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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Of Toys, Workboxes, and Directed Play

"We have a one toy set at a time rule. One set has to be put away before another comes out."

"We have toy clean up three times a day. They don't eat unless they pick up."

"We keep all our toys in a separate play room, sectioned out like a preschool classroom."

I've heard these types of comments numerous times, and each time, the rebel mom in me cringes.

Where's the creativity in one toy a time? I remember building huge towns out of blocks, legos, and lincoln logs. Then using cars and little people to play in the town.

And toy pick up three times a day? What if the kids are still playing? Why should I make them destroy their imaginative creations or put away their stuffed zoo when they may want to come back to them? And seriously, I don't have the time or want to to get down on their level and "enforce" pick up time three times a day.

A large playroom with separate play areas? I'd love that, trust me I would. In fact, I spend more time dreaming up awesome playrooms than I do dreaming up the perfect kitchen or bedroom. But let's face it, we have four kids in one bedroom (or will in a couple days), with no extra rooms to spare. I'm just glad we have a large living room.

January's Toy Sort
(Yes, that black bag is full of trash
that was mixed in with all the toys)
 But here's the thing, more often than not, the living room floor is covered in mixed up toys. Once it gets to that point (easily happens in one or two days), the kids are unable to pick up. It's too overwhelming. They don't know where to start or where to put things, even though each has a particular home. I don't blame them at all. I'm the same way... just ready to scoop it up and throw it in the dumpster. About every 2-3 months, I have to drag out every box or container that is supposed to contain the toys and sort through the entire toys stash.

When the floor is cluttered, the kids are bored and can't find anything to play with. When Cherith and Daryn get bored, they spend a lot of time watching TV or pestering their siblings or fighting about something. When Ethan is bored, he goes from one thing to another, just making messes and getting into things... like throwing dry oatmeal into the air, climbing on the kitchen counter and swallowing half a package of gum, running into the bathroom and stuffing toilet paper down the sink drain... all of this in a 15 minute span.

For the past couple years, I've known that I need to figure something out. It's just not working. Thing is, on Aaron's school nights, I'm just too tired to do kid pick up time, so more often than not, we skip it those nights, then before I know it, it's a total wreck, too cluttered for me or the kids to handle in a quick pick up, and then we just live with it for days.

So, anyway... I've been throwing around an idea that I think I'm going to try. But I'd love feedback on it.

Truth: The kids are more creative, more happy, more kind, more pleasant to be around, when their play area is cleared and organized.

Truth: My stress level is incredibly lower when the living room is clutter free and the kids are pleasant.

Truth: Ethan seems to thrive on some sort of loose structure. His attention span is short, but if it is not directed, it gets him into trouble as he "mess hops".

So, what if...

1) I put away all the toys in our universal/toy closet. There would be no toys out in the living room except kid books.

2) At night, after the kids are in bed, I would choose two sets of toys for the next day and put them out on the shelves in the living room.

3) I would also assemble 2-3 workboxes (educational activities in a box) for Daryn and Ethan to do while I help Cherith with her school in the mornings. I would be available to help them a little with their workboxes, but the activities would be simple enough, yet intriguing enough, to not require my 100% attention.

4) During the morning, we would have school/workbox time, then the rest of the day, they can play with the two sets I previously chose or...
     play outside,
     play computer games (limited)
     draw, color, crafts
     imaginative role play

5) At the end of the day, those two sets would be put away in the closet. After the kids go to bed, I would then restock the workboxes and the two sets of toys.

That's the reasons and the idea. Here are the "buts"


I'm pretty lazy. What if I don't stick to the rules? What if one night, the two sets don't get picked up?

Is it too much structure? Am I turning my kids' day into a daycare type day?

What if the kids complain all the time?

How on earth do I think of things for the boys to do in their workboxes?

I guess it's kinda like: I'd love to give it a try, but I'm afraid of failure. And afraid that maybe it's the wrong solution.

Thoughts? Cause I'd love to hear 'em.


  1. This sounds great! As I was reading it I was thinking that I need to get a system like this in place as well and I have to say that the same list of 'buts' came into my head. I did something like this when I only had one child but lost the system by the time number three came along.

    For me I think that the key would be in the planning. Search the internet for activities for the workboxes - lots out there I'm sure.

    Maybe take an inventory of the toy sets and make a schedule of what will go out each day for the month - obviously doesn't have to be stuck to completely but on those tired nights when you don't want to have to think, the thinking is already done.

    I think that after the first week sticking to the nightly clean up will become an easy habit - remember that only a few toys will be out and it will be much quicker/easier than say folding laundry or cleaning the kitchen.

    This would not feel like a daycare environment. My kids are in daycare a few days a week and it is very different. You are basically structuring the morning and then having free play in the afternoon. You are just limiting their toys choices which I think will encourage more creativity. It may take them a while to really discover all the neat things you can do when you have blocks and little people available, but it will come and aside from toys you are offering a lot of other activity choices.

    I am going to work on my plan and start organizing for it. I would be really interested to hear what you end up doing and how the kids adjust!

  2. Most of the boys' toys are in boxes, some kept in the playroom closet and others in their bedrooms. Usually they only have one or two out at a time. If they want something different I make them swap out so the mess is somewhat controlled. This doesn't always happen but overall it works well for us. The down side is I'm really the only one who knows where each toy goes, so often clean up is throw everything in a big box and then I sort it and put it in its proper home.

    I love the idea of workboxes and have tried to implement them at a much slower pace then I wish. You may be familiar with these two homeschooling blogs. They are my go to sites when I need ideas:

  3. I think you should go for it. Don't hold yourself to an exact standard, but having structure for you and your kids sounds like an excellent plan. I'll probably need to employ something like it myself soon.

    For Ethan, you definitely should check out the 1+1+1=1 website that Jackie referenced above. She has lots of great ideas for occupying the littles and preschool stuff. With printables! Your favorite. ;-) I plan to use her preschool curriculum with Jack as he gets older.

  4. Arg, just typed this whole comment and then lost it :(. Oh well, here it is again.

    I got some Ikea storage ...things... that have bins to keep things sorted pretty well. Eventually they will have labels, but Abigail knows pretty well just from memory where things go. We do have trouble with her getting overwhelmed though when it's clean up time (in fact hubby and I were talking about that just this past weekend!), so I'm trying out a midday cleanup and if that doesn't work, I'll be sweeping through and eliminating probably half of the toys from regular use (where I will store them, I don't know, which is why I haven't done this yet). The midday cleanup is just a 5 min "Let's see how fast we can clean" thing, though, not a full on clean up. Worked okay today (our first day) if you don't count the tantrum Abigail threw when I first told her we had to clean up. Sigh, hopefully if it becomes part of our day, she won't fight it as much. We'll see. I'll try to put up a post about our toy storage soon, on the off chance it helps :). I was going to mention it with this weeks OYOL anyway.

    I haven't done a ton with homeschooling and work boxes yet, but I did pick up a few books by Trish Kuffner called "The Toddler's Busy Book" and "The Preschooler's Busy Book". They're good for activity ideas and she does include ideas for some busy boxes. I'd recommend the Toddler one, over the Preschool, unless your kids are just SUPER advanced. Abigail does fine with the Toddler one and she's 3, so since this is designed to be things to keep them busy on their own, you don't want the activity to require you to be TOO hands on. Just a thought :).

  5. Thank you all so much for your comments and encouragements. I think I will pursue this course of action... not sure when I'll get it all implemented. Our new carpet is finely installed and our bedroom mostly finished, so now I've got to get all the junk that's in the living area back into the bedroom. This is also birthday party week... so not sure when I'll get to it, but soon.

  6. Hi B! Just saw your blog again via FB and popped over. How is the kid toy situation going?

    Our only play areas are our living areas here. We have general spots on shelves or in tubs or closets for all toys. I have one shelf for legos, one for puzzles, etc. The kids all know where things are kept and can pretty much help themselves as long as its play time. We do stick to the one puzzle or game or art set rule. But they mix up other toys and everything gets picked up at least before daddy comes home or before bed on weekends.

    Now, for the rebel in ya ;)... Let them keep up their forts or block creations or Lego towers or what have you. I often say "anything thats loose or not built should be put away now." Then they get to keep their creation and we have a tidy home.

    It really is a training thing and even with consistency little ones need mommy help and reminders daily. But if you set the example and show them how pretty and enjoyable an organized, clean living space is they'll eventually appreciate it.

    Bedrooms are the one place where my rule is basically- I need to be able to walk through here in the dark without stepping on something or tripping. Other than that we only do total reorganization with mommy once a month or so. They are always so glad though when that day comes around because they love finding their "lost" action figures or doll clothes or what have you. ;)

    Its all a balance but order and caring for their blessings is a good thing to teach them. And learning to follow a structure to their day will help them the rest of their lives.