A Creativity Reset for the Littles

Head’s up: Sponsored by Walmart.com.

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:

My garage.

Namely, the two bins corralling 85% of our household toys, sitting in my garage.

kids toys

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.

kids toys

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.

kids toys

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.

kids toys

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:

kids toys

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.

kids toys

Reduce sameness.

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.

kids toys

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.

kids toys

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!

  • What a great idea! I’m aleays looking for ways to clear space and for the kids to engage creatively with what they have! I love when you say study your kids- yes! Why don’t I do it more? Thanks for sharing!

  • I’ve heard that when kids have too many toys- and I mean bins and bins and boxes and boxes that they get overwhelmed and don’t know what to play with- less is more type of situation!

  • My children are grown, the toys are gone, (except of the special bin) I keep secretly hidden away for my grandchildren. But the words that kept on repeating while reading your blog is “a clutter home is a clutter mind,” and “less is so very much more…” I believe children do not need bins and bins of toys stashed at their beckon call, imagination grows from using things that are turned into a magically game or story. Things out of a kitchen drawer, large wooden spoons with funny painted faces and a puppet show afterwards….just a suggestion perhaps…..

    • Hi Fredie: I couldn’t agree more! Less is so very much more indeed — love how you fostered an imaginative household indeed! We’ve definitely loved having fewer toys around here. :)

  • I LOVE this, Erin! It’s amazing what kids can do when given more space and less stuff. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • I love this idea! I can see a summer box including outdoor toys like sidewalk chalk and large balls.

  • So great. This sounds word for word like Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. It’s a life changer isn’t it?

  • As a mother, a in home childcare and preschool teacher, I agree with this 100%. With a lot more kids in my care than you have with your two, I found when I had a few choice sections, there was very little fighting, arguing or boredom. I had a “home section” where there were areas such as kitchen and dress up areas. This area could also be made into a post office, a hospital, etc. by changing out props. Then there was a “block section” with large and/or small blocks as well as Duplos. A third area was the “craft sections”-paint, Playdoh, drawing and coloring with switching out crayons, markers or colored pencils. No coloring books but plain paper. Also had a “sensory area”water, sand, slime or whatever sensory items to switch in the large bin. Leave all four sections open ended. Whatever they wanted to create. This gives children a choice. So yes I agree with all you said. Of course in a home situation, you wouldn’t have to have all of that out all of the time. Place different items in different bins/boxes to store somewhere. You could have a weekly schedule so that they play in each area to develop different skills. They can play together in the same area or different areas that you choose to alternate the different boxes/bins.One could also move some of these activities outside.

    • I didn’t list books because I have them in a more supervised place in the home. Having said all I said, you know that kids for years didn’t have toys-make toys with sticks, boxes, rocks, string, etc. I can only remember playing outside, riding my bike, playing on swings, playing in the sand, exploring a small group of tress, playing with jacks and playing board games and hide and seek. Love to play Crazy Eights (card game) and Chinese Checkers. A really fun game for us was to hide a button (or whatever) and try to be the first of the three of us to find that button with only the clues of being “hot or cold”. We did have Lincoln logs and I had 1 doll, We were very happy without all of the stuff that is offered today in our modern world.

  • Love, love, love this. The things (toys) that we see as special or important do not have the same meaning to our children. Sometimes we have problems getting rid of things because of guilt (Grandma bought that for her) when the child hold more attachment to something for an entirely different reason (they remember the exact moment Grandma gave them that purse). I found over the years that when I took that perspective and thought about why things were kept it helped me greatly when it was time to claen or purge.

  • We love our magnatiles. It’s the one toy that we have kept through purges, decluttering and everyday cleaning. Through the years, I’ve shed more and more toys that I can count (many that grandparents have bought) and when it comes down to it, my kids love the toys where they can build and use their imagination. As they’ve gotten older, toys with batteries “magically” find their way out of my house (mostly for my sanity). I find there are really only a handful of toys that all four kids play with together.

  • i am a huge fan of toy simplicity. i went through a few years ago and donated the majority of our toys. they have not been missed. i do what you are currently doing with the rest. every few months i switch things out. their play is always so refreshed and creative when i do so. i can always tell when it’s time because they loose interest in the things that are out. my biggest tip is to make sure that everything has a place. it really simplifies and improves cleanup. also, the use of trays is a game changer!! one of my daughters absolutely loves legos. so, we keep the freshly built lego sets on different trays for play. it REALLY contains the mess in the most amazing way. eventually, the set is crumbled/taken apart/what have you and it goes into the bin of legos which we only get out occasionally. we use trays for the perler beads too! a bowl of beads and the pegboard are on a tray on a shelf by the table. they can carry the tray to the table and make their creation. when the work is spilled, it is most often contained on the tray. all of my trays actually are from walmart as well. they have some really beautiful metal and wood trays that add to the aesthetic of our home and contain mess… double win!!

  • I don’t mean to be unkind but this is hypocritical being sponsored by a mega store. Consumerism at its finest. Walmart. There you go! Do some research. And the heart of this message is one that you seem to be regurgitating from the Waldorf community and pawning off as your own. Maybe middle America wouldn’t get this message though without your help. Still…

    • Hi Maude:

      Thanks for your note! I value all feedback here, and appreciate you adding your voice and perspective to the comments.

      What I’d hoped to accomplish in this article was the very opposite of consumerism: encouraging us to pause and offer a mindful consideration of the things we use, love, procure and keep – for our children and ourselves. By partnering with Walmart, I was able to ensure this message arrives without the additional limitations that cost can offer in many other realms of this conversation.

      If you prefer independent retailers, I highly suggest perusing the archives for recommendations – there are many.

      I am admittedly not very familiar with the Waldorf message, although I do home school (Charlotte Mason). Mostly, I am incredibly grateful to my parents – two school teachers – for instilling many of these values in me. I grew up in an environment that offered less – frugality was encouraged, as was creativity and autonomy and free play. I can’t accurately label my childhood as a Waldorf experience, but if it was, I’d consider it a great blessing to have learned from a community larger than my own!

      It is never my intent for regurgitation of any subject. The very definition (to repeat information without analyzing or comprehending it), is counter-productive to my goal in this space, which is to write not what I profess to be an expert in, but what I am learning amidst everyday life.

      If you plan to stick around, please give the below link a read prior to navigating any additional articles. It might shed some light on my purpose here:
      http://designformankind.com/2017/09/blog/

      Sending love to you this Monday morning. Thanks for visiting!

  • So many good ideas. I especially love the seasonal take. One way to build on that idea is to bring your kids into nature and have them collect all sorts of miscellaneous things from the natural environment (that is, without disrupting it of course!). Then let the kids’ imaginations run wild as they construct sculptures with what they find. It’s a great way to foster creativity and also respect for the natural world!

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