Ugh, we all know the feeling. It can easily happen after a birthday, Christmas or a routine Target run. You’ve barely even broken down the boxes and hauled them off to the recycling bin, and already, the kids are whining that they have nothing to do. It’s a gross feeling of over-consumption, and you’re deeply afraid that you’re raising a pack of spoiled brats. The kids won’t play with their toys – but why?

How can you stop the cycle of buying toys that collect dust? Wouldn’t it be delightful to walk into your child’s room, and find them completely engrossed in a toy they got out 30 minutes ago? Better yet, what if you could have a completely tidy play space with minimal toys and kids who play independently with them? It’s actually MUCH easier than you think. 

I’ve noticed a pretty clear formula you can follow. Parents and grandparents like to say, “Back in my day, I had to play with a stick in the dirt.” The thing is, they probably played deeper and longer with that stick in the dirt than some of our kids play with brand new, expensive toys. Sigh. 

So what makes a great toy? 

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Great toys have endless configurations and possibilities for creativity. That means that you can keep working and re-working it and get different outcomes. Musical instruments fit this bill because they can learn a different melody every day of their lives. Anything that’s building-related works, as well, assuming there’s not just ONE way to assemble the creation. I absolutely LOVE puzzles, but kids will burn out quickly on a puzzle because once it’s assembled the first time, the magic is gone. 

Great toys provide no stimulating feedback.

Therefore, while toys that require batteries are fun for a little while, kids tend to burn out quickly on them because they are programmed to only do a certain number of things. Once the kid has hit that same button once or twice, they already know what will happen, and the fun wears off. Think about bicycles, scooters, roller skates and other toys that are physical. These toys are special because the child is doing the work – not the toy.

Endless Configurations + Zero Feedback = Great Toy

If you love math, please disregard the above formula, or at least don’t overthink it. If you turn on your math brain, it makes no sense. You can’t add a zero of something to something else and get a third thing, but…whatever. This isn’t math. It’s toys, k?

zero feedback toys

Go ahead and pare down the toys you already own.

Realize that when kids have too many toys, they get overstimulated and play poorly. They might pull out every toy they own, looking for something that seems worth doing for more than 5 minutes. Meanwhile, you’re overwhelmed and irritated by the amount of stuff that’s going to need to be picked up.

The famous psychologist Jean Piaget said we should think about playing as the “work” of childhood. It’s serious business for them. Imagine yourself sitting at a desk in your current grown-up state. Picture the desk over-stuffed with files, with a to-do list written on post-it notes that are scattered about, and consider that you can’t even find your favorite pen and notebook. There are 1) too many possible ways to start and 2) nothing is well organized

You might work on one task for a minute. Then, in a state of panic, you become distracted by another task until you’ve gone the whole day without accomplishing anything meaningful. Kids do the same thing when they have too many toys, and it’s even worse when they are poorly organized. 

Consequently, kids get cranky, parents are frustrated that their children are acting bratty, and everyone is overwhelmed by the heap of toys scattered all over the house. 

Go ahead and donate the toys that don’t meet your criteria of being great. Alternatively, you can sell them on Facebook marketplace and use the (minimal) proceeds on organizational systems or a great new toy. I would argue that many American families could donate half their toys without their children even noticing. 

kids play with toys in a bright and cheerful room

Kids won’t play with their toys if they are disorganized.

When kids can easily locate their own toys, they’re more likely to dig and start playing, rather than freezing up from overstimulation or frustration. 

Remember, hidden storage is not a place to spend lots of money. If you have cabinet space or drawers where toys and craft supplies can be kept, reuse things like cottage cheese tubs and dollar store bins to categorize. If it’s going to be out in the open, you’ll want to spend a bit more money to keep your home looking tidy. I’m especially fond of cube organizers with fabric bins.

If you need fabric bins that blend well with your common spaces, you can pick something like this. If you have a dedicated playroom, you can branch out and pick more kid-friendly bins. I like the 3 Sprouts brand. A word of caution about 3 Sprouts bins: they are very obviously off-white, and will look dirty if you put them in a white cube organizer. If you choose a wood tone organizer, they look adorable. Fabric bins keep everything looking tidy, hold a surprising amount of stuff, and preserve some of the toy mystery for kids. Because they can’t see them all the time out in the open, I can often pull out a bin and surprise them with the contents. 

A final note about organization: eliminate original packaging. Most of the time, the original packaging won’t fit within the defined space you require, and it’s also hard for little fingers to open and close. Almost every toy packaging can be improved upon with a single gallon-sized Ziploc bag. I also keep 2-gallon Ziplocs on hand. Ziplocs keep tiny toy parts confined, have zippers that are kid-friendly, and showcase the contents so kids aren’t guessing.

kids play with toys in an organized playroom

Help them rediscover the great toys they already possess.

Perhaps as you’ve been sorting toys, you’ve found some that fit the criteria of a great toy. Sometimes, kids don’t initially warm to these toys because they can’t envision how to use them without parent guidance. Especially if they’re used to toys that buzz and ding, they can initially seem boring. But kids get over it fast once they’ve been taught how to use them and inspired by someone else’s creativity. Teachers call this “modeling.” Anybody can do it, although it always makes me feel kinda dumb. But whatever – it works.

How do I model playing with great toys?

Squash any instinct to direct your kiddo when they have an obviously bad idea. For example, if they’re building something and it’s clearly structurally not sound, just channel Elsa and let it go. If they’re playing dress up, and your sassy girl puts on a headband from a different outfit that painfully clashes with the dress she’s picked out, just ignore it and celebrate how festive and unique her outfit is!

When you model playing with a toy, just think out loud as you’re building or imagining. If they receive a really cool toy and I want them to enjoy it, I go ahead and start modeling my thinking and act excited about playing with the toy. This works fabulously for Chicken Patty. Turkey Burger, who is five (going on twenty five), already thinks I’m super uncool. She’s immediately skeptical of anything I think is awesome. This strategy doesn’t work for her. 

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