The Great Cubby Clean-Up Week Three: Pro Secrets for Creating an Organizing System That Will Stick

published Jan 25, 2023
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It’s Week Three of the Great Cubby Clean-Up, and this week, we’re talking about toy storage systems. This is a part of toy organizing that doesn’t get enough attention, but decluttering and a bunch of bins will only get you so far. What you need to get organized and stay organized are thoughtful systems to help you and your kids get the toys back into the right places without extra effort. What you need to do is “create a system for the children, not the adults,” advises Tanisha Porter, founder of Natural Born Organizers in Los Angeles. “Simplicity is the key,” she adds.

Here’s how to create a system that works for your family. (And if you’ve just arrived to The Cubby Clean-Up, check out Week 1 and Week 2!)

Be strategic about what’s accessible.

You want to have toys accessible to kids to foster independent play, but too many options is where you get into trouble. “As a former preschool teacher, my number one tip for toys is to limit how many kids have access to—I recommend 5-10 categories depending on the ages of your kids, whether they have similar or different interests, and how big those categories are,” says pro organizer Lindsay Downes, founder of A Considered Home in Alexandria, Virginia.

Create zones.

Zones can help create freedom within boundaries, says Jennifer Hawkins, a former teacher who now runs an Atlanta-based organizing business called Rejoice in Order; Jennifer has her playroom organized into areas for reading, imaginative play, building, art, and “real world” play (instruments, science-related toys, etc.). “When I ask my girls to clean up, I am not too fussed about every toy going on a specific shelf, but I do want their toys to stay within these wider zones.” Let your kids’ classrooms inspire you when you’re setting up play spaces, says Lovely Life Home’s Shauna Yule Brasseur. “School teachers know what works!” the Massachusetts-based organizer says, “They keep things simple and they zone their spaces, so that their rooms don’t become a jumble.”

Physically divide the room.

If you’re lucky enough to have a dedicated playroom, Shauna takes her zones a step further by creating rooms within the room for her clients. “Try to avoid having a room with one big, open space,” she says. Instead she advises: Turn your play kitchen perpendicular to the wall and set a bin next to it with all the play food; put bean bag chair or pillows in a corner next to a bookshelf and you have a reading nook, place your easel and art supplies in another

Banish the toy box.

Organizers all agree: These are an ineffective storage solution that actually encourages bad habits: Your kid is just tossing everything in, in a jumble and not truly learning how to keep things tidy. If you have one that you’re not ready to part with, you need to put containers within the toy box to divide and categorize the toys.

Help kids see more clearly.

Several of our experts recommend transparent storage bins. “Especially if your child is not reading or is an emerging reader, this helps them see where everything is and where everything should go back, says Jennifer.

Label, label, label.

“We highly encourage parents to label all their kids’ storage items in order to make clean-up time easier,” says MaryJo Monroe, the owner of reSPACEd in Portland, Oregon. who like to get the kids involved in the process. Have them write out labels or draw pictures of what goes inside each bin, she suggests. For young kids,  Jennifer recommends labels with a picture and a word on them. “The teacher in me wants to create as much exposure to reading as possible!” she says.

Consider a toy library.

If your kids’ room is overwhelmed by toys, consider carving out space for a “toy library” elsewhere, suggests Lindsay. “My toy library is a few large felt bins on a wire shelving unit. Toys are grouped in the bins by category. Some days I’ll pull something out and then I’ll put it away back into the Toy Library, other days, I’ll keep it out and swap it with something else so I keep to my same overall quantity of toys available to my kids.” Lindsay also uses her library as “Toy Purgatory.” “If things are sitting there and aren’t being requested, then it’s a pretty good indicator they can be donated,” she says.

Try toy rotation.

Even if you’re not a candidate for a whole separate “toy library” toy rotation is a smart idea. Tanisha suggest you store your child’s top five categories of toys in easily accessible area, and have the rest in a less accessible area and switching which are in reach every one to two months.

Carve out a dedicated display space.

Make space on a bookshelf or the top of a dresser to show-off new creations, suggests Alison Mazurek, the mom behind the blog, to prevent these toys without a home from cluttering up other surfaces. In her apartment this is a single shelf where LEGO and other special toys are displayed.

Embrace bins.

Our group of experts all say that open-top bins (not drawers or boxes with tricky lids) are easiest for kids. So what makes a good bin? The bins should be lightweight enough that the child can pick them up and carry them, says MaryJo, noting this means it will also be easier for her to put her toys away. They should also be quiet: Lindsay’s favorites are coiled rope bins in part because when kids drag these across the floor or chuck blocks and cars into them during clean up, they are much easier on the ears than a material like metal, wood, or hard plastic.

Optimize your cube storage shelf.

Organizers point out the pros and cons of cube storage shelves like the Kallax from IKEA.  Jennifer says on the plus side, they help prevent kids from overcrowding a shelf and can help you limit how many toys are available to your kids. However, on the negative side, Shauna and Lindsay both caution against large cloth bins or baskets that fill the entire cube. “Those 13”x13” bins are huge and end up becoming a catch all for randomness,” says Lindsay. Plus, kids can’t see what’s in them, so they dump them to find what they want, creating a huge mess. Instead, Shauna says to fill the shelf with clear labeled bins to store toys by category; blocks, vehicles, Magnatiles, musical instruments, and so on.  

Make a place for one-off toys.

Shauna says you should always have a bin for “odd toys,” so those things that defy categorization have a place to go. One miscellaneous toy bin gives even those toys that can’t be categorized have a place to live.

Consider family room toy storage.

Trying to keep all the toys in a dedicated playroom or only in your kids’ bedrooms can set you up for failure, says Lindsay. “Your kids want to be near you. If you don’t want to hang out in a playroom all day, I recommend keeping a few toys in different areas of the house so your kids can play nearby while you do whatever you need to do.” 

In addition to the big-picture ideas above, pick and choose from these micro systems to tackle your families particular pain points:

  • Toy trucks: Kids’ toy trucks and mens’ shoes tend to be about the same size, so a mens’ shoe organizer can make the perfect “garage” to store trucks, says MaryJo, who says this works whether it’s a cubby-style organizer, rack, or a hanging organizer.
  • Riding toys: Make a “parking lot” for riding toys, scooters, and bikes with strips of colorful painter’s tape, suggests MaryJo.
  • Barbies: If you have a ton, put them in an over-the-door shoe organizer. If accessories are part of the problem, place inexpensive plastic Sterilite drawers next to Barbie houses with a drawer each for Barbies, her clothes and accessories, and furniture. 
  • Dress-up clothes: Employ an inexpensive, adjustable garment rack to hold kids’ dress-up clothes on hangers. (After the kids outgrow their dress-up clothes, the garment rack makes for handy storage in a guest bedroom for guests’ coats or in a basement for winter gear.)
  • Outdoor toys: Use metal trash bins or big baskets for things like balls and Nerf Guns, suggests Shauna.
  • Board games and puzzles: Keep these out of reach! These boxes often get dumped and the pieces migrate all over the place. “When kids are looking for adult attention or need a quiet activity, that’s when it’s a great time to pull out the puzzles and games,” says Lindsay.
  • LEGO: Don’t overcomplicate it! Treat the LEGO kits like a puzzle (keep all the pieces together with the directions in a zip-top bag, so you can donate them or rebuild them) and store the rest in one container for open-ended play.

Catch Up on The Great Cubby Clean-Up

New to the Cubby Clean-Up? Find all four weeks of The Great Cubby Clean-Up here:

Our experts

Alejandra Costello is a Virginia-based organizing expert (@AlejandraDotTV), who helps people get organized through her courses and membership community, TeamOrganize. Deemed “The Decluttering Queen” by Good Morning America, Alejandra’s organizing videos have been viewed 100M+ times. 

Alison Mazurek (@600sqftandababy) is doing her best to live small, thoughtfully, and sustainably in Vancouver, Canada with her husband and two kids while sharing about it through her blog and her small space consulting service.

Cole Boge is a professional organizer located in the Appleton, Wisconsin area. He brings his experience as a school teacher, sports coach, and father to his organizing business The Detailed Dad. 

Jennifer Hawkins is a former teacher-turned-professional organizer in the Atlanta area (@rejoiceinorder). Jennifer uses her parent-educator training to help parents think about how to develop the skills and behaviors their children need to become organized, too

Lindsay Downes is professional organizer and founder of A Considered Home (@a.considered.home) in Alexandria, Virginia. With a master’s degree in child development and two boys of her own, Lindsay’s approach to organizing families is grounded both in her experience in the classroom and the realities of life with young kids.

MaryJo Monroe is the owner of reSPACEd (@respacedpdx) in Portland, Oregon. MaryJo started reSPACEd in 2008 with the goal of helping families clear the clutter so they could relax in their own homes. The company has since grown to provide a variety of organizing services to homes and small businesses, but helping families get organized remains her specialty.

Shauna Yule Brasseur is the owner of Lovely Life Home (@lovely_life_home), an organizing and design business based in Hingham, Massachusetts. Shauna believes that we are happier and calmer in organized spaces.

Tanisha Porter is a professional organizer and the owner of Natural Born Organizers, LLC (@naturalbornorganizers) based in Los Angeles, California. Tanisha spent the first eight weeks of the pandemic building a community of women across the country who not only wanted to create order in their lives but needed to due to the initial shutdown.

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