmas toy drive. We have been doing this for years.

  7. Emily

    Oh I just love this. I feel that a majority of the time children with less appreciate it so much more. My girls can entertain themselves with anything!! Anything cardboard or anything with a handle can be fun for hours. Bonus if there is a tag attached. 🙂

    Recently, my 3.5 received clothing that was in cardboard packaging with a hanger included…both my 1.5 and 3.5 year old played with the hanger and packaging for days in a row!

    But…my house still has so many toys. I have purchased approximately 1% of them. They end up receiving many toys (many very fun, oftentimes open-ended great toys, usually appreciated), but…I just don’t know how to organize and declutter them. I have trouble giving away toys that people lovingly pick out for them.

  8. Angela @ Setting My Intention

    I just recently donated a few large garbage bags of toys. I kept the timeless toys (blocks, Legos, tinker toys, etc) but I know there can be more editing. I’m happy that my 5 year old is embracing editing! We’re implementing one in at least one out and heavy editing before holidays and birthdays.

  9. annie

    My kids are builders, while Legos are fine, we like the metal erector set and the Fort Magic. We also have a number of other building type sets. My criteria is open ended (with some directions for complicated things) and they need to be different enough from each other. We have magnets, Knex, gears and marble runs, and snap circuts, but they all are used for Homeschooling as well.

  10. Alissa

    My kids have a playroom FULL of toys, and most days, they are creating out of paper and craft supplies.

    Anyone have tips to avoid the accumulation of toys from extended family? (we have asked for “experiences” instead, but nobody likes to give movie tickets when they know the kids will squeal with delight over new toys…)

    Here’s the cycle:
    – Generous relatives give toys for Christmas and Birthdays, maybe even a small Easter gift or the random “picked this up on our way to visit you” item.
    – These gifts are given in LOVE and, of course, the kids enjoy these items.
    – Mom and Dad feel like we kind of need to match the generosity of the relatives and often end up buying last minute gifts so that our little celebrations feel as “fun” as the ones with extended family.
    – Repeat for several years and our house is packed.

    Maybe I need to work more on the internal and “get okay” with gifts from relatives being more fun than what we give as parents… I can only change myself, right?

    • jess

      Have you read the book Boundaries by Henry Cloud? It changed me…not specifically in this area, but in a broader sense that helped me deal specifically with well-meaning people. Start there and that might help your perspective on how to deal with the good (or not so good) intentions of others. And it’ll give you the freedom to be okay with making theses kinds of choices. 🙂

      • jess

        oops, i meant to say to deal specifically with how to deal with GIFTS from well-meaning people.

    • Angela

      We had a similar “problem”, but it’s gotten better over the years. For those that want to get toys, we try to be gracious. Let the children have fun with those toys. They tire of them quickly, and then we pass them along. Believe me, if you give your children experience gifts that they actually want to do, they will remember that much longer than a toy they tired of quickly. If you have a son into pirates and tell him you are taking him to play pirate mini-golf (and you don’t regularly play), he will speak of it for YEARS!

    • Heather

      I’ve come to realize that my kids don’t really care or remember who gave them the gift, so when they get gifts from others, it let’s me off the hook. I rarely by gifts for my kids anymore, they get plenty from others, and they don’t even notice. Also, well meaning family want your kids to enjoy thw gifts. When they are no longer being enjoyed, don’t feel bad about giving them away. To speed this along, when you notice a neglected toy, pack it away. If they don’t ask about it after awhile, donate it.

    • Jenny B.

      We have the same issue. Between our two oldest boys, we have 16 years worth of birthday and Christmas presents in our house. It’s overwhelming. Some of our extended family members have honored our requests to limit the amount of gifts they give, but our kids still get a lot of stuff. My mom also gives me grief when I get rid of things. I’ve tried to tell her that they will remember the time she spent with them, not the amount of $$ she spent on them, but she still seems to think anything they have received as a gift from anyone in the family should be a treasured item to keep forever. It’s very frustrating and is a source of much guilt. Couple her criticism with my kids’ reluctance to give anything away, and I give up. We just keep all the stuff. I don’t know how to get rid of things without hurting everyone’s feelings, even though I know in the long run, it will be good for my kids and my home. This is something I think about daily as I look around at our horribly cluttered house.

  11. Nicola

    I totally hear you on this…I just wish I could figure out how to be more minimalistic when it comes to kids. We regularly go through my son’s bed room. Do you want this? ‘Yes” do you really need it? “Yes I really really do Mum!” and so the cycle goes. We’ve got rid of pretty much all of the cheap and nasty stuff and are left with nice stuff…but too much of it! How do others manage to take away loved toys – please tell me your secrets!

    • Liza

      Rotating toys helps. Put half if them in box out of sight. In a couple of months, pull the box out and switch out the toys in the box for the ones on the shelf. I did this and after a few rotations, my “keep everything” son realized that he didn’t truly want most of what he had. The few toys he loved were the ones he was constantly asking for when they were out of sight. We kept those and got rid of the rest.

      If you really want to completely get rid if things now, set a number of things to keep or toss. Like, “we’ll get rid of 5 toys today.” Lay all the toys out and say “which one do you like the most?” Then have him keep choosing the ones he likes the most out of what’s left. Keep going until you’ve reached the number limit of things to keep or toss. It’s easier for kids to get rid of things if they see that they’re able to keep their favorites.

    • Angela

      This is our issue, with 3 children, and even just the really nice toys, we have way too much. I know their favorites. You could simply sweep away the toys that don’t get much play time, but for older children, I want them to be able to choose to give things away. It hasn’t gone well yet, but now I realized that we can use a similar concept to the reason we don’t eat out often-so we can save up for special days. Perhaps we can set a goal of how much to get rid of and plan a celebration at the end that they find worth more than all the *extra* toys. Another idea is to set a goal to get rid of a certain amount and then get one big thing the whole family can enjoy together-perhaps setting up a comfy seating and grilling area outside, a really fun yard toy like croquet, a swing set or trampoline! Or even going on a dream vacation.

  12. Greer Oharah

    So helpful to hear these thoughts before I enter the kid-raising season. Thanks for your words!

  13. Ashleigh

    A card table and blankets will stand the test of time- they’ve been castles, train cars, houses, space ships, forts, etc in our house for nearly a decade. Both genders, all ages- provides hours of fun and imaginative play!

  14. Tara Schiller

    Excellent post! I’ve always loved open ended toys, and was even surprised by some toys that ended up being open ended. Like a set of those squeezable animal toys (Little People?) for a farm set. Those became money, food, a family, an audience. My kids were so creative.

    And Legos are the obvious one. When we were traveling around with our family of 6, Legos were the only actual “toy” we had with us.

    I also love that you realize it’s not greedy to want things. That’s very insightful.

    Another encouraging post. Thanks for sharing.

    -Tara

  15. Dolly Serious

    Never underestimate the value of a cardboard box either. They can be castles, rockets, ships, houses, shops… The possibilities are endless. With the addition of some paint and stickers a cardboard box will keep them happy for hours! Though we’ve occasionally had tears when their creations have finally fallen apart and gone to the recycling bin.

    • Liza

      My youngest digs through the recycle bin so he can “make crafts out of junk”. He mostly covers it all with construction paper and tapes things together. It gets him outside (I don’t let it back in the house) and he’s being creative. And when he’s done, it can all go right back into the recycle bin.

  16. chandra

    YES! YES! YES! this post really resonated with me. i feel like i’ve gotten *so* many eye-rolls over the years, refusing to let my kiddo swim in piles and piles of toys, just to keep him entertained, quiet, and what our culture for some reason believes to be “happy.” i’m also a huge fan of open-ended toys. i’m a firm believer in giving kids the freedom to use their imagination. there is so much value in letting kids explore their worlds and make meaning connections on their own without being force-fed everything. this incredible travel adventure that you’re on with your family is super inspiring. thanks for sharing!

  17. Linda Sand

    Someone beat me to the cardboard box item so I’ll say cooking gear. Making mud pies is fun and kids can measure the water they add to the dirt to learn about portions of wet vs. dry. And they can learn about solar cooking power just by setting their pies in the sun. Butter knives let kids cut their pies safely. Plus, my friends and I used to make lots of “food” from modeling clay learning about presentation along the way–pimento stuffed olives, anyone?

  18. se7en

    Oh this post… A couple of years back our toy situation was just crazy and our kids were totally over gifted by grandparents, we did a massive reduction down to a couple of essential toys, or what we thought were essential. But a few summers back I realized that our kids were spending most of each day tidying toys away… tidying up time was taking more and more of the day. We decided to make a radical move and took all the toys except LEGO and Wow toys and a couple of wooden toys away… popped them into the garage and they were “gone.” I figured if they asked for them they could have them back… nobody ever asked for anything – we donated the lot and never looked back. Kids really do play with anything and the fewer toys they have the more intense seems the play. Less and a lot less, turned out to really works for us.

  19. kariane

    This is very well put. I go through my boys toys regularly with the same eye. Open ended toys and art supplies comprise most of what we keep for them. I agree that they don’t need more. My boys spend hours outside playing with sticks, rocks, and dirt. I think it’s the best thing for them, and they make up the most wonderful games using only things found in our yard (along with an occasional piece of rope or string). Fantastic!

  20. joanna

    My kids found a hockey puck at the park today and invented a rolling game that lasted a good two hours. Love that. We have more than is needed but I’m always getting rid of the crappy things we accumulate and am buying far less. They definitely are more creative the less they have. So am I. And I’m happy to be teaching that to them. Thx for the continued inspiration and helping me sort through all this parenting stuff.

  21. Margaret

    As we speak, they are playing (with Dad) with an air mattress on the stairs. Our favorites are: blocks, cardboard boxes, wooden train set, Legos, and the outdoors. We have a lot of other toys, but I’m passing them on as quick as I can.

  22. Kelsi

    “We can sometimes read too much into the basic human desire of loving beautiful things.” This quote speaks so clearly to me. Just because something (an object) is beautiful doesn’t mean I have to own it. I can simply enjoy its beauty.

  23. Melissa Saaranen

    While we thought we were doing a good job keeping toys to a minimum, it doesn’t take long to accumulate things. The stuff my son had was, in reality, nothing compared to an average American household. But it was still a lot to us. We recently had a house fire…two weeks ago. We lost a lot of “stuff”, but the house can be fixed. My 16 month old son lost all but a little stuffed elephant, his blanket, a few plastic Tonka trucks in the sandbox, a plastic toy camera that was in the pickup and a Thomas the Train that he can ride on. He currently has less than 20 toys total and we hope to keep it around this number for quite some time. I am on an emotional roller coaster at the moment, but there is a positive side to this terrible experience…..and I intend to write about this and how it has altered our lives. Thank you for all the inspiring posts!!

  24. Sarah M.

    Tsh, I’d love to hear your take in Marie Kondo…Similar to that William Morris quote (which I also love and live by), she says to ask yourself “Does this spark joy?” about each of your possessions, disposing of those that don’t pass the test. This has really helped me to simplify to the greatest degree that i ever have. When it comes to toys, I ask myself “Does this truly spark joy for one of my children? (Do they enjoy playing with it? Do they play with it frequently?)” If not, I dispose of it. Also, we regularly ask for used books and clothes for gifts.

  25. Humairah

    I feel like there’s a point at which I’m comfortable with the amount of stuff she has, but it’s so hard to keep it within that. Birthdays roll around all too quickly and she’s worked out that we’re very pro-Lego so that’s kind of lost it’s appeal. love quotes

  26. Devi

    I’m getting ready for six weeks in Sri Lanka and Australia, half of which I’m doing on my own with our two boys, so I read this with interest.. I’ve been a bit stressed thinking about keeping them occupied.. so thank you for giving me a reason for less. I’m going to take the legos and lots of paper and art supplies. Hopefully they will be content to just play outside.

  27. Jennifer

    My 3.5 year old loves his blocks–the old-fashioned wood kind. He also got a set of magnet shapes for Christmas that he also loves; he is forever building things and inviting me to come see what he created. I love them because they’re open-ended and foster his imagination. Plus, when it’s time to clean up, they fit neatly in a box on his bookshelf! He has other toys, but those are really what he plays with all the time. I feel like I’m always purging toys but they’re always coming in from somewhere. I have begun asking my family members to get my boys non-plasticy electronic toys for their birthdays and Christmases and it’s slowly working–my parents are especially good at this. In the last few ears they have bought my kids a year-long membership to a local museum, a pass to our city’s theme park, a child’s nature magazine subscription for them to share…all great ideas, and ones that don’t clutter our home with lots of stuff.

  28. Bek @ Just For Daisy

    Thanks Tsh! Have loved following your journey and love how you can share this from an absolute REAL perspective on minimalism when it comes to toys!
    I love to declutter and rid our home of excess toys but know that I still hold onto lots of things with varying excuses. Thanks for giving me a little more clarity to work with! Happy travels! x

  29. Loretta E.

    I’m in early nesting mode right now and have been going through the house like crazy! It was a little tough on all of us (harder for some than others) to get rid of some toys, but it’s so worth it! By the end of the day, they were already forgotten. I think it helps a little to tell them when you’re donating them to another girl that might not have any toys. Although I love open-ended toys, it’s hard because I’d probably be the only one to buy them! With all the plastic/noisy toys that make their way in, I hardly feel like buying MORE, even when I know it’s better quality and will be played with more. Something that might be nice to figure out before this next one arrives!

  30. Angela

    Something I did when we wanted to switch from our abundance of toys to fewer higher quality toys-and didn’t want to ask anyone to pay for them-we listed all the old toys in lots on craigslist and took that money to buy wooden blocks and other open ended quality toys. We got great books from yard sales.

  31. Andy Ramkal

    I think we all can minimize it for our children. This is a very important. We hope it will make our children better.

  32. Marina

    Hi Tsh,
    I live your approach to parenting and life!
    One question: do your kids play any video games at all? What is your take on that?
    I find that ever since they have discovered Minecraft, all the toys seem to have lost their appeal. 🙁

    • Marina

      I meant “I love your appeoach”. Sorry for the typo!

  33. Steph

    A very interesting article and something for me to thinj of as i get nearer to having kids. I think it will be my husband that will want to buy the kids things all the time. As a child i literally got $20 presents for birthdays and christmas and nothing inbetween as my parents couldn’t afford it. We never got presents from grandparents or aunties either and i did get presents from my much older sisters but only small things and rarely plasticy things. I dont understand parents that buy their kids half the toy store every birthdsy and literally have rooms of toys. I remember loving my one baby doll and toddler doll and the clothes my mum made for them, dress ups and lots of crafting and making up dances and songs. I didn’t like being outside much but never had screens, it was all creative. My friends had piles of barbies and every new cool toy and i wasn’t really interested. It also gave me an appreciation for money and restraint in spending it. i hope i can do the same for my kids

  34. Emily

    Would this concept apply to books? Or are books something that is ok to accumulate? I’m curious what the “minimalist” approach is to books. I know that Kindle is great but we don’t currently use it for our kids yet, and still think that real books are more preferable than reading on a screen (except for traveling of course). But then it can’t keep growing without getting rid of some!

  35. Cassie

    Does anyone have advice for a young child that doesn’t forget about toys when they are put away? My oldest just turned three and although he has his favorites, he plays with everything. We have received so many gifts and hand me down toys and I regularly go through them and put some out in the garage. The problem is that he remembers every toy, who he received it from and why and sooner or later everything is back in the house. I don’t think that he is able yet to understand giving them to other kids yet. Or maybe I haven’t been able to explain it to him properly.

    • Angela

      You might consider a toy library where all the toys are kept out of sight (or most of them at least). Then he can request his toys each day, and the ones he doesn’t request anymore can go. He’ll eventually forget the less fun ones. At 3 though, you can start explaining the joy of blessing other children with toys and how much fun it is to have less mess to clean up after playing with the most-loved truly lasting fun toys.

  36. Alexis

    I love what you said about not quashing your kids’ natural desire for “beautiful” things. Can you tell us more about the kind of language you use to talk about that desire and how it’s ok (but we’re still not getting everything we want! 😉 thanks! Great post

  37. Troy Chadwick

    There are many types of toys for babies out there in the market. Only buy high quality toys with durable and safe materials. Make sure you are buying from a reputable baby toy store to ensure your baby’s safety.

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