Every year on Christmas morning, once the crumpled wrapping paper and bows have been thrown away and my three boys are happily playing with their new gifts, I like to sit on the couch and sip my coffee, quietly deciding which of their old toys I'll get rid of to make room for the new ones.
In an attempt to avoid the dreaded "Christmas clutter," I've even implemented an annual "Christmas Clean-out" where, rather than letting new toys pile up on top of the old (and often forgotten) ones, I try to move at least one toy out of the house for each one that comes in.
If my kids get a new set of Hot Wheels cars, a few of the old ones have to go. If they get a new book, I'll look through their book bin for one they've outgrown or no longer read.
It's a good system, but it wasn't until I scheduled a "toy edit" with Montessori-based organizing service Casa Design Consulting that I learned there's more to avoiding clutter than simply moving toys out of the house. The company's tips not only completely transformed the way I organize and store my children's toys, they taught me how to choose the right toys for my kids and keep them excited about those toys for more than a day or two.
For my fellow parents who are already feeling on edge about the influx of gifts sure to make their way into their homes this holiday season, I spoke with Casa Design Consulting co-founder Aubrey Wallen to learn her methods for getting toy madness under control.
Video: Family coach offers advice on parenting during the holidays
Why Montessori-based organizing?
Wallen is a credentialed Montessori teacher who transitioned from teaching in the classroom to helping parents apply principles from the education method — which encourages kids to follow their natural interests over a strict curriculum — in their homes.
"The science behind Montessori-based organizing is that presenting your child with minimal choices in a peaceful, developmentally appropriate environment encourages independence and self-confidence and supports brain development," Wallen tells Yahoo Life. "Too many choices can be overwhelming and make it difficult [for kids] to focus."
In short: Having a smaller number of easy-to-reach toys that are appropriate for your child's developmental level makes it easier for them to play longer and more meaningfully.
Choosing whether to keep, donate or trash
Keeping toys around "just in case" is an all-too-common struggle in my home, but Wallen's step-by-step process gave me the confidence I needed to let go of that mentality.
"Start by discarding or donating anything that is worn out, broken or incomplete," Wallen says.
She did make an exception for prized possessions, but emphasizes, "if it's not a beloved toy — it doesn't matter how worn out it is — it has to go."
Next, Wallen says to pull out all of your kids' remaining toys and organize them into categories so you can see everything in one place.
"Before you can store things in an organized way, you have to know what you have and determine if those things are still useful for your kids," Wallen says. "Make separate piles for things like puzzles, blocks, dolls, cars and art supplies."
If you come across toys your kids have outgrown or that are no longer developmentally appropriate, add them to the pile to trash or donate.
"If there are toys your child has mastered — meaning they are no longer working on those skills or are no longer interested in those toys because they're ready for harder and more abstract concepts, it's time to find them a new home," Wallen explains.
Make every day feel like Christmas with "toy rotation"
After clearing out the old, broken and outgrown items, Wallen offers storage tips to help parents organize things in a way that keeps kids from pulling out every toy they own then complaining that they're bored five minutes later.
Start by organizing toys that made the cut into bins or on shelves by category. In our home, we have separate plastic storage bins for wooden blocks, toy cars, magnet tiles and other toys.
Wallen warns putting everything out at the same time can quickly undo all the time you've spent organizing, so the next step is to choose which toys you're going to put out for your child:.
"You want a little bit of a variety to spark their interest, but that's it," Wallen says. "Have a few of their favorites, but you might also consider having toys out that have something to do with language, math, art and music."
Everything else then gets put away in a closet, on high shelves or in basement storage area: any space your kids can't easily access so toys are out of sight and out of mind.
When you sense your child is no longer interested in the toys you've put out, it's time to rotate.
"Toy rotation doesn't have to be on a set schedule," says Wallen. "You can do it every week, every-other-week or just any time they seem restless — leaving the toys out or not playing with them for long or coming to you to entertain them — that's a good cue to switch out those toys for ones you've stored away."
Wallen says since kids love getting new toys, when parents rotate new toys out of storage and into their play area, it's just as exciting as picking something out in the toy section.
How to get kids on board with paring down
Your kids may never be thrilled to part with their belongings, but there are things you can do to ease the pain. When it comes to sentimental items like stuffed animals, for example, ask them to keep what they really love and cherish but send the rest to someone in need.
"This way, you aren't threatening to take away anything they love and you are involving them in the process of choosing," Wallen says. "You're also teaching them a service mindset of generosity and giving."
My oldest son is 8 and often looks for ways to earn money for new toys or video games. We recently held a yard sale where I told him he could keep the money earned from any of his belongings.
Wallen agrees this is a great method for older kids.
"Having a yard sale to make money is a perfect example," she says, "because he's applying this theory of choosing what he can part with so he can earn something that he really wants."
Wallen also says it's best to do a clean-out before the holidays.
"Before the holidays, go through your stuff and weed out all of the junk — the stuff that's broken, incomplete and worn out — to make space for anything new that comes in," she recommends. "Then, when you get new things around the holidays, you can put it all away immediately."
After talking with Wallen, my mind is swirling with ideas about what's sitting in my kids' rooms that they no longer need. In fact, I'm so excited I plan to take Wallen's advice and clean the kids' rooms out now so I can enjoy my coffee on the couch Christmas morning even more, knowing the clutter has already been cleared.
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