Happy New Year! A new year always makes me want to sort and purge, with ambitions to make *this* the year I crack the secret to keeping a tidy house (answers on a postcard, please!) With that in mind I’ve written a guide to toy rotation in the hope that some of you will find it helpful. It’s a long one, so get yourself a cup of tea before you dive in…
Christmas and Chanukah brought Frida has some beautiful new toys and books, which means I have been doing some rotation to make space for these new treasures. I love toy rotation, and believe it to be one of the simplest and most effective changes parents can make to increase everyone’s happiness in the home. I’m sure we’ve all felt the overwhelm of too much choice, or the stress when faced with a messy room and the need to find something important. Children are no different, and thrive on ordered and beautiful environments.
Having too many toys out at the same time can actually lead to a worse quality of play, as children are overwhelmed, can’t find what they are looking for – or see what they have for that matter, and create mess by pulling out toy after toy, or dumping out piles onto the floor. If you’ve ever seen a child play for half an hour with a peg, or a simple doll, you will know that children don’t need hundreds of toys for deep play. I truly believe that a few carefully chosen, open-ended items, and space to play, are worth far more than a huge jumble of unsorted toys.
The benefits of rotation
Carefully rotating toys and books leads to:
- A reduced number of choices your child has to make, reducing the stress they may feel
- Deeper, richer, more imaginative play
- Toys feeling fresher and more exciting
- More independence for your child, as they can find, take out, and put back toys and books of their choosing
- A calmer, more beautiful, less chaotic environment for the whole family
- Less need for new toys and books, saving money and resources
- Less time spent tidying up and searching for toys
Four steps to toy rotation
It might sound obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway. Before you embark on your toy or book rotation, take some time to observe your child – and your space – carefully over a few days. Which spaces are working well, encouraging deep play? Which spaces always seem to end in chaos? How does your child engage with what is currently out? Do they have any favourites items which are often reached for? Are there any toys they consistently ignore even though these are accessible? Do they play for long stretches or get easily bored and frustrated? Can they independently access what they need? Do they need to dump out other toys or books before reaching what they are looking for? Does everything have a space where it is put away every time?
Once you’ve observed your child, you can begin with the fun stuff! I recommend starting with anything you want to get rid of – and I mean out of the home, or in long-term storage, rather than out of rotation. I would include anything broken, anything which your child has outgrown, any unnecessary duplicates, and anything which encourages violence or conflict. I also recommend looking at whether or not a toy requires your child to be active – making a story up, using their imagination – or passive – merely pressing a button or flicking a switch to make the toy light up or make a noise.
Next, think about which toys or books you want to keep out. For babies and young toddlers, you might keep out only a few things, whereas older toddlers and children may need more to keep them busy. What toys you have will vary hugely on your child and their age, so I won’t be prescriptive. I do recommend having a mix of open-ended toys such as building blocks, balls, and playsilks, and toys for imaginative play, such as animals, cars, train tracks, and dolls. Infants may enjoy rattles, teethers, and items encouraging sensory exploration.
For books, you can employ a similar approach. Are there any books you deeply dislike, or which promote messages which don’t fit with your values? Do you still have board books when your child is enjoying longer stories? We keep out a mix of seasonal books, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. For both toys and books, do be guided by your child’s interests, and consider overlap, eg. a book or two on sea life and a basket of sea animals for a child who is a budding marine biologist! It can be tempting to keep out everything your child shows an interest in, but remember – you’re not putting things away forever, only until next rotation.
Now you’ve decided what you want to keep out and what you want to put away, it’s time to decide were everything should go!
Things you’re keeping out – My preference is for open shelving*, with toys separated by type and stored in baskets, trays, or directly on the shelf, with only one type of toy per basket and bigger items (such as train sets or soft toys) in bigger baskets directly on the floor. If shelves aren’t a possibility then baskets on the floor or on a dresser can work well, and if you’re finding it hard to source baskets then things like wooden salad bowls, wicker fruit bowls, and even Tupperware can work well. For books, open-fronted bookcases are wonderful, as are baskets – we use picture ledges from IKEA to display Frida’s books, and I’ve seen spice racks used beautifully in the same way. Your child should be able to see and reach everything by themselves – for a baby, this might mean having a very low shelf, a low basket, or even a few toys on a blanket or tray on the floor. For an older toddler or child you could consider adding a stool to make things more accessible.
Things you are putting away – If you have the space, a cupboard or wardrobe works well for any toys or books you are taking out of rotation, as it’s more accessible than a loft, but not on display. If you don’t have that space, you could try putting things: in a trunk or hamper basket, a big open basket covered with a cloth, on a high shelf, or under a bed or sofa. If you can, try and keep everything together so it’s easy for you to find when it comes to the next rotation.
Once you have made the changes, take time to observe again. This is perhaps the most important stage. With less out on display, you should be able to clearly see what your child is reaching for, and which toys or books are not sparking interest at that moment in time. If your child is talking, they may also tell you what they think, perhaps asking for a toy or book which has been put away. If they do ask for something which you’ve stored, don’t worry about following your child’s wishes and getting it back out – after all, the point is to make the space work for them!
Careful observation means that when it comes to the next rotation, it will be easier for you to see which items to leave out, and which could be stored away or passed on.
I have found this process invaluable, and it works just as well for toys as it does for books, art materials, Montessori or other educational materials, and even clothes. Once you’ve implemented toy rotation, you are likely to see changes in how your child engages with their toys and space pretty quickly. However, the clue is in the name – rotation! So it is a process which you will need to repeat over and over.
How often you rotate will be down to your child, their age, their interests, and their development. I have had periods where I have done several rotations in a short space of time, because Frida was going through a big developmental leap or suddenly had an interest in something. I have also had long period where nearly nothing has changed, because it was working well. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
As an extra bonus tip, something which works really well for us is having a general rule about toys not leaving the playroom (or whichever room your child’s toys are kept in, such as their bedroom or the sitting room). I realise this sounds a bit draconian, but bare with me. Many of Frida’s toys are small, such as wooden animals, or have multiple parts, or belong in a set. Keeping everything in one place really helps cut down on the amount of searching we have to do because something has gone missing, and generally helps prevent toys getting lost – and the house getting even messier!
Frida knows she can take “big toys” such as soft toys out of her playroom, but otherwise, they all stay put. Likewise, her Montessori materials are kept on rotation in the dining room, and stay in there. I’ve found this small change has made such a difference to my time and sanity, and to Frida always knowing where everything is. Game changer.
It is really easy to fall into the habit of keeping everything out on display – especially when it comes to beautiful books and toys! But I have found time and again that, for young children, having less out on display is truly more. If you haven’t tried it, I urge you to give it a go and see – you may well be pleasantly surprised!
*Some shelf ideas: IKEA Trofast (with shelf inserts although bins can be useful for lego or train sets – we have two of these in white for Frida’s Montessori materials) / IKEA shelving unit (I love this!) / IKEA Flisat (for books) / IKEA Avdala (you could add extra shelves to store toys) / Playframe (pricey but beautiful) / Play stand (slightly cheaper – we have two of these and love them) / baby shelf (swoon!) / basic shelf / front-facing book shelf (again, pricey but beautiful).