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Lately, I have found myself feeling more Mary Poppins than Marine. Jolly holiday in lieu of boot camp, more singing of reminders (admittedly off-tune), less barking of commands. While there are a number of explanations worth considering – springtime on the horizon, the magical ages of near-6 and almost-2, tactical brush-ups from this wise read – I like to think there’s another reason for the dancing penguins:
Namely, the two bins corralling 85% of our household toys, sitting in my garage.
We know by now. We know creativity does not arrive in shrink-wrap, that boundaries and limitations spark greater resourcefulness. We know a child’s favorite activities often include little more than a ball and a stick, and that nature – wild, untamed – is the greatest playground imaginable.
We know it’s the simple things that matter.
Still, we find ourselves tripping over elaborate stuffed animal parades on our way to the kitchen, wooden blocks scattered like confetti, wayward craft pom poms spilling from drawers.
In the past, I’ve practiced flexibility, deep breaths. Become an enforcer of “rules” that skirt the issue of excess – proper room-tidying, smarter organization – offered myself mantras of perspective. I’m gonna miss this, I’d remind myself while vacuuming up another perler bead.
And yet: I’m a lover of experiments. Things are good, sure, everything’s fine. But could this be better? Might we shift things just the tiniest bit? See what happens?
Last month, I blast this playlist as I carry two bins of blocks, play food, stuffed animals and a train set into the garage. Bee and Scout watch with wide eyes, dare not to ask what would become of them. Don’t worry, I say cheerfully, they’re not going anywhere. We can always bring them back inside eventually, if we’d like.
And then, we get to work. Building blocks into the now-emptied drawer. Bee lines up her favorite wooden dolls on the chair rail moulding in her room. A repurposed basket to corral a few favorite books and borrowed library reads, the rest in the basement for storing. Scout sorting (throwing) dried-out markers without lids into the trash, Bee replacing old crayons with a new set.
I gather the play silks, present a few beloved-but-long-forgotten craft supplies. For the most part, we all find the chore to be so satisfying, the preemptive calming of the home far more enjoyable when not fueled by resentment or overwhelm, but pure exploration.
It’s only an experiment, I repeat, barring myself for the onslaughts of complaints in the coming weeks.
But of course, there haven’t been any. Not a single one.
Last week, we played cheetahs in the kitchen – a frequent game in these parts wherein Bee, the mother cheetah, invites me for dinner, swears I won’t be the dinner, only a dinner guest, and stays true to her word until “dessert” is suggested and all three of us run around the island in fear of our lives.
For a brief moment, she went searching for play food: cheese wedges, lemons, tomatoes. Upon realizing they were stowed away, she promptly foraged for wooden coasters in the living room, declaring tonight’s dinner to be burnt toast instead.
It was a joy to watch.
There has been, then, an extraordinary uptick in creativity and resourcefulness. A dollhouse created with a cardboard box and a furniture mailer. A board game designed with paper and pen, pennies as game pieces.
I will say this: the removing of toys hasn’t made our house cleaner, nor lacking in clutter. It is, perhaps, the very opposite. Paper scraps have replaced matchbox cars, my spatulas forever moonlighting as swords. There is a thin smattering of glue on nearly every surface.
Still, the atmosphere has shifted indeed.
It’s worth noting that there are a few toys we’ve kept close: Magna-Tiles. Craft supplies, clay. Heirloom stuffed animals. A handful of activity pads (Bee loves this one), with some classic blocks, books and art materials at-the-ready downstairs for when friends visit.
But the bins in the garage? I cannot accurately call them missed, for now.
And so, if you’re on the lookout for your own creativity reset, a few tips:
Study your kids.
What are they really, actually, truly playing with? Are there any baskets/bins/bookcases that might be too overwhelming and full to enjoy what’s inside? Do they gravitate toward a few favorite objects, or do you find they’ll simply engage with whatever is around?
Take an afternoon to watch how your kids play. A few months ago, I watched Bee grow frustrated moving a heavy train set that had kept her from reaching her favorite blocks – no wonder I hadn’t been seeing her famous metropolis towers on the sunroom floors! If you’re unsure what your kids love most, here’s a simple trick: Next time you’re away from home (in the park, at a restaurant, in the carpool line at school), ask your kid: What 3 toys do you wish were sitting right in front of you, right this moment?
They’ll have their answer, and so will you.
Now that you know what your kids treasure most, remove the excess. No need to stash anything away forever, but consider stowing a large percentage of “extras” in a temporary spot – attic, basement, garage. Opt for concealed bins or cardboard boxes so the temptation for kids to peer through translucent plastic and declare the contents to be “their favorite thing ever!” is slim.
A good rule of thumb: reduce sameness. If your kid loves to build towers, multiple boxes of blocks are no better than one set. If your kid loves to color, a drawer-full of crayons cannot improve a single box from Walmart. I used to believe the rule that there was no such thing as too many books, but I’ve recently noticed Bee gravitates toward the same beloved stories over and over. Kids love repetition and thrive in limitations. By avoiding the temptation to surround our littles with multiples of the same type of toy, they can create strong, deeply rooted memories with their truest favorites.
Consider a seasonal take.
If you’re concerned your kid(s) won’t flex well with the indefinite storing of toys, consider dividing a few special items into small boxes to bring out on the first day of each season. Just as you switch out key clothing items per season (and replace what has been outgrown/destroyed), you can do the same with toys/books/craft items. Call it the Oprah method if you will: You can have it all, just not all at once.
Consider keeping your kids’ very-very-very favorite things out year-round, but instead of stowing away the excess into one giant bin, divide a few other beloved items into 4 easy-to-access cubes to celebrate a new season. Last week, the spring cube was brought down and the winter box stowed away — Bee was thrilled to be reunited with old stories of butterflies, bugs and insects, plus her favorite nature journal, a magnifying glass, colored pencils, her wooden camera and a stuffed bunny. It was a surprisingly fun way to mark the coming of spring and gear up for many adventures to come – plus, it’s a great compromise if you don’t want to ditch everything in one fell swoop.
Improve the environment.
Once the excess is removed and the favorites are front and center, improve the environment. Rearrange a kids’ room or play space in a fun, inviting way. Have a budding artist? Cover a wall with their creations. Are they nuts about their 3 favorite stuffed animals? Hang a shelf for the trio to rest on. Make each play area conducive to their favorite activities, even if it means switching out your flokati rug for a dropcloth and declaring it an art corner.
I’m always amazed that when I set up a painting station on the dining room table, the kids become instant Picassos. When I leave blocks on the sunroom floor, or set out a stack of books on the living room sofa, they inevitably gravitate toward such activities.
Our surroundings matter. Remove what hinders your kids’ ability to engage in play by encouraging easy access to their most beloved activities. After all, the first rule of creativity is to make space for it.
The other rules? There are none, of course.
Tell me, how do you offer your kids a creativity reset in your home? Any experiments you’ve been trying lately? I’d love to hear all about it!
These tips were written for Walmart.com, now offering free and speedy 2-day shipping. Happy creating!