A step-by-step guide explaining why and how to establish a toy rotation system in your home, written for every parent who has ever wondered what to do with their kid’s toys or why their kids seem bored at home (even though toys abound).
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Why take the time and energy to rotate toys?
The simple answer is that young children learn best from new experiences. They learn as they discover a new way to play with an old toy or as they engage with a new toy. Children’s brains are programmed to absorb everything they hear, see, taste, touch, etc… However, if they keep touching the same textures and seeing the same toys, in the same place and container, they loose interest and stop attempting to interact with their toys because they are too predictable. While a little boredom can promote creative and self-directed play, too much boredom in young children can cause unnecessary negative behavior (which can lead to over-scheduling of the family calendar to help avoid the meltdowns).
Early childhood educators around the world implement toy rotation systems in their classrooms. Why not implement a similar system at home? It is inexpensive and can count as an “educational activity” in place of a expensive class. Toy rotation systems also promote higher level thinking during play and result in children playing for increased increments of time. You may spend 30 minutes rotating toys, but you will find your child playing independently for up to an hour afterwards and more frequently throughout the week.
Young children will not become spoiled from being offered different toys each week. 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 is very different than continuously buying toys for a collection (ex. Thomas the Tank Engine trains or American Girl dolls). Toy collections seek to entertain and can lead to spoiling, while toy variety seeks stimulate and leads to enriched development.
The value of rotating toys during early childhood (up to 5 or 6 years of age) is pronounced because of the unique stage of development of young children which equips them with a different learning style than adults and older children, as well as a host of limitations due to their lack of introspection, short attention spans, limited physical abilities and need for familiarity, yet fascination with the unknown.
For more information on why rotating toys is important and why the idea of a “playroom” is a bit old fashioned, read my article called “Rethinking the Playroom”.
How to Establish a Toy Rotation System?
Step 1: Choose the Location
Begin by assessing where your child plays the most. (You may have one or several areas that would benefit from toy rotation. For the purpose of simplicity, this article will teach to rotating in one primary play area. You can extrapolate the principles to rotate toys throughout several play areas if you choose.) If you are choosing one primary play-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 play-spaces. For those of you rotating in several areas, choose locations in each of the most frequented rooms in your home. Tables, corners, nooks and rugs make great locations.
Step 2: Collect all the Toys
Find every toy in your home that is a good candidate for toy rotation and toss it into a pile. Perhaps you want to leave your play food in the play kitchen or the elaborate puzzles in their boxes in the closet. A good rule of thumb is if you don’t mind seeing the toy scattered out on the floor, put it in the toy pile. If you want to rotate toys with several small pieces, use containers with lids (that children can remove) or plastic-slider baggies to keep the toy together as unit while in storage or on display.
Toss or donate toys that are missing most of their pieces as well as toys that are too bulky without offering opportunities for higher level thinking during play. If you are not sure how to tell if a toy offers the potential for critical thinking, see my article “How to Buy Toys that Kids Actually Use”.
Step 3: Divide and Conquer
Sort your toy pile into several smaller piles according to the primary educational functions listed below. It sounds worse than it is! A primary educational function of a toy is simply what the toy is used for most of the time. Here are some realistic examples from the toys that we have out this week. Some toys have multiple functions and service many categories (don’t over think it, just choose a category). I also 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 4: One Toy Per Category, Per Rotation
Select at least one toy to display from each primary educational function per rotation. Use one of following systems of toy selection:
#1- No Fuss, No Muss
A) Buy 4 to 5 large bins for toy storage (see photo above). Plan to display the contents of one bin per week so that you have one month’s supply of bins/toys. The remainder of the toy bins will need to be stored while not in use.
B) Separate your toys into the bins, adding at least one toy from each category. Aim to put 7 to 12 toys in each bin. Double up on the categories that have extras and don’t worry if you don’t have a toy from every category for each bin (make a mental gift list and let it go). If bulky toys will not fit in the bins, make a separate storage area for your bulky toys and rotate these along with the bins.
C) Some parents like to number the bins to create an order of rotation or keep a list of bulky items to avoid skipping toys or bins.
D) On toy rotation day, simply select the new toy bin, dump and display its contents and put the old toys away in the bin.
#2 Control Freak (my category of choice so you are not alone)
A) 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.
B) Go to each of your toy storage locations and pick one toy per category. Throw it into a basket (as seen above).
C) Display the toys in your basket in your playareas and put the old toys in your basket to be returned to the storage closets.
D) It can be helpful to post a list of themes on the closet wall or storage containers as it can be hard to remember which toys have been used recently. I recommend that clients rotate toys using themes based upon your imaginative play toys (ex. farm, kitchen, doll, construction, etc…). This way, you can still have control over which toys are displayed, while ensuring that most toys make it to the floor every month or two. It can be fun to try and find toys from each category that match your theme. For an example, see my toys pictured in the primary educational functions list above as they are examples from my construction-themed week.
Step 5: 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 top of 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 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 or reference my article on toy display.
How to Maintain a Toy Rotation System?
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. I can’t count how many times clients have told me “less really is more when it comes to toys” after trying out a toy rotation system.
For tips and tricks on maintaining your toy rotation system, check out my article on avoiding toy rotation burn-out. Also remember that an Intelligent Nest is a realistic nest. Ease into it and be flexible. Make your system unique to your family’s needs and most importantly, have fun!