Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Toy Rotation: A Step-by-Step Guide

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.

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.  And negative behavior can lead parents to mistakenly over-schedule the family calendar to help avoid 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 an expensive class.

Toy rotation systems 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 stimulates and is enriching.

The value of rotating toys during early childhood is pronounced because of the unique stage of the child’s development.

Young children have 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

*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.

Begin by assessing where your child plays the most.  If you are choosing one primary play-area, select one that is central to the most frequented rooms in the home 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

And who will clean up this mess?

Find every toy in your home that is a good candidate for toy rotation and toss it into a pile.  However, consider leaving your pretend-play food in the kids kitchen or the elaborate puzzles in their boxes in the closet.  A good rule of thumb is that 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, then use clear 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 many of their pieces as well as toys that are too bulky and drive you crazy.  Also, if a toys just doesn’t offer opportunities for higher level thinking during play, then there is not need to keep it.

*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 toy’s 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 in my home.  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.

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” -Albert Einstein

Active play: push, ride, jump, spin, roll, climb
Art: paint, draw, cut, paste, tape
Building: wooden blocks, Legos/Duplos, Lincoln Logs, Bristle Blocks
Dramatic play: dress-up, kitchen, doctor, princess, baby, fairies, construction
Science: color mixing, gears, rain stick, cause and effect, simple machines, natural wonder toys
Math: (counting/quantity, shapes, sorting, nesting toys, greater to/less than in size)
Manipulatives: a manipulative is a collection of small, similar items that are “fiddled” with and focus on fine motor coordination and logical thinking)
Literacy: books, pictures, letters, phonics
Music: piano, shakers, wind instruments, clappers, rhythm makers
Logic: puzzles, games, if/then, brain teasers

Girls like to play cars & trucks too!

Vehicles: all varieties, shapes, sizes & materials

Boys like to play “baby” too!

Socio-emotional: stuffed animals, dolls & action figures
Imaginative Play Themes: trains, airport, doll house, baby animals, farm, space, robots, Disney characters, cars
Little People Barn





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:

Option #1- No Fuss

P. Large Storage Bin

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.

Option #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

IMG_6127*An example of one of my primary play areas.  For more info, reference my article on toy display.

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.  Open up smaller bins storing blocks, etc…  Toy boxes are not developmentally appropriate and should be used for long term storage only. 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?

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.  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.

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.

*For tips and tricks on maintaining your toy rotation system, check out my article on avoiding toy rotation burn-out.

And remember, an Intelligent Nest is a balanced nest.  Ease into it and be flexible.  Make your system unique to your family’s needs and most importantly, have fun!

Intelligent Nest_whitebkgd-001


12 Responses to “Toy Rotation: A Step-by-Step Guide”

  1. Mama Rachael

    A friend pointed me to your blog. I look forward to reading more.

    I’ve implemented a toy rotation of sorts. Basically, I cleaned out all the toys so that he’s only got a few. Little Man is 2 years old, so I left some out as visual prompting. But everything fits on 3 ft bookshelf, mostly. But it has made clean up way easier, and Little Man focuses so much better now… such that I find after an hour he is still playing with [cars, blocks, etc]. I put all the other toys up in the closet to be pulled out later. I do like your idea of the bins such that the whole bin gets rotated each week (or month, perhaps?)

  2. tiphaine

    I had heard about toy rotation a while ago, I thought your article was very well done and full of good tips. I have been doing toy rotation since June, when we moved house. Having all the toys in boxes helped implement it.
    I do not own that many toys though! We have only 1 or 2 toys per category , except art and building, but logic/maths/puzzle is all one category here. I appreciate those categories though because that gives me ideas for Christmas and birthdays.
    I agree with the less is more! Children need space to play more than the toys themselves.
    Anyway I rotate the toys every other week or so. Some get to stay out for months at a time (the ride on motos, the duplos) because they don’t seem to get tired of it.
    Now I rotate books too.

  3. Amy

    We have 3 kids (almost 5, almost 3 and 4mo)…how would you suggest tweaking this for more than one child? 2-3 choices per category or 2-3 per child?
    I love the idea of toy rotation but how do you handle large item sets (little people, barbies/princesses/doll house/accessories, baby dolls/accessories/clothes, etc)? We have a large foam building block set…is that “one” toy? We have a bunch of play balls…how would we rotate those…a few at a time or do they just stay out and not rotate? We have TONS of dress up outfits and accessories…suggestions? (make themes and put out whatever dress up goes with the theme…or…separate the dress up between the rotation bins??) We have two levels of our house that get active play (upstairs – bedrooms and living room, downstairs – playroom)…separate toy rotations or separate one bin between the two levels?
    Suggestions for coloring books, play doh sets and art stuff?

    • The Intelligent Nest

      Hi Amy! To start, for 3 children under age 5 you want to aim to have no more than a dozen toys in one play area that you rotate. That being said, you might have upstairs and downstairs areas and different items that you rotate in each room. For big items, you can leave them be or every month or so put them in a new place. I count one set of toys as one… so a set of blocks is 1 toy. Try not to put out too many sets in one place otherwise they start getting mixed and you loose pieces. As for dress up, it is great to always have all your dress up available, but perhaps you can display 2-3 items at a time… installing 2 hooks in the wall is a cheap and painless way to be able to put fresh dress-up on display. I would keep art supplies all in one area where mess is OK, like the kitchen (see my article on Art Centers). Take all your rotation in stride. Focus on rotating in one area weekly, then add in other areas of the home as time and sanity permit. Good luck!

  4. Dana

    Thanks for having such a wonderful and informative website! At what age do you recommend to start doing toy rotation? I have twin 10 month olds. Any suggestions on if to keep out the duplicate toys we have because people like to buy them two of items? The duplicates are usually small like manipulatives or balls. Thanks.

    • The Intelligent Nest

      Definitely keep two of the same two toy out at a time with twin babies. I’d count the set of two as just one toy. To reduce clutter, keep about 5-7 toys in one area at a time. Usually the big toys are ones that need duplication for twins– like 2 ride-on cars. There is usually no need to have duplicates of smaller toys, just as long as there is something else that is similar so everyone can play. For instance, one medium red ball and one smaller spiky ball. Toy rotation is more effective the younger the children are and so you can start right from birth. Toy rotation phases out around age five or six. I am offering my Play & Learning seminar which covers toy rotation next week via webinar. If you are interested you can register here:

  5. KatSim

    I LOVE this idea, and day after tomorrow I am going to go get some bins to implement it. The one thing I can say is that there is no way ONE book would do it for my kiddo; my ttwo year old wants three books before we even leave the bedroom in the morning.

  6. ast

    Which category would these around the house items go into? 1) bag of different ribbons/strings 2)kitchen utensils 3)various carpet sample swatches

    • The Intelligent Nest

      Great question Angie! I would count the ribbons/strings as art supplies, the kitchen utensils as imaginative play and the carpet samples as a type of manipulative, but these are not hard and fast recommendations. I keep a basket of random things in our bedroom for the kids to experiment with while we get ready in the morning, just for the express purpose of having a place for things that don’t really fit in. The carpet squares sound like an awesome toy!


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