During the five years I spent as a kindergarten and first grade teacher, I oversaw a lot of kids playing with a lot of toys! My classroom had tons of toys of different types- and every day, after 20+ kids played for an hour, all the toys would be put away- without my help!
As a parent, the thought of that many kids (or even just your own small number of children) playing happily in your playroom for that amount of time and then independently cleaning it up might seem like a fairy tale- but it IS possible! If teachers had to clean up after all of their students every day they would go insane! So what’s the secret to what happens at school, and how can you make it work for you at home?
There are four secrets to how teachers store toys that you can implement at home. Teachers sort, label, and rotate toys, and they teach and expect consistent cleanup- and it works!
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Let’s break it down. How do teachers organize toys?
Step 1- Sort and store
In classrooms, you won’t find bins of just “toys.” Teachers have things that go in sets, and they store them in sets. There might be a bin of food, a bin of magnet tiles, and one of wooden blocks. Whatever’s in one bin is ALL that’s in that bin. Giant toy boxes with a mess of toys don’t happen in classrooms! Teachers know that most of the things in it won’t get used, and that it’s just asking for kids to throw everything on the floor in search of one toy.
Having good storage is key. Effective playrooms generally have storage shelves with a number of bins, tubs, or baskets where toys can be stored. The IKEA Trofast line is very popular because it has built-in storage tubs to keep toys in.
Personally I like the aesthetics of cube storage, especially because you can get fabric cubes in every color to match your decor.
(Find this shelf here.)
You can use baskets if you want a more natural look. Clear bins make it easy to see what’s inside, but won’t look as clean and neat when everything’s put away. The same goes for these toy storage shelves– they keep all the toys in plain sight, so while it’s easier for kids to find everything, depending on what’s stored in them, they can look messy.
Don’t worry if you have more categories than you do available bins/buckets/tubs! That’s actually a good thing- I’ll elaborate later.
Cube units are great but won’t work for everything. You may need storage for bulkier toys. In our playroom we have four large bins that slide under our train table for balls, trucks and larger blocks. (Don’t forget to measure before you go to the store so whatever you get will fit in your intended location!)
(For more information about our chalkboard train table, click here!)
Another amazing solution is storage ottomans/benches. I have two full-sized storage benches for large collections and bulky items like blocks, trains, dress-up clothes, etc. One of mine holds our beloved Fort Magic kit and all our fort covers. The fact that they double as seating means they’re still useful when the toys are not being played with!
Step 2- Rotate
Classrooms have tons of toys, but they aren’t all available at once. Teachers know that’s just asking for chaos!
Decide how many categories of toys you’d like available at one time, taking into account factors like the amount of space in your playroom, the number of children you have, their ages, and what they use on a regular basis. Pick which sets of toys to start with and fill your bins/tubs/baskets! Then you’ll need to store the rest.
You’ll need somewhere to store the toys that’s easy for you to access but off limits to your children- it could be the attic, a closet, a cupboard, or even a big tote bin in the garage. If you have enough space you could buy some extra plastic bins to keep the “off duty” toys in, but personally, I recommend using the extra-large (2 gallon) plastic bags. They’re big enough for most of the things you’ll want to store, but you can squeeze plenty of bags into one cupboard or on a closet shelf.
How often you rotate your toys depends on personal preference. Some people like to rotate all of them every week. Some people rotate everything once a month or once a season. Others only change one thing at a time if they notice a particular item isn’t being played with. You can also just wait until your kids seem bored, and rotate then. It’s up to you! I can tell you, though, that “new” toys are always exciting, even if they just came out of the cupboard and they’d only been gone for a few weeks.
Step 3- Label
If you want your kids to clean up independently, they first have to know where things go! Having bins that you can’t see through looks nice, but without labels you’ll find two issues- your kids will get frustrated looking for toys, and since it’s not clear where things belong, when it’s time to clean up they will just toss toys into any bin.
Labels fix all of that!
With children that can’t read, it’s crucial to have photo labels so they can easily recognize which toys go in which bin.
To make your own photo labels, lay a few toys from each set out on a neutral background and take a photo. I cropped all my photos to 3″ by 3″ and put them into a table in a word document. I added text, then printed them out, and laminated them with my trusty little Scotch laminator. If you don’t have a home laminator you can use self-laminating sheets to protect them.
Don’t have time to make your own toy labels? You’re in luck! You can download and print mine! I’ve included a wide variety of toys, but there are three open spots on the last page, and an entire blank page so you can add your own pictures if you need more categories.
Click to download and print: Toy Labels
Below is a complete list of the toys in the document (When available, I’ve linked to the item shown on amazon or directions to make them);
Page 7: Tools, Bowling Set, Card Games (3 blank labels)
Page 8: Blank Labels
Once your labels are printed, laminated and cut out, I recommend attaching them to your bins with adhesive Velcro, so they’re easy to switch when you do your toy rotation. Make sure that you’re consistent about which side of the Velcro you put on the bin, and which side you put on the label, so they can be used interchangeably. I used soft side Velcro dots in each corner of the labels, then stuck the hard Velcro to the soft,and finally placed the whole thing in the top right corner of the bin. Consistency is key to making everything look neat and work together!
Here’s a final view of our toy shelf with labels on every bin.
As you can see, instead of buying 12 bins, I left a few open shelves for our prettier toys! Colorful toys can be decor pieces if they’re stored the right way.
(The toys on the top shelves are the Grimms 12 Piece Rainbow , Melissa and Doug Nesting and Stacking Garages, Uncle Goose Constellation Blocks, Melissa and Doug Geometric Stacker and Melissa and Doug Xylophone.)
Step 4- Get your kids to clean up!
Having an organized playroom is a good start- when kids aren’t overwhelmed by toys and know clearly where everything goes, you’ve made cleaning up easier, which in turn makes it more likely to happen!
Here are the rest of my tips for getting your kids to clean;
Teachers know that when kids are focused on playing, it’s hard for them to switch gears too quickly. It’s important to give them multiple warnings- say at ten minutes, five minutes, and two minutes- so they know clean-up time is coming and they can wrap up their games. If they whine for “just one more minute” and you give it to them, just know that they will whine again tomorrow and it’ll remain a battle forever. It’s better to warn them and then be consistent about when playtime stops and cleanup time begins. If necessary, set a timer for how long they have left- when it goes off, that’s it. That allows the timer to “be the bad guy” and not you! You can use your phone timer, a visual timer or an hourglass sand timer.
It’s also a good start to make it a consistent expectation that they clean up every day. If their evening schedule is dinner, bath, and bedtime, then the playroom must be clean before they have dinner.
Make cleaning their job.
Helping your children clean up is fine, but make sure that you’re not doing the bulk of the work while they wander around aimlessly, putting away one or two things at a time. It’s better if you’re a cheerleader and coach, because when you clean for them, it just reinforces that they don’t really have to bother doing it themselves. It might be quicker in the short term, but will waste tons of time in the long run!
Make it fun!
Having a clean-up song, especially with young children, is a fun way to motivate them and make cleaning up together fun- but do me a favor and skip the tired old Barney “everybody do your share” version- there are fun cleanup songs on YouTube, or you can try my peaceful cleanup song here.
Make it quick!
If cleaning up is taking too long, you can try using a stopwatch (or your phone app) to time them. You can make a graph of how long it takes them to clean every day so they can chart their progress and set goals for quick cleaning.
Have a consequence for not cleaning
If timing them with a stopwatch still isn’t working and they’re dragging their feet, it’s time to use a stopwatch, and give them a set amount of time to clean. In my classroom, any toy that was not put away after the five minute cleanup time would not be available the next day. You can use a closet, a tote in the closet, etc as a toy “jail”. You can even give them until bedtime to get their toys put away, and then go into the playroom once they’re down for the night, and pack away any toys left out on the floor. The next day, if the playroom is spotless after cleanup time, the toy jail gets opened and the toys in it returned- if not, any toys left on the floor get added to the box. If you want, you could even make a rule that if you run out of space in the toy jail, anything left will be donated, since clearly they have too many toys!
This method will work, and your kids will figure it out really fast but you have to be consistent. The day after a toy is left out, do not return it no matter how badly they whine and beg. If you do, they won’t respect the rule and will continue to leave toys out.
What about when your children have created something really special, and don’t want to put it away?
You might want to consider dedicating a shelf for small creations, such as LEGO buildings, so they can keep them from day to day, but keep the floor clean.
Since your home is not actually a classroom, and especially if you have a dedicated playroom, you do have the luxury of leaving big structures like forts or block castles up overnight if you choose to. You can use your discretion in when you allow this to happen- I’d still have the kids pick up the loose toys around it- and make it clear that it’s a special treat because they worked so hard/cooperated/etc. You could also designate one corner (if necessary, have a different style rug, or mark the area with painter’s tape on the floor) as the spot where forts or towers can be left standing, but require the rest of the room to be clean. We keep a play fort set up in one corner of our playroom, but the toys in it and around it still get put away.
Are you ready to love your playroom again?
What’s your biggest struggle when it comes to playroom maintenance- or best trick for getting your kids to clean up?
Leave a comment and let me know!
For a full tour of our playroom and my thought process when designing it, hop over to The 9 Essential Elements of a Perfect Playroom!
If you also struggle with keeping your children’s book collection organized, you should definitely check out this post- Tips for Storing Books so your Kids will Want to Read Them!
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