Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Toy-free Experiment

There's been a lot of talk around our house for a long (VERY long) time about cleaning up toys.  Ever since Clara Anne was beginning to be mobile, our principle regarding toys was this: whatever you get out to play with, when you are done playing with it, you put it away.  It's that simple.  We live in a small space.  We don't have a toyroom, we need to use every bit of our house for multiple purposes and can't function well with a mess.  However, lately there's been lots of this kind of talk around my house:

"I'm done playing with it, but Chloe (or Christin or Clara) isn't done, so we can't clean it up yet."

"But I didn't get it out!  Shouldn't she have to put it away?"

"Noooo, Clara!  (Or Chloe or Christin)  I still want to play with that!"

"I had it first!"  "No you didn't!  It's mine!"  "Is not, you know we're supposed to share!  Mo-om!  She's not sharing!"

And on and on.

I have tried various tactics to solve this problem.  First of all, on a most basic heart level, the girls' attitudes towards toys are frequently sinful.  Why do they fight over them, balk at putting them away, or whine when a sister grabs the thing they wanted?  Sin.  Selfishness, greed, not loving or thinking kindly of the other person but wanting it all for themselves, unwilling to relinquish the silly bit of wood or plastic or whatever it is that has suddenly become central to their existence and they cannot bear to think of living without it!

So I usually talk to them about the sin problem first.  But then there are a host of other issues that come out of that.  There's responsibility, learning to do what they know is right without having to be asked/reminded 2,849 times, as well as respect for the family rules and guidelines that simply help the house run smoother.  There are character issues that have to do with being generous, thoughtful, and kind, as well as keeping neat, caring for things, and staying organized.  I am also big on teaching the girls initiative. . . can they look at a messy room, see what needs to be done, and do it?  Or do they need me to delineate every little thing?  "Put the marker back in the marker bin.  That bowl needs to go back to the kitchen.  Please throw away the scraps of paper."  To me, learning initiative is part of learning to think--a very important skill!  In that light, dealing with toys can be a real teacher!

In my opinion, we have a lot of toys.  Many of them are very educational and are part of a "set."  For example, a magnetic doll that has many different outfits that can be put on her, and all fit in the same wooden box when playtime is done.  But then we have a fair amount of junky toys.  Too many stuffed animals, cheap plastic bits of this and that, and then things that the girls have found and repurposed as toys.  So I know that one of my big tasks as we look ahead to moving in June is to sort, give away, and purge those toys which seem to multiply overnight. 

But in the meantime, by the end of last week, I had had enough.  There had been several days of the girls not doing a good job with cleaning up toys, and I was frustrated.  I have tried to find a balance of teaching them to clean up toys themselves, and helping them so that it doesn't take forever, and at the end of last week it seemed that fights were erupting as clean up was supposed to be happening, and both older girls ended up in time outs for other attitude problems, which meant I ended up doing the clean up.  (Sorry to be so frank and air the "dirty laundry", so to speak, but that's what happened.)  I wasn't pleased with that and neither was John when he came home and heard me (of course very calmly and graciously, ha!) tell him that toys had been a problem.  Earlier in the week we had had a pretty serious sit-down talk with the girls, so by the end of the week when I was still. . . ahem. . . calmly and graciously "reporting" on the problem to him, we took a drastic measure. 

Simply this:  No toys this week. 

Yep, no toys.  No playing with Polly Pockets, Dominoes, blocks, and jenga pieces all in the construction of some grand structure for the Polly Pockets to live in.  No getting out the lacing game and using the string to tie around stuffed animals as a leash, a sister's ankles as ballet ribbons, or tying toys together to make a "train."  No scattering of crayons, markers, scissors, stickers, pens, colored pencils, construction paper, glue, and tape all over the floor, which happened one morning when I had seemingly only left the room for a few minutes.  No more twice-daily struggles to get everyone to pitch in cheerfully when it was time for the more thorough clean up.

No toys.

The girls absorbed the news just fine, but weren't sure what it would mean for them.  I knew, and hoped it wouldn't turn out to be more of a punishment for me than them!

So, in the new-no-toys environment, what were they to do?  I had several suggestions:  Read books.  We have a well-stocked bookshelf and it's been underappreciated lately.  Crayons and coloring books were another suggestion.  Also, play games like hide and seek, pretend,  dancing to music, all of those are good options.  As well, I reserved the right to pull out a toy and sit someone down with it for a period of time if I wanted to.  And, we had plenty of school scheduled for this week, so I figured we'd get through it somehow.

But what I didn't anticipate was that the girls would hardly seem to miss their toys at all!  The effect over the last three days has been very minimal, isn't that surprising?  They've had fun!  They went out and played in the snow with John yesterday.  We've listened to the Chronicles of Narnia (Focus on the Family radio theatre), made it through the first two books already.  We've colored pictures.  They played an elaborate pretend game yesterday that involved orphans and cloaks in the snow and--no toys.
They've been more available and willing to help me in the kitchen.  Best of all, there haven't been any fights over toys, messes from toys, disputes about toys, reluctance to clean up toys, or time wasted doing any of the above!  It's been wonderful!

So, while our no-toys week is obviously not a permanent solution, I am enjoying a much needed break.  I would love to hear from you other, more experienced moms if you have had the same battles and what you've done about it.  Any advice is appreciated!  Do you simply limit the number of toys in your home?  Do you find you are always teaching/correcting over toys?  Do you "assign" certain toys to certain days?  I've read of moms doing this; I've done it on occasion but it seems to structured for me to use all the time, but maybe it would be a good solution?  Chime in with your ideas, I'm all ears!


The Culbertsons said...

This sounds so appealing Rachel! But with my boys still so small (3 and 20 months) it seems virtually impossible. I still have to provide much direction when cleaning up toys "put this here, this goes there.." etc. Since Josiah is still so small, I usually have him "help" clean up the toys. I will keep this in mind though for a short period as they often fight over the most insignificant toys. Thanks for your good ideas and being honest!

Anonymous said...

It is so funny that you posted this Rachel! I was going to ask you for advice on controlling toy clutter in a small space (we don't have a lot of space here either). We have the same battles over toys and clean up. I am radically limiting the number of toys we have right now. Our rule has been for some time that if a toy comes in another one goes out. We also have a set number of stuffed animals they are allowed. I would love to hear what more seasoned mammas have to say about the toy fighting, etc. Thanks for this post. Kristie

Gretchen said...


I have no input. We are still in the early accumulation stage where "helping clean up" is a pretty exciting event. :)

But I'm impressed, and it's good to know that it won't scar them for life by taking them all away for a while.

I recall my mom pulling out a "King Solomon" every once in a while if we fought over toy and just take it away. Made us want to work it out between ourselves before it became a big argument/tattling, etc. Would not always work, though, I know, since there ARE times when one sibling is being selfish, and the other is not (or not at fault I guess).

Totally appreciate your honesty! :) I think different times/spaces can call for different measures, and perhaps if you had a toy room certain things could stay out over the course of a few days (my dad was nice about this with Legos, since we'd spend forever building something, and it's hearbreaking to just shove it away). But you're dealing with small space and it just needs to happen that way.

You gotta update us as the week goes on!

Courtney said...

love the idea! We recently had to put away a motorized car/racetrack set because my kids were fighting over it so much (it stayed in the closet for about a month!) then it was like Christmas all over when we recently got it back out & they've done better with it.

Anonymous said...

We struggle with the same things. What I do have to offer is what works for us some of the time. I'm completely in favor of no toys for awhile and we are seriously considering using it. We have done variation of what Kristie does in that they are only allowed one toy out at a time and then it is on a large area carpet ( separate from each other, a few feet anyway) and they have to play with it for atleast 15 minutes. At the end of 15 minutes they can chose to keep playing with it for another 15 or chose another toy ( or sometimes I chose for them :)) after putting away what they were playing with. This works really well especially during school time or when you just cleaned the house and need to keep it clean because of company or whatever. I highly suggest using a timer. It keeps me and the child accountable. Me, so I remember they get a different toy, and the child because they can see/hear the timer and know when their time is up. It's not a perfect method, but does work for us when I need it. I also require that the child has to stay on the carpet and may only get off if they ask first. We are also in need of a toy purge. Isn't crazy that we are so "rich" that we need to get rid of them? We've also allowed our kids to pick a toy of their own and "regift" it to another child/ baby. You cover giving and getting rid of the clutter all at the same time.
Hope some of this was helpful for you!
Rebecca VE

sandra said...

I love no toy week. I'm so inspired! Some things we do with toys...

- we keep them in the office in a "closet"

- The kids can select a toy or a box of toys (all the trains or the farm set, etc.) and play with that in the living room.

- The toys are put away each evening.

- When a new toy comes into the house an old toy is donated to the local orphanage. Normally, the toys that are donated are the local, inexpensive toys that people bring to our home as a small gift. This keeps us from having as many stuffed animals as Noah did real ones.

- I refuse to buy more bins (plastic Ikea boxes) for organizing toys, but I think I will have to get something when Legos enter our home.

- I don't rotate the toys. I tried doing that, but I couldn't keep up with it.

- I do sometimes assist with clean up teaching the kids to put "like with like" so they are in the appropriate bins if multiple bins are out.

You know, how it goes. Sometimes the train tracks need to zoom around the farm, etc.

We don't have fighting over toys yet, but I have a feeling my days are numbered.