Santiago Urquijo, Peter Dazeley, Rastko Belic, EyeEm, Hector Roqueta Rivero, CSA/Getty Images

I Finally Tried Toy Rotation — & OMG, It Actually Works

Those influencer moms are onto something.

by Anna Maltby

Before I had kids, something relatively inconsequential that nevertheless loomed large on my list of parenting worries was all the stuff. Yes, the baby gear and tiny socks and little rubbery spoons — but also, all the toys. In a way, the prospect of surrendering my home — certainly not all that organized, but generally fairly calm — to a mountain of loud, tacky, plastic crap felt like a metaphor for surrendering, perhaps, my identity to my children. I admit I half-hoped I’d be able to somehow create one of those Pinterest-worthy play areas, with natural-fiber woodland creature stuffies and Scandi-style wooden train toys. I even read the book Simplicity Parenting during my first pregnancy (which I do recommend!) and dreamed about a streamlined system where I’d rotate toys in and out each week, keeping the available items to a calm, beautiful minimum.

But once my children (now 5 and almost 3) arrived, reality hit. My son’s first beloved baby toy was a small turquoise plastic octopus that blasted midi versions of Vivaldi tunes. Despite my almost never actually purchasing toys, piles of things began to grow. And then the birthday parties started, gift bags full of their requisite small plastic future-garbage choking hazards that immediately become the most cherished possessions in the house. Listen, we had all the bins and the cabinets and the clean-up routine, and the luck to have more stuff than we needed. Even so, the dumping-out of bins full of detritus just to find one toy? The piles of random absolute crap? My kids’ chaotic (and often combative) flitting about from one thing to another? I guess it was all normal life-with-little-kids stuff, but none of it felt very good.

Indeed, research suggests that less really may be more when it comes to kids and toys. In a fascinating 2017 study, researchers measured the quality of toddlers’ play in two conditions: a room with four toys and one with 16 toys. In the four-toy room, the toddlers (all between 18 and 30 months old) played with each toy for, on average, more than twice as long, and in an average of 63% greater variety of ways, suggesting that having fewer options meant they were able to dive in and focus more easily, leading to more creative play.

I guess it was all normal life-with-little-kids stuff, but none of it felt very good.

“Toddlers are built to attend to everything in their environment,” lead author Alexia E. Metz, Ph.D., an associate professor of occupational therapy at the University of Toledo School of Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, told me. Like cats (my analogy, not hers), they enter a room and feel the need to check in with everything in there, considering each possible playtime option before they dive in to actual play — and the more options available, the more time they spend in the “checking” phase and the less time they spend on focused play. So if you never seem to see a settled-down, extended play, it might be worth removing a few toys, Metz says.

(Metz and her team are currently working on a similar experiment with preschoolers, who play a little differently and don’t have as much of a drive to “check” every single item in a play area. But I’d venture a guess they’ll see similar results — even adults feel better with fewer choices.)

While this makes perfect sense to me now, and while I still, five years into parenthood, had the nagging urge to institute a toy rotation system, I could never wrap my head around it. How could I get my kids on board with having fewer toys available? Where would the out-of-rotation stuff go? And then a couple of months ago, Canadian stylist Charly Goss posted on Instagram about her household’s own toy rotation system — simultaneously aspirational and realistic — and something clicked for me. She showed how they categorize the toys, the number of toys they have out at once, how they store the out-of-rotation items, and how her kids feel about it all, and it just made sense. I could finally envision a process to follow and could picture what the result might look like in my own home. I'd been influenced, and, reader, it felt good. And now it is my turn to pay it forward and influence you, in eight easy steps:

1. Assess whether you really need to do this.

There are so many sources of parental agita out there. If your kid has a lot of toys and they seem to love it, and you aren’t actually bothered by it, don’t feel pressure to change anything! Save that energy for the hundreds of other things on your to-do list. But for some parents (like me), clutter and chaos in the home contribute to stress. “Some people really get overwhelmed in a busy environment, and clearing it up can help them focus and maintain a sense of calm,” Metz says. “Other people can really tolerate [a busy environment].”

This is a “nice to have” if it sounds appealing, but not doing it is not actively harmful to your children, Metz says. “Kids are resilient, meaning there’s a lot of wiggle room in how parents go about most things, including this — it’s definitely not worth feeling guilty over,” Metz says.

2. Block off a little time.

Your call whether you go through the purging-and-sorting process with or without your children: I had a feeling things would go more smoothly if I snuck around and did it while they were away from the house (and I was right), but some parents find their kids actually enjoy being part of the proceedings, and it’s more palatable to them to choose which toys depart. Either way, it takes time, although a little less than I was bracing myself for: I attacked our two play areas over the course of two afternoons when I was light on work and my kids were in school. Total time needed: about four hours.

3. Gather your tools.

I really hate buying plastic, but it was a necessity for this process: Luckily, I already had some unused large lidded storage bins, so all I had to buy were some extra-large Ziploc bags. I also rounded up a few very large tote bags (think FreshDirect or IKEA) to gather and sort the items I’d be giving away.

4. Sort and purge.

The process was actually pretty simple: I cleared off my kitchen counter to use as a workspace, then went one bin at a time, pulled each item out, and decided what to do with it. Possible options:

  1. Trash: Most of the birthday party detritus went here, as did anything broken or unidentifiable.
  2. Donate/give away: Baby and toddler toys went into the large tote bags, as did more age-appropriate items my kids had had for a while and never seemed to connect with — all in nice enough condition to give to a friend or donate.
  3. Keep: Toys I was pretty sure my kids still played with were sorted into piles by category — vehicles, Duplos, dinosaurs, animal figurines, other building toys, costumes, etc.

5. Store.

Now that I had my categories, I could choose a few things to keep out for now — one category per bin! — and place the out-of-rotation items into the large Ziploc bags. I gathered the Ziploc bags into the large storage bins and placed those in a closet. I also placed a few puzzles and board games in storage so each play area only has two to three of each at a time. (Yes, toy rotation does sort of require a little storage, which admittedly isn’t something everyone has. But maybe you can find an unused high shelf of a closet, or the space under a bed or couch? You’ll only be accessing it every couple of weeks, so it doesn’t need to be super convenient.)

6. Rotate.

For us, about every two weeks is the right cadence for actually rotating the toys — my kids are in school all week, so we have less playtime at our apartment than families whose kids stay home for more of the week. And quite frankly, I think we could get away with even less-frequent rotation: Even after two weeks, my kids don’t seem bored with the toys we have out. All told, the rotation process takes about five or 10 minutes. Try it during naptime or after bed, if you can. (My rotation influencer Goss says the days after she secretly rotates her children’s toys are “like Christmas morning.”)

7. Evaluate.

One benefit of limited toy availability is that you get a much better sense of what your kids actually play with: Our costume bin and animal figurine bin get tons of action, but the Squigz haven’t been touched — so maybe those will be donated soon, and maybe for the next birthday or gift-receiving holiday we can ask relatives to add to our costume options.

8. Enjoy the results.

Are my kids suddenly speaking Mandarin and learning to code and composing piano sonatas? Definitely not. And they still scream and cry and argue over toys sometimes. But overall, I’ve noticed more extended play sessions, more cooperation, and — often — a calmer playtime. Aside from a beloved Elmo I had to apologetically request our family friend return after I’d passed our extra toys on to her, they’ve almost never asked about a toy they noticed was missing (and when they did, I could make a mental note to swap it in with the next rotation). And cleanup is a relative breeze.

It may not be Scandi-chic or all that Pinterest-worthy, but it’s working for us.