So Many Toys, So Little Order - Keep Playrooms Tidy With Bins and Labels

By Anne Kenderdine
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 12, 2009

When Patty Smith and Paul Roberts were expecting their fourth child, they were so in need of an organized play space that they gave up their bar area for a pink-and-white dollhouse.

The garage level of their Alexandria townhouse once contained the bar and a dart board but had been overrun with little-girl possessions. "It [was] looking like Toys R Us had thrown up down there," Smith says. Trying to sort through the toys while preparing to have four children under age 4 seemed impossible. "I could not see myself . . . making sense of it."

As more toys accumulate in parents' homes after kids' birthdays and holidays, it can become overwhelming.

What it takes to have an orderly play space, designers say, is investing the time to get toys off the floor and to assign specific containers for like things. Then kids will have room to play on the floor and be able to see and play with a greater variety of toys, and parents can reclaim other parts of the home.

Certified professional organizer C. Lee Cawley, who transformed the Smith-Roberts family's playroom, likes to say: "We don't want to label our children. But let's label everything else."

Step one is to assess all the toys and group them into piles of similar things: All the pots for the play kitchen go here; all the small cars go there. Evaluate the piles and give away or store elsewhere things the kids don't play with anymore. Then each remaining pile goes into its own labeled bin or box, and those go on shelves, or if there's space, on the floor along the edges of the room.

Cawley worked with Smith to sort her children's toys and clear them out, advised her on ways to rearrange the furniture and steered her to Ikea's online planning tools, which let you design a storage system before you buy it. Smith selected Ikea bookcases with doors and confirmed the labeling choices for each bin.

Once a toy container is labeled, Cawley says, everyone will follow what it says, so make sure it's in all the languages you need, and add pictures to aid children. Cawley enlisted Smith and Roberts' Peruvian nanny to use a labelmaker to mark bins with the Spanish words for "wooden food," "dramatic play" and "vehicles."

Cawley recommends getting a container for each type of toy, sized to fit a little more than you have. That allows room for more toys later, and it makes it easy for little kids (with basic motor skills) to fit everything inside.

Another storage strategy, favored by Silver Spring designer Debbie Wiener, involves plastic drawers on casters so they can be quickly rolled out of view if the play space is needed for another purpose. Whatever you choose, there's no need for any of it to be pricey, says Gaithersburg designer Cindy Griffin, who bought a thrift shop bookcase and had her children, now 9 and 12, paint it with their handprints in the back yard.

It's important to make sure toys that kids can use independently are visible and accessible, and to keep out of reach toys that require adult supervision. Children can then make their own decisions about what they want to play with, and parents can propose toys they haven't tried in a while.

When kids are finished with a certain activity, it should be cleaned up and put away before they pull out the next toy. Eliana Noguchi, director of the Little Flower Montessori School in Columbia Heights, says that philosophy teaches children "how to make choices and how to do the right things and how to achieve the things that they start."

In addition to offering kids toys from higher shelves, parents can rotate toys out of the playroom entirely. Heather Andrews, academic director of the Goddard School in Columbia, says teachers there will swap whole bins of toys between classes. "This month it's K'nex. Next month we'll pull out Legos, and the next month we'll do some other kind of connecting toy," she says. Teachers rotate the toys during kids' naptime, she says, so that "when they wake up, they've literally said, 'We got all new stuff!' "

At home, Griffin suggests rotating toys from playroom to guest room closet, a habit she says her children began to do on their own as they got older. If you don't have the space to rotate toys, and you're not maximizing the space in your home, then you have to get rid of them. "I give them away because I know there's always going to be more toys coming again," says Alexandria designer Lori Ludwick, who donates to nonprofit groups that will pick up toys from homes.

When kids are younger, parents are more likely to want to keep the play area where they can see it, usually near the kitchen. For families with eat-in kitchens, Ludwick says, the perfect space is often that rarely used adjacent formal dining room.

Cathleen Trail used to have her 18-month-old and 4-year-old play in her Arlington home office, because it was in sight of her kitchen and because the basement play space was so jumbled that she didn't want to spend time there. After a professional reorganization, the toys moved to the basement, with only a few puzzles and quiet games upstairs. The new order in the basement had a ripple effect throughout the house: It allowed Trail to regain her office.

"We use the space now; we enjoy the space now," she says about the basement. And best of all: "I feel a lot more in control."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company