‘Toy library’ promotes cleanup AND creativity

Hedra's amazing system of toy organization is so…so…amazing, it's a wonder we don't all do this.

To contend with the overflow of toys, without violating the principle of ownership (that is, the toys belong to them, not us), we instituted a toy library.

In the basement, we have a bunch of shelving units (Sears, plastic utility shelves), on which are large rubbermaid bins. The bins are labeled with things like 'dressup' and 'vehicles'. This is the toy library.

Children may check toys out of the library in any quantity at any time, provided they check an equal number of toys back in at that time. You don't even get to go into the toy library unless you have a toy or two (or six) in your hands, to turn in (No promising to turn something in later, it is too much to ask them to remember). Even the 2-year olds are starting to grasp this idea.

Additional functions of the toy library:

Toy timeout home. When toys are left on the floor after cleanup time, they go to the library for time out. That is, they get left in the timeout box until such time as I can sort them back into their appropriate bins. That technically is supposed to be a week. It functionally is longer than that. If you want a toy to remain available, it has to be put away. If they cannot or don't wish to clean up every little thing, that just means there's too much out in the first place, or the toy has lost its joy for the moment. No biggie. Toy timeout helps prune that down to a level that they can manage, and removes the less popular items from circulation (and from underfoot). That the toys aren't destroyed/thrown out/given away takes the fear out of the process, lets them retain ownership, but keeps me from suffering. Win-win!

Filter for toys parents dislike/disapprove of. Some things end up in the toy library more often than others. And some toys end up at the bottom of the toy library bin, under a bunch of other things that we prefer they play with. There's ownership, but there's also some sneakiness in parenting. Hmm, where IS that annoying toy that beeps? Must be in the toy library! Go look. Oh, look, you found something
more interesting than that (higher up in the bin). That's cool.

Reminder for relatives that buying more 'stuff' is not helpful. Especially if you get them to help you either make the shelves or sort things into the bins when they visit.

Easier to sort from for donations, garage sales, etc. This is still at the kids' discretion, since they own the toys, but seeing that they have two bins full of stuffed toys they aren't playing with may make it easier to donate a few to the kids in Iraq.

Enchances creative play through effective employment of laziness. You could pretend the stick you found in the yard is a sword, or you could go find a toy to bring down to the toy library, fish through the weapons box for the right sword, and then bring it outside. Sticks win far more often than I'd expected. As does swinging on the swings, climbing the boulder, and playing pirate on the playset.

Caveat: No matter how much everyone understands the rules, and swears they're following the rules, there is still 'toy creep'. More ends up in the living room than started there a week or two earlier. However, this is still vastly less than otherwise, AND it is simple to just pick up a load of stuff that is not in active use, and take it back to the library. No panic and pleading from the kids, once they understand they can get it out again if they need it.


  1. Atlanta Jill says

    We do this on a smaller more casual level with only two kids. Hedra has to be organized with her crew! I especially like the ability to hide the stuff I dislike and encourage them to forget it exists!

    Additionally, as a preschool teacher, I discovered that building toys were used more appropriately at a table instead of on the floor and used better when offered in small quantities. Hence “table toys” were born. When kids get a bucket/bin/can of small pieces, the first thing they do is dump. A small container (old wet wipe boxes) works great. At our house they sort Lego kit pieces too.

  2. says

    I knew there was a reason I felt compelled to centralize all the toys in the storage room under the stairs! I’ve always secretly wanted to be a librarian, too.

    I’m using the Ikea bin storage for toys since it actually slants the same way as our stairs do. Next to that I have a small cabinet housing puzzles and games, and then bins on top for paper type things–crafts they’ve made, mini photo albums, valentines from their friends, etc.

  3. says

    SOOOOOO cool! What an awesome way to teach judiciousness and personal responsibility.

    Hedra, I bow to your SuperNinjaMom powers!

    We have the perfect closet for this.

  4. hedra says

    Just don’t let this give you the impression that I was born organized… I’m just trying to do anything and everything to keep our heads above the tides of toys-and-stuff. It works to varying degrees, though I’ll admit that even at its worst it is IMMENSELY better than the tide of toys that was eating the living room before…

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  6. ChristineQ says

    Hedra (or anyone else with a similar toy organization stragegy),

    Please share the list of categories that you use to sort toys (ex. from above, vehicles, dress-up…) what else?

    Love this idea–just a little overwhelmed on how to get started!


  7. says

    This is such a fantastic idea. I wonder how old your kids need to be to understand the rules? My 2.5-year-old would definitely catch on fast. My 14 month old… well… maybe in a few more months?

    Thanks for sharing! I love it!

  8. says

    We do a small scale version: the toys are separated into fabric cubes on a shelf. Figurines, costumes, kitchen/cooking, blocks, ect. I only pull one down at a time, unless there is good reason to mix the categories, then I will allow more than one. This has worked so much better than the bin! They actually play with their toys, and can focus their minds on imaginative play rather than just the mess of toys! I am glad to hear of a larger version, for when they are older and can manage more of the clean up themselves.

    Jennifer, visiting from http://www.naturalparentsnetwork.com !