One of the biggest challenges of parenthood: dealing with your children’s toys. If you're not badgering the kids to clean up, you're on your hands and knees in the playroom at 10:30 p.m. trying to find every last piece of plastic. There has to be a better way — and there is.
“Most play areas are dumping grounds for toys, but once a space is set up with the right structures and systems, kids actually love to clean up because it gives them immediate gratification — and there’s no better motivator then that,” says Evelyn Cucchiara, a.k.a . Based in Morristown, NJ, she transformed her experiences owning a family daycare business and a children's art studio into a playroom organizing biz. She makes house calls, and also comes up with plans people can put into action on their own. These are some of her top tips.
Remember: More toys does not mean better play. “Keep only those toys your child actually plays with,” says Cucchiara. As much as you may adore that toy workbench, if your child isn’t into it, bye-bye. Also try to avoid toys that only do one thing: A train that can be arranged only in a figure eight, for example, is nowhere near as engaging as a train with . Got toys to give away? Schedule a home pickup at — proceeds go to a good cause.
Those popular people use in cubbies hide the contents — leading kids to dump them out. Plus when they’re putting stuff away, they have to first pull them out. “You want to make it as easy as possible to put toys away,” says Cucchiara. Her go-to bins: Sterilite Large baskets.
“When kids are surrounded by too many toys in a cluttered environment, they choose to play with something for only a few minutes because they’re overwhelmed,” says Cucchiara. Instead, keep only a few of each type of toy around: a few puzzles, a few games, a few cans of Play-Doh. Store or give away what you don’t need.
Blocks, building sets, and pretend play items that come in cardboard or plastic boxes add clutter — and the pieces never seem to fit back in exactly the right way. “Mi pieces from different sets also promotes more creative play, as a child isn’t limited to just one thing,” says Cucchiara. If you want, cut out the pictures of the finished sets and store them, along with the instructions if there are any, in a baggie with all the pieces. As for games, Cucchiara says, it’s fine to keep them in boxes but if you have a lot, store the game pieces in individual labeled plastic bags in one bin and store the game boards under the bin.
Group all the play food together in one bin, all the toy people in another, all the animals in another. Place games that encourage cognitive thinking together labeled “brain teasers.” Create a truck zone on the floor for All The Trucks. Not only does this organize, explains Cucchiara, “it makes your child begin to think in mental compartments — a forerunner to the type of thinking they employ once they're in school, and a key cognitive functioning skill.”
“Photos are imperative to guide children with clean up—they take out the guesswork and assure consistent results,” says Cucchiara. She hangs them on the inside of the cubbies, so children know exactly where bins go. She takes a photo of some objects that will go in a bin and labels them on a photo editor app (try or ). Then she prints out a 4 x 6 photo, laminates it using an $20 machine, and punches holes on either side. To hang the labels, Cucchiara sticks a pair of inside the shelf beneath the top ridge, then hangs labels with or .
Pick up a wooden shoe rack. Discard the legs. Nail the racks together so that they are thick enough to hold cars and attach to a wall. Says Cucchiara, “Kids will love picking and choosing their rides and putting them back, given children's love for putting things into little spaces.” And this time, it's not your air conditioning vent!
Cucchiara's go-to for organizing coloring paper, activity books and stickers: Trones wall hung storage bins from IKEA. “They may be meant to hold shoes, but they work perfectly for paper because they keep it flat and crease-free,” says Cucchiara. “Plus, it’s easy to get out just the book or paper you want without an entire pile toppling down on you. Just tilt the bin open and voila!”
Sliding slotted trays beneath cabinets (or even a sofa) lets you store cars, puzzles or other flat toys there and they won’t roll away back to the wall, never to be seen again. Cucchiara uses the IKEA Rinnig dish rack for this purpose.
When Cucchiara is done organizing client's homes, she leaves a metal bell with these instructions for parents: Five minutes before cleanup, make an announcement to your child that it's almost time to put everything away. When the time comes, ring the bell and challenge your child to get everything tidy before you can finish singing the ABC song. After a week, skip the song and just ring the bell. “The next time, ask your child if they want to ring the bell, because you know they want to,” says Cucchiara. Soon enough, your child will be ringing the bell and cleaning up on his own, feeling empowered to take on the task alone.
Keep the organizing streak going!