Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Toy Rotation Part Two: A Toy Library

Recently I posted about our system of toy rotation for infants and toddlers. With my oldest, Kal-El, the bins worked beautifully until sometime just after age 2.5. At that point he started asking for specific toys that he knew we had but weren't in his bin that day. This was my signal that it was time to switch to a system called a "toy library" that I read about at another blog called Parent Hacks. You can read all about it at this post:

Here is a sloppy description of how this works at our house. There is a "toy library" in each boy's closet. We are blessed with big closets and if you double the rod on one half little kids really don't need the whole thing. The original Parent Hacks post has this set up on shelves in their basement. Another blog, Amazing Trips, has a post here that shows how it is set up in their garage.

At bedtime (nightime and naps) all toys are put away (we aren't at the "ongoing projects age" yet). My hopeful theory is that this teaches the boys the house's "natural state" is one in which all toys are put away. In the morning Kal-El is the first awake and as we leave his bedroom I invite him to pick a toy. (This is a great tactic if you are trying to break a kid of a morning T.V. habit by the way.) Me Too picks a toy when he wakes up a couple of hours later. Whenever the boys want a different toy all they have to do is pick up the first one and exchange it for a new one.

The Parent Hack's post is actually a very nice "how-to" on this whole thing and has some additional tips for children older than mine. I will let you in on some of the nitty gritty details around here, but first some pictures!

This is a picture of what Me Too's toy library looked like back when he had just turned two. (The white mesh baskets hold changing table pads, linens, and swimwear.) I have planned on posting about this for a long time so I have pictures of how the shelves have looked at several age levels as they have evolved. Me Too didn't last as long in the bins as Kal-El did by virtue of being the second child. As soon as he could say "I want to pick a toy" he was asking to pick things off of Kal-El's shelves and I transferred his bins onto shelves of his own. At that age you can see he mostly had toddler toys that could sit on the shelves as individual items. Collections of things (like blocks, balls, or a train set) fit really nicely in cheap plastic dishpans.

I imagine that when they get older I won't have the toy library split in two but rather have one shared library. Yes, they can both choose things from the other's closet and frequently do. It is handy to split it in two if your kids are at ages where they are playing with significantly different things or if the older child has things with a lot of small pieces and your youngest still puts everything in his mouth. My boys are really close in age so I didn't let Kal-El accumulate anything with small pieces until Me Too was old enough to have small pieces too. It also is handy in the occasion of a dispute. I can always pull the "well whose closet is it from" card to stop an argument.
Eventually as they age they may want to play with more than one toy at a time, this is absolutely approved as long as they are using the things together. For example, Kal-El often wants his bin of cars and his bin of tools so he can pretend to fix the cars. When they play together they often take out their zoo and their school bus and have the kids on the bus take a field trip.

This is what Me Too's closet looks like now at almost age three:

You can see as they age their toys start to evolve into collections of things rather than single objects. You will really see that in force when I show you Kal-El's closet. Me Too's prized possessions right now are really his Garbage Truck and the bin of Hot Wheels from Kal-El's closet. Most of Me Too's things still fit rather nicely into dishpans, however if I were using different shelves I might bring in some things from Kal-El's room that are in larger bins. Me Too's Fisher Price Zoo is in one of the larger white baskets to the right of the shelves. The little green shoebox holds a collection of miniature construction trucks. One dishpan holds a zoo train and another holds a Melissa & Doug Wooden Stacking Train. Two dishpans are catchalls for assorted odd objects. For example, one holds an ambulance, rescue helicopter and accessories. Another holds little things like a toy camera, phone, maracas...

I buy adhesive business card holders (the kind you would buy to put on the inside pocket of a binder) and label all the bins with a wallet-sized photograph of their contents. Wallet-sized photos often come in pairs if you order them rather than print them yourself. Another fun idea would be to use the duplicate photos and make a little photo album to serve as a "what to do" book on rainy days. I never did that because the closets are so accessible and with the photos on the front of everything they just stand in front of the closet with their mouths hanging open until they've made a choice.

Yes, the closets are usually locked. I imagine that one day they will be so used to this system the locks will not be necessary. Oddly Me Too can always be trusted to only take what he is using and always puts everything back before picking something else. I think it is part being born into the system and part all of his Montessori shelves starting in the school room at 19 months. So, Me Too's shelves are usually unlocked unless we are getting ready for a showing (house still for sale). Kal-El can usually handle it, but then just when you think you are in the clear he takes everything out when he is supposed to be napping and makes a "dam" out of it. He loves to make a big dam.

Picture the big dam you can make if you empty out all of this:

Almost all of Kal-El's toys are "collections" of things: legos, dinosaurs, zoo animals, farm set, superhero figures, construction vehicles, non-construction vehicles, a baby doll and accessories.

I changed shelving types to accomodate larger bins. I really recommend the cheap wire shelving they sell at Target because the shelves can be adjusted, without tools, at any time in one-inch increments. The only downside is that they make a little noise when you pull out something heavy. I also really recommend the nylon bins, also from Target. They sell them once a year when they put out all the dorm room stuff and they change the colors every year. Last year it was pink and I like them so much I got some more anyway. They come with a clear pouch for a photo label already installed. They are easy for a little kid to carry because they have an aluminum handle that goes all the way around the top. The aluminum keeps them light for a child to carry as does the fact that the rest of the bin is fabric. The extra wiggle room that the "give" in a fabric bin provides comes in handy at times as well.

Most bins/dishpans are full of collections you can easily name. However, each has a dishpan full of "odd" things that really don't fit a category and are too small to sit alone on the shelf... toy cameras, binoculars, wind-up Easter bunnies in a little wheel...etc., This "happy meal" type of stuff is like Gremlins and will take over your house if you let it. A friend of mine cleaned out her kids' toys a couple of months ago and said she threw out "two garbage bags of little pieces of plastic junk." Sometimes this stuff isn't junk, just small, but it helps to limit it to ONE bin. I chose a really small six inch cube bin for Kal-El's closet. If a bin holds a collection of odd objects I lay the items out on a table and take a picture of the whole collection to use for the label.

If you don't have any super big items, theoretically your house could be toy-free when the kids are asleep. Before we accumulated a couple of big things our friends with kids would say in a mystified voice when the visit "where are all the toys?" However, we have some large items that are out all of the time so they are never truly down to "one toy" at any time. For example, the train table, dress-up cabinet, kitchen set, two ride-on vehicles, and their 50 pound set of maple unit blocks. When we put our house on the market we put the accessories for the kitchen set (all the food and dishes) in a bin that the boys can request like anything else. This has worked really well and saves me from a big mess just as I'm about to put them in the car to get out for a showing.

You won't see any puzzles, games or books on their shelves. I don't limit access to books and there are baskets in their rooms and in our family room that are full of books at all times that I rotate in and out of both our home library and the real library. I feel the same way about puzzles. Me Too has a small puzzle cabinet in his room. Another cabinet, in our family room, is full of the rest of the puzzles and the games. This is a good spot because it is where Kal-El and I hang out for two hours each morning while waiting for Me Too to wake up. Puzzles and games are good things to have on hand in the wee hours. That cabinet started with a lock, however I turned the lock off a couple of months ago and they have been choosing freely.

Other posts in this series: Toy Rotation for Infants and Toddlers


  1. This is fabulous, you are one super organised lady!

    I do something similar to this already, with all of our toys, games and puzzles in one large walk in cupboard but it still needs some work.

    I am definitley going to implement that system for C in his room rather than having his things all in with the big kids stuff.

    Thanks again. :)

  2. Wow, this post totally answers my question about handling toys outside of the school room. As my son has gotten older, his toys have started having more parts and are driving me crazy. I am excited about implementing something like this to handle the toy accumulation!

  3. Our house is also toy free, except for toys in their room! I love the target bins. They are so spacious for all of the collections!

    We also clean up all toys before going to bed. My kids 6 and 4 can now do this all on their own since there is a place for everything and everything always in its place!

    My only problem is organizing books. I can't find a system that is easy to keep up with and I don't like to limit the books any more. I have books every where.

  4. Wow! You are so organized! I love your system, but don't think it would work for us since this house has absolutely no closet space!

  5. The Girl Who Painted Trees,

    The original Parent Hacks link post set this up on shelves in their basement, not in a closet. Another blog I like has it set up in their garage, here are photos and details:


  6. Do you not get concerned that this will stifle creativity and imaginative play. I remember as a child playing with my dolls house, going to get toy cars so the dolls could go out, getting the zoo animals so they could visit the zoo, getting the playground so the kids could play and my play would last for hours. This is the case with mine too and I simply love to watch the play evolve. I absolutely would love not to have to step over the "mess" until play extincts or has to end, but we all tidy together and rarely have a fuss all toys have there place and so go back to where they belong very easily. I absolutely admire your sticking to montessori principles here and think I would be rather too laze fair to carry it out, so I guess I have to deal with the occasional tripping over a rather large play scene.

    Ps. I simply love your blog

  7. alljoinin,

    No, I don't worry about that because they do all of the things you described. They just ask first. There is no rule against using the materials in combination. When I think of all the creativity that is truly stifled when kids have too many things out at once and are therefore too overwhelmed to play with anything well I think having to ask first is a pretty good trade-off. As they get a little older the locks will come off. We try that periodically already, but they aren't ready yet.

    Some of my friends parents say this wouldn't work for them because their kids only play with each thing for 10 minutes and then move on to something else. They don't want to have to help make the trades that often. Based on my research that kind of playing is actually a symptom of having too many things out and an attention span problem. They probably would benefit from the toy library...but I wouldn't tell them that.

  8. I agree with you about the short attention span being a symptom of having too many things out. I've seen that happen here with our our friends' kids.

  9. I'm so glad!! Absoloutly agree with you about too much choice. I visit kindergarten's and day care centres for my job (as a consultant) and I am constantly shocked about the lack of attention/ sustained focus to a chosen activity most children have. Here in England there is a real drive to have all resources available for children to access at all times indoor and outdoor in free flow provision. Trying to fight a system that actually at times reduces childrens ability to learn and engage is a difficult one. But I also think another major factor relating to this is what toys/ resources you are actually offering in the first place. If they are appropriate to the children's needs and are of high quality then that is a huge element in encouraging real play and engagement. That is why I think that if a parent is in a position educate their child at home for as long as possible the children will reap the benefits. Rant over!!! Thanks again for your great blog.

  10. Do you allow them to take out the whole bin holding a collection of say, zoo animals, or do they have to choose individual items?

    Also, if the rule is put an item back to get a new one, but they've made a plan to use the items together, do you just allow an "exception" for that particular instance?

  11. My Thoughts Exactly,

    Sorry, I thought I talked about that but I guess it was covered in the Parent Hacks post and I didn't mention it in my post.

    Yes, they can use anything they want to in combination. They frequently ask for more than one thing and they always get it. "My tools and my legos" are a popular combination around here...as well as taking Me Too's school bus full of kids to the zoo collection. As long as things are actively being used they can be out.

    They almost always take out the collection, not individual items. Once in a while they ask for just a "certain Spiderman figure" or just "a hammer" and they get what they ask for :)

  12. I know this is an older post, but I've been reading your blog a lot lately and wanted to say how useful I found this - we are verging on this at home, and there were some great tips on how to complete our organisation for Lolly's toys (she's now 2 and a half). So, thanks!

  13. Bummer, the blog Amazing Trips doesn't seem to be active any more. I really need to think about how we might implement this ....

  14. OH, I should have included ... because we don't really keep any toys in their rooms currently. Their closets would be a good choice because they are so empty but we try to keep distractions minimal in there. Maybe the basement ... but I also feel like I'd have to go down there and manage it and little ones walking up and down with toys probably means me walking up and down with them. I do think as they get older, this will be very doable. I'll have to keep thinking on this ...