Avoiding Permanent Disaster Status With Stay-At-Home Toddlers

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In the ways of keeping things sane at home, we have two things working against us. First, the kids stay at home all day with a nanny. Be it a care taker or a SAHP, it seems to me that the homes of toddlers who stay at home are more cluttered and toy-intensive than their out-of-the-home daycare counterparts.

Second. Christmas! Which means More! Stuff! The worst offender? There’s this mailbox that, when you open the door, a woman’s voice goes “Special DeLIVERRRRRRRRYYYYY!” like right out of Oprah Winfrey’s mouth when she’s announcing a big sit-down with Whitney Houston. Sure, there are volume adjustments, the problem is that the levels are Louder and Loudest. Anyway.

So, given our kids spend the majority of their days at home, here’s what we do to manage the battle against clutter and overwhelmed toddler (and mommy) brains:

Take Stock. Then Put Most Of It Away

We make it a point to not have everything out and available. People are all, “well, I don’t want to limit the creativity of my child’s imagination by selecting what toys are out”. Whatever, blah blah blah. I don’t think that by making an executive decision about the toys that are out (when they’re older, they can participate in the process), that I am shriveling up the right sides of their brains. We probably put a good 60%-80% away.


This is (above) our what-used-to-be-a-living room. Because of the configuration of our home, and the fact that the ‘living space’ is on the second story, this is the room the kids spend the majority of their time in. We have those blocks in the middle (have had them since forever, first to help with tummy time and crawling, later with pulling up, and now with walking over/stacking and helping with balance and coordination), but we move them out of the way when they are playing with their grocery carts.


To keep things fresh, we rotate books and some toys (except the favorites, whatever those might be at the time) every couple weeks or as needed. If I left it entirely to our nanny and my partner, there would be a ton more stuff out, but the general rule is if we’re pulling something new out, something needs to be moved into the storage closet.

Do Not Reveal The Whereabouts Or Contents Of The Hiding Closet To Your Toddlers

This is a very important space that should be severely downplayed should the toddlers remember what goes in. For this reason, I highly recommend rotating and storing toys after the kids go to bed, otherwise it’s “mommy, but I want _____!!!!” and then queue meltdown.

Purge With Purpose

As things get rotated out, I look and decide if (a) they really needit, (b) if they’ll be past interest by the time it makes its way back out, and (c) how many like items we already have. The wheeled-objects in our garage had multiplied like wet gremlins to three ride on-toys, a double-seater wagon, a wooden push cart, a jumpy horse thing, two tricycles (Christmas presents from the grandparents), and two shopping carts (1st birthday gifts that we had kept in storage until we wrapped them up and said they were from Santa. Score!) With so many wheeled objects, guess who took pictures and listed some half of it on Craigslist on Sunday?

Keep A Few Items In Each Room

We try to instill some of the practical nature of Montessori methods in our home, one being that each ‘ family room/space’ has a child’s stamp on it. Oddly enough, we have found that in doing this, the house is less messy because the mess stays relatively contained (or at least we don’t have to walk as far to put things away in their place).


We managed to sorta fit their play kitchen (purchased used on craigslist for $50, retails $180) into the corner of our dining area (above). And we have a small montessori table and chairs (below) for snacks and working on setting tables under the island stove. I will be honest and say that we have to say “feet on the floor” and “chairs are for sitting” A! LOT!, but this is the price we pay for developing independent beings by “teaching them to do things themselves”.


Our house is “shotgun-style,” long and narrow so there isn’t a lot of space to work with in any one room. In the hall that leads to the master bedroom, there is a bookshelf (below). The books are at the top now, for obvious reasons. On the lower shelves are a few small toys: two small puzzles in the basket, that thingy from Ikea that you find at doctors offices, and some magnet trains.


This room (below) used to be the office. It’s the area at the bottom of the stairs that leads to the postage stamp sized back yard. The kids bedrooms are downstairs, too. Didn’t take pictures because the kids were sleeping and we’re rearranging things in there anyway – but by most people’s standards, their rooms are quite bare. Anyway, there’s a bouncy horse that a family member got them for their 1st birthday. It used to be upstairs before we got the shopping carts. We have a basket with books (also the basket where we choose nighttime reading from), and a couple toys. We had that plexi-mirror installed when they were around 9 months to play with/see themselves, see cause-effect relationships.


Have The Kids Participate In Tidying Up

Yeah, so, this doesn’t always work smoothly at all. But we most certainly have them help us clean up and put things away. At the very least, early childhood is all about repetition and if they see us do it enough and if they do it enough, it will become a habit (unfortunately, that applies to bad habits, too, so watch your mouth, mommy). It is never too early to create good habits.

Purge Often

Is something not getting played with? Do you have more than one? Is it causing a ton of fights? Freecycle! Craigslist! Goodwill! Shelter!

We try to keep things very simple at home. Granted, these photos were taken after tidying up and after the kids had gone to sleep for the night (there are plenty of times when our house is more disasterous, though back then, we had a lot more stuff out). Too much stuff at once can overwhelm any adult so I can only imagine that it is sensory overload for developing toddler brains.

What about you? Any parents of kids-at-home with special tricks to keep some order in your house? (Dumping it in a toybox and shutting the door counts!)

Rachel is the birth mom of a two-working-mom household to 20.5 month old boy/girl twins that no, cannot ride a tricycle yet. She blogs over at Motherhood.Squared

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15 thoughts on “Avoiding Permanent Disaster Status With Stay-At-Home Toddlers”

  1. This is a perfect post for today as our playroom is a DISASTER. I mean, it’s so bad that maybe I’ll post a before picture on my blog for everyone’s amusement. You have inspired me to purge with no regard for my children’s feelings (because they are desperately attached to every scrap of paper and broken Barbie we own). Thank you!
    .-= Jen from Diagnosis: Urine´s last blog ..moving onto non-feline topics… =-.

  2. Rachel- fabulous post! first of all- your home is just beautiful! I’ve been on a mission since ALL our Christmas additions to get reorganized! We have baskets (with lids to hide the contents) in the living room and cube boxes on shelves in their room and our play room. It’s all about hiding things :) but I definitely have some purging and putting away to do! I feel like we need to buy a bigger house since Christmas- ha!
    .-= amy o´s last blog ..’09 in ReViEw =-.

  3. I also keep alot of stuff hidden and put away to rotate out at other times. Our best investment (we have all boys) was the pottery barn train table which has two huge rolling drawers underneath for storage. My boys (age 29 mos.) play more with this train table and trains than anything. My 8 year old son played with it until he was about 5, we packed it away and get more use from it now. The storage drawers allow us to throw in all that little stuff that gets underfoot and have it out of sight most of each day so we aren’t tripping over it all day.

  4. We don’t have very much space and all their toys are just in their playroom (they are also home with a nanny). We “put them away” but stacking them on the other side of a gate that blocks off the TV and the exercise equipment. So far they don’t beg for them too much. We should be better about weeding out toys and rotating them but it just falls to the bottom of the to-do list. We don’t let them in other areas of the house (for now) so we don’t have toys in other rooms. I like our “adult” space but anticipate that will be changing over the next year or two.
    .-= Mommy, Esq.´s last blog ..Krafty Kids =-.

  5. I am experiencing envy over every picture you posted. I think you are right about rotating toys in and out and I am going to make a better effort at doing that. I am overwhelmed with all the toys and Christmas put my need to organize into high gear.

    We have one play room which used to be a living room but the kids spend a lot of time in the family room and they bring toys from the play room in there. I have some toys in baskets in each of the kids’ rooms. We have some shelving in that room and a trunk for the stuffed animal contingent. The room needs some work. You’ve given some great ideas (and inspiration)! Thanks!
    .-= Tina´s last blog ..A Decade in Review =-.

  6. I suggest you move :). We moved about 6 weeks ago. There are still at least 4 boxes of toys and books that we haven’t unpacked. Even before we added the Christmas gifts (and the birthday gifts that will come next week), there were more than enough toys to choose from. When the new toys lose their appeal, I’ll unpack some of these other boxes. I can’t even remember what is in all of them right now.

  7. We do a lot of toy rotating too. However, I’m not as great about purging often. I always think I might need that toy as a distraction somewhere down the road. However, when the twin sales occur in the fall and spring, I do take the opportunity to get rid of large quantities of toys, books, and clothing.

    Unfortunately, because our house is very small and only has two closets, we keep a lot of stuff in storage bins that are tucked in corners throughout the house. The kids know there are toys in there, but as long as we put things away and take things out when they are sleeping, they don’t bother us to get things out for them.

    As for cleaning up, you’re right about repetition and habits. At nearly 22 month, my guys are fairly good about helping with the process. If it’s just putting toys in a toy box, they do great. If it’s getting a toy into it’s rightful place in the room, well, that something we’re still working on.

    Great post!
    .-= reanbean´s last blog ..We Have the Potties… =-.

  8. What a beautiful home!

    My babies are 6 months old now but already I have very firm ideas on what happens with toys – I don’t buy a lot and what we do have is contained in storage baskets in the lounge (I think you guys call it a living room) and their bedroom.

    I’m also a professional organiser and I actually got a GREAT tip from one of my clients while we were doing her office – she removes ALL but about 3 toys per child after Christmas and birthdays and then miraculously one new toy appears every month or when the child needs distraction. She brought out a new toy when we were working on her office to keep the child busy :)
    .-= Leigh from 123 blog´s last blog ..Question time – how many blogs do you read? =-.

  9. I laughed when I read the first paragraph. I’m a SAHM to 14mo twins, and it’s, um, “challenging” to stay on top of the toy messes. (Not even getting into food messes.) Those square fabric cubes (Cubeicals?) are really helpful. I have one in each room, and I can quickly sweep the room after the girls go to bed and swap out toys. The cubes are small enough for the girls to play with, too.

    This post inspired me to get rid of some outgrown toys, too. I’m keeping a few for sentimental value (we aren’t having any more kids), but otherwise I can be quite ruthless.

    Thanks for all the pics! Your house is so cheerful and clean… can I send my twins over?

  10. We, too, are in the process of doing a major purge. I have been putting it off … but the holidays have pushed us over the edge.

    We are lucky that we have a play room. I have that set up to have most of the toys put away. I have a low dresser that I use to store puzzles, dressup items, etc. Anything that adds to the cluttered look and has small pieces. I also puchased plastic, stackable, drawers. I took photos of the contents and posted them on the front of the drawers so that the kids know what goes where for cleanup.

    Our family room is the main room you see when you walk in our front door (and where the kids play the most for now). Most of our cabinet storage, in this room, is for toys and books … we can shove everything in there quickly so that the room appears to be neat. Then we added a storage ottoman from Target for some larger items that I don’t want out but can’t fit in the cupboards.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the big toys are going away now that the kids are getting older. They are doing more puzzles, drawing, games, riding bikes outside … I’m hoping this translates to less “stuff”.

    We rotated toys in a similar fashion when they were smaller … but again, now that they are older, they seem to do a good job at this themselves.

  11. Our [teeny-tiny] house is laid out that the girls’ room is right off the living room with french doors, so it doubles as the main toy storage area, which I’m sure will change once they are out of cribs :-( We store TONS of stuff under their cribs in plastic under-the-bed bins and most of the other stuff in plastic drawers or it just sits out due to size. We also have a nice basket [non-kid-looking] in our living room with the other toys. We took the glasses out of our wine rack and put a basket of books in there. When the girls are asleep and house is picked up the toys aren’t as noticable. We never buy toys new, though, unless it was with gift money/cards. We do twin sales and hand-me-downs, so this definitely limits my own temptation to buy all the time [because I get bored with their toys…haha.].

  12. Fabulous post! I am home with my three and it is definitely an ongoing battle. I really like your suggestions and do a lot of them too. For toy rotation, I got 5 big rubbermaid toys and filled them with a mix of toys for the little ones and my preschooler. “Tub toys” for the most part return to the tub at the end of the day, and we get a new one out the next morning. Big toys like shopping carts, climbing blocks, etc, rotate in and out as needed too. I’ve found they play with all their toys more when they are not out every day — they stay “fresh”.

    For me having different aged sibs adds to the number of toys, and I am just now starting to try to pare down and age out some of the toys (and get rid of the annoying ones). I love some of the Montessori ideas and would like to learn more about how to adapt that in our home as well!
    .-= Kristin Hutchinson´s last blog ..Day Out with Mama =-.

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