Does your house look like this today?
Today marks seven days since we last rotated toys. The beautiful set of musical toys pictured above hasn’t been touched for three days and I don’t think the push toy to the left ever made a round about the house. Time for a fresh play area wouldn’t you say? Keep reading for a step by step guide on why and how to establish and maintain a toy rotation system in your home.
Why take the time and energy to rotate toys?
The answer to the above questions could fill an article of it’s own. To keep it simple, young children learn from new experiences. This applies to whether they discover a new way to play with an old toy or engage with a new toy. Children’s brains are programmed to absorb everything they hear, see, taste, touch, etc… But, if they keep touching the same textures and seeing the same toys, in the same place, they loose interest and stop attempting to interact with their toys because they are too predictable. Instead, children start looking for other ways to entertain themselves and while boredom can be a positive learning tool, too much boredom can cause unnecessary behavioral conflicts and over-scheduling of the family calendar to help avoid the conflicts. Early childhood educators around the world implement toy rotations in their classrooms for many reasons based on copious scientific data. Why not implement one at home? It is easy, cheap and can count as “an educational activity” in place of a pricey class for one afternoon each week. Keep in mind that young children will not become “spoiled” from access to different toys each week. Their brains do not think of possessions in this way, yet. Buying every outfit at American Girl for a 5 year old could. Providing a variety of toys that speak to a child’s developmental needs and having her help clean up, care for, and arrange her toys each week will not. Toy rotation is very effective for infants up to 5 or 6 years of age, after which the value of rotating diminishes significantly because the child’s capacity for memory and creativity develops and his learning style changes.
How Do I Establish a Toy Rotation System?
Step 1: Begin by assessing where your child plays most. (You may have one or several areas that you would like to rotate toys in. For the purpose of simplicity, this article will teach to rotating in one primary play area. You can extrapolate the principles to rotate toys through several play areas if you choose.) If you are choosing one area, select one that is central to the most frequented rooms in the house and that offers plenty of floor space for toy display. I like using rugs to designate playspaces.
Step 2: Remove all the toys from your play area and sort them into piles according to their primary educational function. It sounds worse than it is! Here are the primary educational categories that most toys fall under and realistic examples from the toys that we have out this week (construction week!) to help you. Some toys have multiple functions and service many categories. I keep a bin of “random” toys and parts that can be fun for creative, constructive play. Feel free to make a pile of random toys too!
Step 3: Select one toy from each category to make available for your child each week. Parents usually find one of the two following systems of toy organization helpful:
1) If you would like to not have to think about which toys to put out each week, then buy several large bins for toy storage (think holiday storage bins that go in the garage). I tell clients to buy 4-5 storage bins, one for each week of the month. Separate your toys into the bins, adding at least one toy from each category into each bin. Double or triple up on the categories that have extras and don’t sweat if you don’t have a science toy for each bin. Make a mental list for birthday gift ideas and let it go. Keeping expectations reasonable and inexpensive will help to make the toy rotation system last. On your toy rotation day, simply swap the old toys for the toys from a new toy bin. Aim to have 7-12 toys in each bin.
2) If you would like to have more control from week to week as to which toys are chosen, then find a spacious place to store most of your toys. If you need to spread out your toy collection into multiple locations, then keep all the toys from one category in one closet. For example, all the imaginative play toys are in your son’s closet and all the gross-motor toys are in the playroom closet, etc… This makes it easy to select one toy from each category, every week. If you need help organizing your toys, and live in the DC Metro area, send me an email and we can set up a consultation.
Step 4: Display your toys in an attractive and accessible way. Aim to display 7-12 toys at a time. Lump all the imaginative play pieces together. Instead of putting all the toys in a clump in the corner, line them up against a wall and keep toys from stacking on each other (use the toy box for long term storage, not daily use). Open up smaller bins storing blocks, etc… Remember, for a small child, out of sight is usually out of mind. Pretend that you are setting up a shop. How would you display your products so that customers will want to pick them up and buy them? See the picture below for an example of my primary play area this week:
How to Maintain a Toy Rotation System?
1) Now that you have a beautiful fresh playarea, how do you keep it this way? Primarily, you must give the system time. Don’t give up too soon on your own ability to rotate the toys and your child’s ability to play with the toys. Children often need a couple months, just as you do, to adjust to the new way to play at home. Try it for 3 months before quitting. If you persist, I can guarantee that you and your children will enjoy the pay off once everyone has time to adjust. Again, this system works, which is why preschool teachers use toy rotations in their classrooms.
2) Mom and Dad should not have to go at it alone. Enlist your children to help you clean-up and put out new toys each week. Toys are for children and it is important that they take partial responsibility in helping to maintain them. Make toy rotation a game for everyone by announcing “new toy time!” and racing to put toys away. Give children who are helpful the chance to select the new toys for the week. Help babies clean up by assisting them in pick up a toy, and taking it’s new home. Our family likes using laundry baskets to pile up the old toys. We then haul the basket upstairs, unload it and refill it with toys from the closets.
3) Add an element of fun to toy rotation by doing theme weeks. If you have a large collection of toys, then chances are you have multiple toys related farm animals, princesses, construction, race cars, house/home, etc… Bundle all the toys with a similar theme and declare a “construction week” or “farm animal week”. Perhaps you can even go on an outing related to your theme.
4) Rotating toys once a week is not a magic number. I find that most kids loose interests with “new” toys after about 4 days, but most parent’s can’t keep up with rotating every 4 days. Instead, pick a day of each week and pencil “toy rotation” into your calendar. Give yourself 1 hour when you first begin. The rotation will only take about 20-30 min to complete (clean up, display, put away), but your children will want time afterwards to explore their new toys and you can put your feet up and relax! Parents often express concern that limiting the number of toys and items available to their child may upset them or limit learning. Read Rethinking “The Playroom” for more on that topic, but as a rule of thumb, if your child wants to play with his space shuttle and it is farm toy week, then let him take out the space shuttle. Put it away after you observe that it is untouched for over 2 days. Also, if you want to start out by rotating only once a month or every other week, then great! Some is better than none. Once a week rotations is an ideal, but not always realistic. The Intelligent Nest is a realistic home. Do what works for your family and do not stress. This can be fun!
5) Maintain reasonable expectations. Not every toy will be used, every week and there are toys that will receive a great deal of use and perhaps stay out week after week. If a toy is not used very often, that is a good sign that it is not meeting the child’s educational needs because the child has moved past what the toy offers or because the child needs to develop more before being able to play with the toy in a new way. A simple toy like a block can be played with in several different ways as a child grows. Don’t give up on your blocks. Instead, give them a break and try again in a couple of weeks. You may be surprised!
Good luck and enjoy!