The Toy Library

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Nearly all of my children’s toys are stored in our basement playroom. This is good because it makes it easier for them to keep their small bedroom clean, and prevents the common living areas from being taken over by Barbie clothes, Legos, My Little Ponies, and tiny plastic pieces that hurt very badly when stepped on in the middle of the night.

Every Saturday the girls must clean up the playroom, and no other chore elicits such violent opposition. They hate cleaning the playroom because it’s typically a complete disaster. It’s a large, open space, so rather than putting away toys as they go, they just find a clean space on the floor whenever they want to play with something new. Before they know it, every single toy they own is scattered about.

The children always have arguments for why they shouldn’t have to clean, their favorite being, “I didn’t get that out! Why do I have to put it away?” With all of their hemming and hawing and poking around, playroom clean-up can turn into an all-day affair.

Over the years, I’ve given a lot of thought to how I could solve this problem. I knew that the main issue was a lack of limits. Despite my constant harping to put stuff away before getting anything new out, they never actually did it, and children lack the organizational ability to sort out a huge mess. I studied early childhood education in college, and worked in a preschool for several years. We always had supplies for a specific art project, and 3-4 sets of toys put out each day for the children to play with during free time. We rotated the toys so that there was something different each day. This worked well because there was a limit to what they could play with at a given time, and when it was time for clean-up the children knew what to do because everything had its place in the classroom.

I decided to apply these proven strategies in my own home, with a slightly different approach that would allow my children to be fairly self-sufficient, and still have access to all of their toys. First, as part of my recent basement cleaning and reorganization, I went through all of the toys and organized everything, making sure that the games, puzzles and play sets were complete. I also weeded out anything that I knew the kids didn’t play with anymore, and put it in the boxes for consignment. I organized all of the toys into bins, using these categories:

1) Board games
2) Puzzles and musical instruments
3) Baby dolls and doll clothes
4) Play dishes and food
5) Barbie stuff
6) My Little Ponies
7) Polly Pockets
8) Littlest Pet Shops
9) Legos
10) Dress-up stuff

I categorized specific play sets, such as Mr. Potato Head, the doctor kit, the doll house, and the Pony Castle, separately.

I had just moved all of the clothes from our storage shed into my used clothing filing system, so I had many empty bins available. I lined up our shelf units on one wall, placed the bins on them, and labeled them. The result – our own toy library.


Our toy library system is very simple, and has only two rules:

1) Each child may check out two bins/play sets at a time.
2) Whoever checks out the item is responsible for putting it away – even if both children were playing with it.

You would not believe how well this works! They have a plastic step stool to help them reach things on the top shelf (I sometimes help with this), and I made the checkout process very simple so that Cakes could easily understand it. Each child has an envelope (which I keep, so I can make sure they’re following the rules), and the check-out cards for the toys are in this set of shoe pockets, mounted on the wall next to the toy shelves.


I made the cards from scrapbook cardstock scraps, and they have pictures on them, which match the pictures on the bins. Whenever possible, I found a picture of the actual toy (such as the Pony Castle), to make recognition easy, but for general categories of items, I just used clip art. To check out a toy, the kids just have to match the picture to the bin, pull the card, and put it in their envelope. As long as they don’t have more than two cards in the envelope at any given time, they’re good.

This system seems to have sparked new interest in their toys, perhaps because they’re enclosed in bins and there’s a surprise element. When they open a bin, I sometimes hear them say, “Oh! I love this game!” or, “My Strawberry Shortcake doll!” as if they haven’t seen the stuff in 20 years. The first day that the Toy Library was in effect, they checked out absolutely everything, just for the fun of seeing what was in the bins, and then checking them back in again. Having the toys enclosed is so much neater, and because they can’t check out anything new until they clean up, the basement stays remarkably neat. It’s also not possible for them to pawn off responsibility for clean-up on each other, because I know exactly who checked out what. Bee is very enthusiastic about this new regime. She said, “YAY! No more cleaning up the playroom mess!”

I think I may have finally found a system that actually works. Perhaps it’s just a novelty and won’t be as effective in the future, but for now, I’m really enjoying my nice clean basement.

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7 comments… add one

  1. Sjenteach April 7, 2012, 7:08 pm

    This is so awesome, I love it.  You have inspired me to get my son’s toys organized.  He’s only 19 months and we don’t have a lot of family so he doesn’t have too many, but we could definitely do a purge and organize.   I love your site and have read several articles so far–all inspiring.

    Jen
    thehomeheart.com

    Reply
  2. Monika December 2, 2012, 1:52 pm

    I’m still reading your website, trying to go from cover to cover slowly. If you literally organized all the articles you’ve ever written in a “Get Organized” and then “Keep Organized” fashion, you’d have a timeless book on your hands. You’re the first person I’ve come across who has a category for what I call Pending (I forgot your word for it). I’ve done a lot of what you already and have so many tidbits to try to tweak what I already do to make it that much better.

    And this Toy Library is just brilliant.

    I’m just still blown away by the level of organization (and frugality) you’ve attained.

    My handsome 20 lb-er is calling me! (6mo)

    Reply
  3. rachel December 17, 2012, 10:37 pm

    i just want to say a big thank you! after my husband left me to be a single mother to 2 young children 9 months ago i have felt so depressed and my little 2 bedroom flat had become a bomb site! after reading all your tips (especially this one) i am finally in the process of making my house into a home! i dont think it will ever be as organised as yours, mainly due to the severe lack of space, but all your tips have made things so much easier. thank you again.

    Reply
  4. Michelle December 30, 2012, 4:59 am

    Brillant!

    Reply
  5. Martin April 14, 2013, 10:18 pm

    I was wondering, since it has been three years since you posted about the toy library, how did this system work out for you in the longer term?

    I saw that it worked in the beginning – but did it continue to work after the novelty wore off? Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Heather April 14, 2013, 10:25 pm

      It actually worked very well right up until we dismantled it because we added bedrooms in our basement, and our children now have toy storage in each of their closets.

      Reply
  6. Brandi November 25, 2013, 2:53 pm

    Thank you for this idea! I read this post back before my son was born in 2010 and thought it was a great idea. My husband thought it wouldn’t be necessary (we’ll have perfect children, right? :), but now that our son is 3 1/2, our small home was being over run with toys. It took forever to get it all picked up at the end of the day. I finally implemented the toy library system the other day. At first it was met with much weeping and gnashing of teeth :D, but after about 2 days he finally got the hang of it. I’m even amazed that at his age, he’s mostly putting his own toys away so he can get out another container. Thanks again for helping me get back my sanity. :)

    Reply

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