How To Handle A Child’s Toy Clutter

As a professional organizer I get questions from parents on ways to get their children to let go of outgrown and excess books & toys. No one wants to traumatize their child by giving away something he or she loves and adores.

In my ongoing search for the latest and greatest research and information to answer these kind of questions, I attended an “Ages and Stages in Early Childhood Development” workshop Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Berkeley. The workshop focused on children ages 2-6, and is one of a series of monthly Free Parenting Workshops at the JCC going on now through Spring 2015.

I gathered a lot of updated information, and had the opportunity to ask plenty of important questions that parents ask me. The following is a synopsis.

Can’t get your kid to pay attention when asking him/her to clean her room? Get this!

There are 3 types of attention:

1)   To danger – Children pay attention to danger from infancy & up

2)   Only to their own interests age 2,3, and mostly by age 4

3)   Children put attention to where someone else (mom and dad) wants it by age 7 & 8. They are more capable of paying attention to what you want and say by this age than any other. If attention is a problem after age 8, an attention deficit evaluation is suggested.

The 2-year old

  • The average 2-year old has recognition but not recall. This means that when mom is gone and out of the room, she is gone, even if there a second ago. That’s why children this young get fussy…they don’t recall who was just there or what happened. A good age to gather up and stash away or donate half of the toys and books cluttering up the room? Hmm…
  • At this age kids get stuck in routine, and will get upset if you skip something they usually do. Children make sense of things by sequence. When you throw the sequence off, it annoys them. Routine is important. This is a good time to make it a daily routine of helping your child put toys away when playtime is over.

The 4-year old

  • At this age, many kids start to give up on things that are hard for them to do (such as put away clothes and toys). This is an important time to take action and support them in practicing to get better at it. Teamwork works wonders at any age!
  • When kids don’t listen, it’s a GOOD sign of neurological development happening. They need to screen things out to avoid emotional overload. Children are all or nothing thinkers at this age; things are either all good or all bad. They cannot find balance between the two yet, and is why mood swings occur. Complex concepts don’t often start until age 8. At age 4 it may be futile to try and rationalize to them as to WHY they need to clean and organize their room.
  • A child becomes interested in problem solving at age 4. This is a good time to have weekly family meetings that include the child. Introduce him/her to making a calendar of things to do together for the week that will solve common issues around the house, such as a messy room. Have the child come up with creative solutions to the problem, then make a schedule and routine that YOU will help her implement and maintain on a regular basis.
  • Ask, don’t “tell” the rules. Ask the child to do something you want them to do. If you want him to put his toys away before bed, ask “what do you have to do to get ready for bed?” If you created a schedule and routine together, he should know exactly what needs to be done, whether it’s put on his pajamas, brush his teeth, or put away toys. When they get it done, a little praise goes a long way. “Good job! High five!”
  • Fibbers: when lying, a child is simply trying to be the person you want her to be. Don’t give a child the chance to lie; if you see a problem – such as toys that still haven’t been picked up – fix it together. Yay teamwork!

*** Temper Tantrum Intermission ***

  • If a child gets upset and fussy because she doesn’t want to pick up her things, focus on validating the child’s feelings at the moment they are upset with kind words such as “You must be upset about putting away your toys. How can I help you so that we get this done together?”

The 6-year old

  • Managing praise – At this stage they begin to measure themselves by what they see around them. They start to discount praise, so ask what they think about how they did, such as when they successfully put away their clothes or toys.


Q& A with the Workshop Presenter

Question: At what age are kids more likely to be able to clean up on their own?

Answer:   Not 4 years old because they are still self-centered. You have to help them and make it fun and interesting. Clean up with them ages 2-5.

Question: At what point is it easier to get them to give up toys without being hurt by it?

Answer:   3-5 year olds forget what’s important to them, which can include toys. A 2-year old won’t care to lose toys, a 6-year old may start to miss them.

Ways to PREVENT and TAKE ACTION on toy clutter:

  • When working with a child to declutter toys and books, tell him/her about places they can donate to kids in need, such as homeless shelters or during toy drives. Pick a place to donate to together and follow through with it.
  • At your child’s next birthday party, make a themed gift donation box that everyone attending knows about in advance. Gifts received will go directly to charity, such as school supplies to a classroom in need.
  • Put excess toys into bins and stash in the garage for 3 months. What the child remembers and asks for, bring out. What they forget, donate.
  • Kids get overwhelmed by choice. Don’t try to get them to make decisions about what to keep and what to donate but for a few things at any given time.
  • What we hold off as a reward is what kids are more motivated toward. Find creative ways to get your child to let go of excess toys once in a while, such as making it a house rule during the weekly family meeting to only allow in a new toy or book if one or two goes out.  
Helen Neville

The Ages and Stages in Early Childhood Development workshop is led by Helen Neville, a pediatric advice nurse at Kaiser Permanente for 35 years. She is a specialist in inborn temperament and the author of Is this a Phase? Child Development, Parent Strategies Birth to 6 Years, and other books on temperament, sleep, and potty training. For more information, visit her website:

For information about upcoming JCC events & workshops, visit their website.

Isabella Guajardo, also known as Girl With A Truck™, is a San Francisco Bay Area professional home organizer and member of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO). She shares simple and creative ways to stay organized while reducing, recycling and re-purposing.