Tame the Toy Monster

Ch. 6: Gear for Walking the Trail

Sage Homeschooling: A Lifestyle of Connection

SHFrontCoverThe physical environment of your child’s playscape is a metaphor for your child’s internal state. Are you setting your child up for success with optimal playscape design? Is your home environment conducive to learning? Organization fosters calmness, while disorganization fosters chaos. Appropriate toy storage paired with an easily maintained system of organization is key.
 An environment full of play opportunities from all the developmental areas, across the zone of proximal development, spurs self-directed learning through play. It goes even beyond that in that you can tailor your environment to the specific personality and needs of your child (e.g., closed toy storage, calming colors like blues, and classical music for a child who is easily overstimulated), setting your little one up for success and you up for easier days.

Children learn through play! In the immortal words of Fred Rogers, “Play is often talked about as if it were
a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Play is the language of children. It is the playground for their minds, and toys are the tools of their development. In addition to having the structured opportunities for learning through curricula, our homeschool environment is brimming with opportunities for discovery and mental exercise through play. Here are some ways to create and maintain such a space.

Rotate Toys

To understand the value of this method you must first understand habituation. When something is in the same place for a long period of time, you no longer see it. It’s like how you didn’t even notice that hideous wallpaper in that apartment you rented after a few months. But each houseguest just had to remark, “Wow, that wallpaper just about knocks you over, doesn’t it?” And you replied, “We’re used to it now.” This is habituation. Toys that are left in the same place for a long period of time (long being relative to a person who has only been alive fora few months or years) become wallpaper. When you rotate your toys, they become brand new with each rotation. The first step in harnessing the power of rotation is to have toys in a few places: downstairs living area, child’s bedroom, and storage closet, for example. About every month, completely rotate out all of the toys. Take the toys from the storage closet and rotate them in. Move some toys from the living room to the bedroom and vice versa. The idea is to create a brand new play landscape for your little explorer.

Zone of Proximal Development

Your child’s toys should reflect his zone of proximal development. This means that on your bookshelf of toys, there should be three categories of toys: those that are easily mastered by your child, those that are an active challenge but can be accomplished on his own with some effort, and those that are within his reach but he needs help to master. All three categories should be present in your child’s toy world. This will provide his with confidence (the toys that are easily mastered), appropriate stimulation and challenge (the toys that present a significant challenge), and motivation for further growth (the toys that require help).


The organization process consists of three things: purge, sort, and store. The first step is to sort. Dump all your crap into a mountain and sit right in front of it. It’s important not to become overwhelmed, as would be natural sitting in front of a mountain of crap. Take a deep breath and take it one thing at a time. Pick up the first item and put it in a pile. You will always have a trash pile. You will usually have a donate pile. The rest of the piles will vary depending upon what you are organizing. For example, when I sorted the art supplies, I had a big trash pile and then sorted the various supplies into piles like dry erase, chalk, erasers, stickers, etc.

Do not underestimate the importance of the purge. If you have not used something in the last year, get rid
of it! Dried out markers – trash. That fast food toy they played with once – donate. Purging keeps your home, your sanctuary, relevant to your life today. If you do
not purge, you will drown in clutter. Your children can be a part of this process too. Prior to any gift-giving holiday, have your kids go through their belongings and make a trash and donate pile to make room for the new presents they will receive.


456251a8314ab0908e2e8dcb098e79d3Preschools have been hip to this concept for a while now, and the reason they use it is because it is good
for the child and it works. Children play best when
their play world is organized according to the aspect
of brain development the play taps into. For example, one shelf on the bookshelf can be for puzzle-type toys, while a chest under the window can be for pretend play, containing all of the dress-up costumes. A fine motor center of art supplies is great next to their little table in the living room. Simply put, this is organization. But it can go a long way in helping to organize your children and help along play.


Your toy storage must be set up in such a way that your child is able to clean up. If each toy is put away in its original packaging and filed on the top shelf, you are not only making your job more difficult (even if your child wanted to clean up, and most do, he couldn’t) but you are denying your child the opportunity to develop growth in all the ways cleaning up provides. Cleaning up is a great left-brain growth activity because children must sort. All “guys” go in this box. All blocks go in that box. And of course, when you include your child in cleaning up, you are sending the message that he is an integral part of your family system; he has an important and valuable role. But to send this message, toys must be stored in such a way that your child can clean up. I use open-top, fabric-covered boxes on low shelves and closed, clear plastic latch boxes. When they want to play, they pull out the box. When it’s time to clean up, we toss everything back in the box, and it is put back on the shelf. Each activity is contained and easily cleaned up.


Contrasting visual colors and patterns can be overstimulating. All of those visible toys and packaging with their loud patterns and colors can be stressful. Consider using toy storage that is uniform. Those open- top, fabric-covered boxes I mentioned above, they are all blue, green or wicker. This way, when you look at the toy areas, they are not visually overwhelming or stressful. Not to mention, it makes living spaces seem like child-integrated homes and not toy stores.


Labeling boxes and shelves is essential for staying organized. I love my Label Maker, but prior to this lovely Christmas gift, I was simply printing titles, cutting them out, and taping them, or even writing on peel-and-stick labels. Labeled storage makes everything easy to find and clean up. Looking for your 2-inch Buzz Lightyear? Simply go to the “Guy” shelf and pull out the “Toy Story” box. It takes only seconds to locate a tiny toy among the hundreds of toys my three children are privileged to enjoy. Puzzles

With a very young one, consider labeling your toys with a photo and word. If each activity is stored in a box, simply put a photo of what’s inside along with the word on the front. Not only does this make organization easier (again, you want your child to be able to clean up) but it also teaches children pre-reading. They learn what the word “cars” looks like and, before long, recognize the word even without the picture. This is pre-reading.


So important! The importance of containers in organization cannot be understated. The proper container will function in such a way that independence and fascination will flourish. All that just from organized containers? Yes!

Just say no to original packaging. Original packaging takes up way more space than needed for the product contained within it (for more visible shelf space in the store), is visually loud (competing for your visual interest in the store), doesn’t stay closed (pieces are always falling out and parts are always missing), is too difficult to open and close (your child can’t take it out or clean it up), and is irregularly shaped (you can’t efficiently stack it with other things from the same category).

I recommend a mixture of closed (you cannot see the toys inside the container) and open (the toys are on display within the container) toy storage. The bulk of the toys out and accessible in the room will be in closed toy storage to keep the space calm and relaxing. For this I love fabric, open-top boxes or woven, natural
 fiber boxes. Pick up a bunch and use them for bigger sets of toys such as cars, animals, pretend food, blocks, etc. These boxes look nice sitting on a bookshelf or in a cubed, cubby shelving system, are easily pulled off by a child for play with a particular activity, facilitate an easy clean up (simply toss toys back inside), and are easily placed back on the shelf. These can also effortlessly be rotated to keep the playscape fresh.

The final container that is essential to organization is what I refer to as the “latch box.” The modular latch box is a system of small, clear boxes in varying sizes that all fit together.5 They are locked closed but can easily be opened with a latch by children. These latch boxes can sit on shelves, nested together, maximizing the usage of space, they can be used to store all of the toys that are out of rotation, or they can be placed inside prettier containers like the open-top fabric boxes. They allow me to keep every toy we own organized. They are a perfect excuse for chucking all that original packaging that easily rips and falls open and the perfect solution for keeping every single puzzle piece (simply cut out the picture of the completed puzzle from the cardboard box and enclose it in the latch box with the puzzle pieces), game card, and small marble stored securely in its set. I even use them for things like first-aid supplies (one box for Tummy, Throat, Skin, etc.). My latch boxes are all housed comfortably inside one bookshelf in the playroom. I frequently pull down a box and feature it by simply leaving it on the coffee table to take center stage for my children’s discovery and inevitable play.


The open toy storage provides the opportunity to feature specific toys in the rotation. A container like shelved, tilted bins works well for this purpose. Right now I have one container full of various train sets, as my toddler is currently infatuated with trains (Thomas Trains in one bin, Geo Tracks in another, etc.), and
one container full of sorted pretend food and dishes, right next to the pretend kitchen outside. Sometimes our feature bins will hold art supplies next to the easel or even facilitate scientific exploration with magnetic tools and toys. But as I mentioned above, even simply pulling down a random activity and leaving it out in an obvious place will rotate your children’s attention to the variety of playthings they have at their disposal in their playscape.

Clean Up

By the age of 1, children can clean up with you. The value and importance of cleaning up was discussed earlier, but I want to emphasize that cleaning up should be fun. If you approach it with disdain, like a chore,
then your child will do the same. Try singing a cleanup song, giving lots of attention during cleanup time (eye contact, physical touch, undivided attention), and have fun! We literally toss each ball back into the box. It’s like basketball. We “zoom” each car into the box while it lies sideways. As your child gets older, you can set a timer and see how many toys he can pick up in 30 seconds. When your child is a baby, it is much easier to cleanup the toys yourself. Involving your 12-month-old takes much longer and requires more effort. But if you invest the time and energy while young, your child will be cleaning up on his own down the road.

Once your child is school-aged, clean up falls into two categories of responsibility: personal and family. As an individual family member, your child is responsible for cleaning up after himself. Your child takes an activity off the shelf, engages with it, and then puts it away. I do not allow my children to move from mess to mess. Once an activity is completed, it must be cleaned up before a new activity may begin. This is not to say that superheroes can’t battle on the block tower, but before you can go outside and ride bikes, the blocks and guys must be returned to their places. This system is based less on authoritarian enforcement and more on an expectation established through natural consequences. If you dump things where they don’t belong, you can’t find something when you want it. If you leave a toy tornado in the living room, there is no space to play, no clean slate for the next vignette.

PRCubbies2Family responsibility is about the cleaning contributions we all make to the household and one another.Something about chore charts makes me want to lash out irrationally (they feel so authoritarian), so I set
up a chart, similar to the Weekly Plans we utilize for homeschooling, that is based on choice. There is a list
of cleaning chores that need to be completed to keep the house livable. Each child writes his name next to
one chore of his choosing each day. Some days they will feel especially motivated and complete a week’s worth of chores in one morning while belting along with some rockin’ music, then enjoy a cleaning hiatus. The key to having a successful chore system is that it be based on family responsibility, meaning it is not something handed down from the parent level to the child level, but communal in nature. When the children are cleaning up, I join in. When I am cleaning, they are happy to help. There is no external reward, no financial bribe, and no threat of punishment. They have a sense that we are working together for one another.

Schooling Materials

Each child has his own cubby on the shelf containing 
his curricula. One cubby houses sorted lined, white,
and construction paper. Supplies, such as pencils and markers, are organized in a drawer tower under the desk. Their laptop sits atop the desk. The iPad charges in a magazine holder. The printer lives on top of the cubby shelf. A magnetic white board (which displays each child’s Weekly Plan) hangs upon the wall. A world map6 adorns the largest wall. All of the materials that are essential to our more structured learning are woven through what I refer to as our “playroom” (which is open to the living room and the backyard). Keeping all of these materials at their fingertips facilitates their frequent and easy use.

Outdoor Space

Hands down, my favorite part of our house is the backyard. It may not be perfectly manicured, but it hosts daily adventures. This landscape opens the door to an entirely fresh (and healthy) learning and living environment. No matter what form, size, or shape the outdoor space you have access to, take full advantage of it. If you have no outdoor space on your property but frequent a local park, have easily transportable bins with various outdoor materials and activities that you rotate bringing along. If you do have a backyard, set up opportunities for exploration and different aspects
of play outdoors just as you do indoors. Studies such as entomology and gardening naturally take root outside. We are currently loving a water station we created
 to explore the water cycle. My three boys worship the trampoline for exercising spurts of physical energy and thoroughly enjoy the relaxing tranquility of workbooks completed in the hammock. We also have a skate ramp (great for physics and simple machines in addition to skateboarding), zip line, and music garden.

Check out my Outdoor Playscape Pinterest Page for some visual inspiration.


There are some toys, activities, and supplies we love having at our disposal. You don’t need to own everything on this list, but if you want to get started stocking a stimulating playscape, this list of our favorites is a good inspiration to start.




Pretend Play


  • Trampoline
  • Hammock
  • Chalk
  • Paintbrushes
  • Slide
  • Chairs
  • Water (hose)
  • Play-Doh
  • PVC Pipes (for water, cars, balls, etc.)
  • Sound Garden (wind chimes, pots and buckets for banging, etc.)
  • Balls
  • Plants
  • Fruit Trees
  • Vegetable Garden
  • Small Table with chairs
  • Power Wheels
  • Kiddie Pool (can be used for water, sand, or as a sensory bin)
  • Bike
  • Scooter

WaterBeadsSensory Bins

You can use a large, low-profile plastic bin, a small kiddie pool, or even your bathtub for these fun sensory experiences. My son’s favorite way to learn to write new words is with his finger, in shaving cream, on a cookie sheet.

Check out my Sensory Bin Pinterest Page for some visual inspiration.


You can click here for a list of our favorite children’s books.

Integrating your child and his education into your home doesn’t mean your house needs to be overrun with primary colors and characters. You can have a stylish space that reflects the dignity of where you are in your life while honoring your child and his valued place in the family. A safe and thoughtful space that considers your parenting priorities enhances connection and leads to a harmonious life. This is your nest. This is where you will spend hours lost in love with your child and forge the memories of your child’s milestones. Forget what you thought parenting would look like, and create what brings the most warmth and peace to your family.

If a homeschooling life based on child-led play and discovery is your goal, then the design of your playscape is invaluable. Peruse my Sage Parenting Pinterest page for loads of ideas and inspiration.15 A space that is calm yet encouraging presents tools for play, discovery, and study in a way that is seamlessly woven into home life.

Read more in Sage Homeschooling: a lifestyle of connection.

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