The Simple Game We Play to Help My Kids Let Go of Old Toys

published Nov 27, 2021
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Kids have a way of accumulating a lot of stuff. We all do, really, but thanks to well-meaning grandparents, generous birthday party attendees, and the unending desire for the cool new toy, kids’ stuff just has a special way of proliferating. 

Growing up, sometimes a toy or item of clothing of mine would just disappear, and I never knew where it went until I got older and realized that my mom and stepmom had been culling my possessions based on their own unwritten rubrics. If I grew out of something or neglected a toy for too long, out it would go, unceremoniously dispatched to its next location, unknown to me until I began to miss it. 

When I had kids of my own, I started to grapple with what to do with their possessions, and I realized that I wanted the relationship to be different. I wanted them to have more input in the process of receiving, caring for, and rehoming items, so I invented a simple game called “Keep It Or Leave It” that my daughters love to play.

How to play Keep It Or Leave It 

Keep It Or Leave It is as simple as it sounds. Every few months, we go through a specific group of items (like Lily’s books or Hazel’s stuffed animals), and we decide whether they want to keep each individual piece or give it away. Picking one type of item at a time, rather than an entire room or play space helps us stay focused on the specific task without getting overwhelmed or distracted. (Plus, it’s easier to let go emotionally when you’re concentrating on one type of toy!)

We put the items in a big pile in the middle of the room, and then we break it up into smaller piles. There’s a “keep it” pile, which we’ll return to its proper spot and two “leave it” piles — one for donations and one for trash. Hazel loves saying, “Give this to another baby,” when she adds something to the “leave it” pile. Sometimes, she’ll even suggest giving an item to a specific friend. Otherwise, we round up those items and donate them to a mutual aid organization or thrift store. 

If the item has seen better days, like Hazel’s beloved copy of Elmo’s “P is for Potty,” a lift-the-flap book that’s missing all of its flaps, we thank it and throw it away. I loved Marie Kondo’s idea to thank an item before getting rid of it. It’s the perfect way to move on from an item that’s served us well while making space for something new or room to breathe.

Let the kids lead the process

This game works best if it’s child-led, and sometimes that can run up against what I would choose personally. For example, sometimes Lily will want to hold onto a toy that she never plays with. I can try reasoning with her: “You haven’t touched your remote controlled The Child figure since you got it for Hanukkah,” but ultimately, the decision has to be hers. The consequence of that decision is that she lacks space to bring in new toys, but if the toy is really important to her, it’s a small price to pay. 

On the other hand, sometimes Hazel wants to get rid of something that surprises me. She’ll say, “You can give my lamb stuffy to another baby,” and I think to myself, “But it’s so cute and soft, and you’ve had it since you were a baby!” At that point, I realize that it’s the memory that’s important to me, so I might take a picture of her with the stuffy, or if it’s something truly special, like a blanket knitted by a family member, I might store it with my own keepsakes, removing it from her room.

Giving my kids the autonomy to make these choices on their own has empowered them to want to play the game more often. They like having control over their own areas, and I find it even helps them keep those spaces tidier because there isn’t too much stuff everywhere.

Turn clothing review into a fashion show

It’s important to me that my kids understand how to dress themselves, including having a good grasp on what fits well and what doesn’t. This is a skill that needs to be taught, so when we go through clothing, we’ll try on items and look at how they fit. I’ll ask them, “Was this easy to put on and take off by yourself?” or “Would you feel comfortable running in these pants?” I try to think of questions and scenarios that matter to them so that they can come to their own conclusions of why well-fitting clothes are important. Sometimes, if we find something that doesn’t fit anymore that they really love, we’ll try to find the same item or something similar online to replace it.

What about school work and art?

The decision about how to handle kids’ artistic and scholarly creations is a little bit trickier, but I try to follow a similar structure. Each school year, I use a bag (I reuse the plastic bags that our comforters came in) to collect whatever comes home from school, and then in the late spring or early summer, we go through the items together. It can be a lot of fun to take a trip down memory lane, remembering each item and what the kids were doing in school when they made it. 

Of these items, we try to keep as little as possible. If a piece of artwork is truly special, we look for ways to turn it into something we can display. If it’s something we want to remember but not necessarily display, we take a picture of it and add it to the girls’ Tumblr pages, which I set up when they were born to share pictures with family and friends. But most of the time, we simply enjoy the memory together and then we just let it go, and that release feels pretty liberating for all of us.