Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Toy Rotation for Infants and Toddlers

Toy rotation is something that is recommended in many of the books about Montessori for infants and toddlers. This doesn't mean it's a "Montessori thing." According to my very opinionated self, it is just a logical and convenient part of parenting. I went through several "toy rotation systems" with Kal-El way back when he was still an only child and I had never heard of the Montessori method. However, I think rotating toys was some of the very first types of "training" I did with the boys that eventually led to three-hour work cycles in the classroom.

Disclaimer: I wouldn't say there are "many," but there are certainly "numerous" parents out there who have managed to keep their child's toy collection to under ten items. If you are one of these people, this post is not for you. This message is for the rest of us. I read recently that the average American child has 150 toys.

My family used to be concerned that our kids would have "nothing to play with" because I was so vocal about "kids having too many toys" and not wanting "a gazillion toys all over the house." That said, if the boys never ever received another toy again, they have plenty here to keep them busy until they go to college.

I have been meaning to post about our system of "toy management" for a long time. However it didn't seem right to post about our current system (for older children) before I posted about how we did it when they were under two or three.

As I said, I went through several systems when the kids were little(r). I thought perhaps that sharing what eventually turned out to work the best could save someone else a few misfires.

What worked the best was a collection of seven clear plastic bins. I numbered each one on all sides (1-7) and kept them in Kal-El's bedroom closet. Each bin had about seven toys in it. I kept an index card listing what was in each bin. Whenever he seemed to be tiring of what was in a particular bin, I put that bin on the top of the stack and pulled out a new one from the bottom of the stack. If company was coming, all I had to do was throw seven toys in the bin (if they weren't there already, the boys figured out they belonged in the bin very quickly) and put it back in the closet.

Why the OCD index card? Very frequently a toy would reside undiscovered under the couch for a couple of days. When I found it I wanted to know easily where to put it back. My husband would argue for just throwing it in to any old bin. However, this was annoying if it was "part of something" (like a single cup from the stack of nesting cups). Also, I put a lot of thought into what was in each bin. Most infant/toddler toys fit into a "category." For example: vehicle, ball, building materials, physical (hammering, switch flipping, etc.,), sensorial, etc., I made sure that each bin had some kind of ball and separated toys that served similar purposes apart from one another.

Some tips:

  • Originally I had labelled all the bins by the day of the week. This is not a good idea. Very often he was really enjoying a particular bin and I didn't want to rotate yet. This happened very frequently on the "same" days of the week. If he really loved the "Monday" bin and I didn't switch again until Wednesday, then Tuesday would be skipped all the time. Also, I think it is good to encourage them to play with each group as long as they are engaged.

  • The bins do not all have to be the same size. I purchased five somewhat shallow bins and two deep ones that all had the same footprint. Only a couple of the toys didn't fit in the shallow bins. I just made sure that the extra-large items were in the extra large bins and saved a lot of room overall.

  • One of my rules with a little one is to only give them as much as I was willing to pick up off the floor. This transitions nicely into only giving the child as much as they can be responsible for picking up off the floor. In my experience, kids who have too many toy choices at once are overwhelmed. An overwhelmed child tends to claim they have "nothing to play with," play for shorter periods of time with each toy, and more often than not pull everything out and make a big mess before complaining (again) that they have "nothing to play with."

  • Just because a toy has a battery compartment doesn't mean that you actually need to put batteries in it. We have had several toys over the years that were "good toys" without needing the extraneous noises and lights the company equipped them with. We never put the batteries in and the boys never knew the difference. Also, toys that make noises are almost always too loud. When we do actually put the batteries in a toy we almost always take it apart first and cover the speaker with electrical tape. The toy companies set the volume for what can be heard over all the other noisy toys in a noisy toy store, not for what is appropriate at home. If we can't take it apart, we put the electrical tape over the exterior of the speaker.

  • I very rarely give the boys all the pieces to a toy if I can help it. A 10 month old doesn't need all 30 blocks in the set, just ten. If you give them 30, you have to pick up 30. This also applies to all the nuts and bolts that come with the little wooden toolbox, all the plastic foods that come with the kitchen set, etc., You get the idea. This also plays into the idea of enjoying each toy for "longer." When something needs a little refreshing you can bring out some of the accessories.

It is a pet peeve of mine that kids seem to be playing with certain types of toys at increasingly younger ages. As soon as we get even a whiff of an idea that they might be tiring of something we rush to give them the next thing. If you do that too often you quickly reach the end of the chain and the "next thing" isn't appropriate to give them. For this reason I let the boys have the "youngest version" of things for as long as I can. For example, they had a blast with our "toddler kitchen" long after all of their friends had switched to an older version. I hope that this teaches them to really "max out" what they can do with an object before needing something else.

I leave our days as unscheduled as possible. So, from the time he could crawl Kal-El's mornings around the house weren't really any different than they are in the school room today. He had, in addition to all the curiosities of our house itself, basically a collection of "works" he could choose from for a large block of time. Much like "never wake a sleeping baby," I consciously tried to never interrupt him when he was playing nicely by himself. We try not to show them what they can do with a toy, but rather let them discover what they can do with it themselves. I don't know what it is, but there is something about young children playing with a toy that makes you want to get down with them and play too, often leading to having them stop whatever they are doing while you enthusiastically pick up another toy and say "look at this, look at what this can do!" Then they grow up and we wonder why they can't play by themselves and are always looking for "something new." I'm a little phobic sometimes.

So, in reference to the three-hour work cycle, all along the boys were choosing activities for themselves and playing with them independently to discover for themselves what they could do. Not rotating the the bins "every day" helped keep them from expecting something new all the time and encouraged them to explore each item at increasingly deeper levels. When we started doing activities in the "school room" with Kal-El at about 2.5, to him it wasn't any different than what he had already been doing. It was just in a "different room" with a "different selection" of things to do. That is a big part of what drew me to Montessori in the first place. I don't feel like a young child should be spending their time doing structured learning activities. I feel like they should spend their days "playing" on their own terms. To me, Montessori was just a matter of choosing what materials were available for them to "play with" a little more carefully.

I'll try to post about our current toy setup soon. You'll know when it's time to switch to a different system when the child starts requesting particular toys that are not in the bins by themselves. I hope this post doesn't sound too preachy, I'm way too good at sounding preachy and I am posting this just after writing it (I really should give myself some time to edit). These are just my thoughts and opinions. As at the grocery store, take what you like, leave what you don't.

Other posts in this series: Toy Rotation Part Two, A Toy Library

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  1. I think that's a really useful post! I especially like the numbered bins. So did you always have them out in a sequence, ie number 1, then number 2, number 3, etc?

    I also like the idea of keeping some of the accessories for variation of the toy.

    Thanks for sharing your toy rotating system!

  2. Very interesting. Thanks. I look forward to reading more.

  3. It's funny that you post this now, because I was recently talking to my sister about how she organizes art for her girls (ages 5 and 3). Apparently all of her art materials were "put on a break" when the 5 yo learned to write her name. Not sure if Kal-el is into writing his name yet, but I'll warn you that I have seen many a child never think to write on a wall or table until they write their name. Then they want to write it everywhere. Once, I had to have a child help me scrub a foot long name off the classroom floor. Sorry, getting off topic. Anyway, she was looking for good ways to put out art materials in which she didn't have to supervise every activity. The solution was less materials. I also learned this lesson my first year as a teacher. 10 crayons (for some children) is WAY too many. I start with 3 and let them switch in and out to avoid a flurry of broken crayons on the floor. Less can be more!

  4. Thank you for this post; I found it really helpful. I've been rotating toys for a while now but am constantly cleaning out and re-organizing our toy/supplies closet. I wish I'd thought to organize the toys into bins sooner.

    I also agree that too often children are pushed to move on to the newer, more advanced, etc. thing too soon. I recognize that I was doing that with my older son; perhaps it was seeing how he could play with his brother's "baby" toys in new and interesting ways convinced me otherwise. I also think that this "move on to the next thing" mentality won't be conducive to thoughtfully grappling with complex issues later on.

  5. Totally agree!!, When we started Neurological Organization like 3 years ago, that was a must!!, rotate by week the toys and the books... and every week was like Chritsmas!! she was almost a year by then, but now... it's another thing, I'm still doing it... but I love your 1-7 bowls idea!!

    Thanks for your tips on your toy rotating system!!

  6. This is an awesome post!! While I agree that rotating toys is not Montessori, it is a reasonable solution to toy problem each of us probably has. I just don't think it's realistic for most of us to keep new toys from coming in our houses from well-meaning relatives and rotation helps keep it in check.

    I'm working on the toy organization around here and I've noticed the more I put in storage the more she plays independently. She still has way more that 10 toys out at a time, but I do go by the "what do I want to pick up" standard now and it's totally changed my household.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  7. This is a great post! With my older childre (7 and 9) I have found that they actually only play with 3 toys or sets of toys each. I did the Montessori thing and observed them for a couple of weeks over the summer and then we reorganised their rooms according to what they used.

    My son has a desk with drawing materials (only a careful selection, we do messy stiff in the kitchen), his set of Yu-gi-oh cards and books.

    My daughter has a desk similarly set out, an American girl doll, a set of dragons and her books.

    They play with designated toys very rarely - a toy kitchen was hardly touched when they were younger but I would find a whole house set up under the table. We have sheets and blankets and quilts that they use to make tents and other contructions and that seems to be what they play with the most. The space to play is the most important thing I seem to be able to give them.

    I have a 5 year old daughter too and the 3 of them playing together is my most favourite sound in the world. I "lose" them for an entire afternoon regularly either in their bedrooms working on some project either independently or together or playing some imaginative game.

    Sorry it's a bit rambling, I'm also eating my breakfast!!

  8. This was a brilliant post. I tend to group like objects instead of separating them - like we have a basket with eight balls in it. I wouldn't separate them because each ball is a different color and one of the balls is bigger and one is smaller than the rest, so I use it to build vocabulary and comparisons (some of the balls have different textures.) But I love the idea of neurological organization.
    Can't wait to read about how you organize and rotate for preschoolers.

  9. Thanks for this great post! I wish I'd had it when my kids were little. Still, I think the concepts in here could help me get my 11 year old daughter's room in a more approachable state! Thanks so much for sharing and I can't wait to hear more!

  10. I know this is an old post, but I'm glad I found it. I've been wondering recently how I can handle toy rotation a little better, and I think I may use a modified version of what you're doing. Right now I just choose items Link hasn't used in a while and replace something on his shelf that seems to go unused. But I sometimes forget about things and often he ends up having more things out than I like to pick up.

    I'll have to think about it a bit more to see how it will work for us. Thanks for sharing!

  11. I am going to have to try this! I was wondering if you ever had problems with the under two crowd getting into things they shouldn't? Or would that fall under setting up the enviornment? I'm trying to figure out if my 14mo old has too many toys out or not enough!

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