I Tried a Popular Preschool Toy Organizing Technique at Home, and I Can’t Believe How Well It Worked

published Jun 9, 2023
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Both of my kids were lucky to attend a wonderful preschool with engaged, kind teachers and daily activities, from painting to swimming, that they absolutely loved. In their few years at preschool, both kids learned so much from their teachers, but I have to admit, I probably learned just as much. One teacher in particular, Sharon, showed us a few simple kid-focused strategies that we use to this day, including my favorite way to organize toys: in individual play centers.

What Are Play Centers?

Play centers are a popular preschool technique for organizing a classroom. Each center is a clearly defined area with a specific focus. Walking into Sharon’s preschool classroom, the first thing I noticed was that everything felt peaceful and intentional.

There were several play centers set up each morning for kids to choose from — modeling clay, blocks, a play kitchen — each in its own area, with plenty of space for friends to join in. Even though there were plenty of toys and options to choose from, the kids seemed at ease, and they easily picked an activity, cleaning up their area before moving on to the next.

To me, it looked like magic, and an image flashed in my mind of all of our toys at home, arranged in whatever way worked at the moment, with no clear organizational structure. It kind of worked for us, but I realized it could work much better.

Credit: Stephanie Ganz

How to Set Up Play Centers at Home 

Inspired by Sharon’s classroom, I decided to make a change. While we didn’t have a preschool classroom at our disposal, I figured I could use the concept of play centers to help us organize our toys in a thoughtful way. 

I told my then 4-year-old, Lily, that I wanted to try something new with her toys and that I needed her help. Here’s what we did:

  1. We started with a game of Keep It or Leave It: This is to make sure we were only organizing toys we really wanted to keep, and then we moved on to sorting. 
  2. Then we identified six different play centers: We chose Barbies, toy pets, Little People, play school, careers, and dolls.
  3. Next, we sorted each “play center” into its own clear, lidded storage bin. Lily helped me sort the toys into each bin, giving her ownership of the process (in my experience, kids are pros when it comes to sorting by type).
  4. Finally, we labeled the bins: At the time, my daughter couldn’t read most of the labels, so the transparent bins helped her identify what was inside.
  5. We tried out the new system! When Lily wants to play with the toys in one of the bins, all she has to do is ask. We go down to the basement, pick one out, and play. Once she’s done, she puts everything back in the bin, and I help her put it back in the basement to enjoy again another time.
Credit: Stephanie Ganz

The process worked so well for my older child that I knew I would repeat it with my second child, and that’s just what we’ve done. Hazel, now 5, knows how it works: if she wants to play with the toys in one of the bins, we pick one out from the basement and play. When she’s done, everything goes back in the bin, and I help her put it back in the basement to enjoy again another time.

It’s a simple system that helps me keep my living areas free of toys and helps Hazel know exactly where to find her favorite toys when she wants them.

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