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Toy storage

Five easy steps to decluttering kids' spaces

It can be thrilling for children to receive toys on birthdays or special occasions, but what happens when the toys start to pile up? What happens when the playroom becomes a sea of strewn Legos and Barbie dolls and art supplies -- when it's so cluttered that the floor is no longer visible?

When faced with a messy playroom or child's bedroom, or even a living room or office, professional organizer Lisa Mark recommends starting with the acronym "SPACE." Owner of The Time Butler, Mark says to focus on Sort, Purge, Assign, Containerize and Equalize.

The process starts by sorting "like with like," or putting similar things with similar things, followed by purging unneeded items, assigning a home, containing items and equalizing or maintaining the overall system.

The next step, said Lauren Mang, owner of Let Me Organize It, is teaching kids how to be and stay organized.

"Kids are perceptive," Mang said, bringing up the fact that even her 4-year-old niece was able to sort toys into different categories. "Organizing is a muscle that kids and adults have to build. The earlier you can build those muscles, the better."

For many, though, the difficulty lies with the second step: purging. Mang explained that when working with clients who have kids, she meets with them one-on-one and helps them identify the toys they no longer want.

"Most of the time, (kids) are nervous and worried that I'll make them get rid of their stuff," Mang said. This fear is somewhat understandable, she noted, since, "Kids don't have control over anything but their stuff."

After years of helping people to purge, The Time Butler's Mark has observed that certain people feel kinships with items or have hoarding tendencies. For them, purging can be difficult. When going through items with kids, she suggested having an opaque container or bag that a child can't see into and putting items in a designated "donate pile."

"Most of the time, the child has forgotten what (is in the bag), and this frees them from having to decide whether or not to get rid of it," Mark said.

The next two steps -- assigning items a home and containing items -- are when logistics become a factor. Perhaps a space is small or has multiple uses. Such was the case with Jed Scolnik, one of Mang's clients. Scolnik needed help with a room that functioned as a mini office, toy room and guest room.

"(We purchased) a simple shelving system from Ikea that had 16 different cubbies. Some of them had bins -- dress-up clothing (in one) and cars in the other," he said.

Both Mang and Mark noted that many times people forget about the vertical space in their homes.

"People don't usually build up a wall, they build out," Mang said. But height can be used thoughtfully to achieve certain goals. "You can strategically keep certain more complex/messy toys out of reach so that they use them when an adult is around," she said.

Mang suggested to think about the containers themselves, noting that they didn't necessarily have to be from The Container Store.

"Kids are tactile and visual. Get boxes that are easy, colorful and labeled with a picture so they know what goes in it," she said.

Among her solutions for containing, Mang included canvas totes, containers with handles and lightweight, easily liftable bins. Mark advised to buy bins in a couple of colors and assign the colors to kids so they know what bins they are responsible for.

The last step -- equalize -- involves the day-to-day maintenance of the organizational system in place. After all the hard work of sorting, purging, assigning and containing, how is a space kept orderly?

Mang suggested constantly reassessing the amount of toys you have, and Mark talked of "weeding" bins on a yearly basis and setting concrete guidelines when doing so. One set of guidelines might be getting rid of broken toys, stained clothes, small clothes and toys rated for someone younger.

"The size of the bin can be a way to keep you accountable for how much stuff you want. You can have one bin designated for something like Barbies, and that can limit your amount in a year," Mang said.

Living by the one-in-one-out rule (getting rid of an item when you get a new one) is another tip Mang suggested for avoiding accumulating more of anything, including toys, but Mang also had advice for avoiding becoming inundated with toys in the first place.

"Stop showing love through gifts -- shift to experience and time ... We're always going to consume, but we can do away with compulsive consuming," she said. She also believes in the importance of reducing guilt and shame over the messes in people's everyday lives.

"It's important to remember that we don't live in a magazine!" Mang said.

Editorial Intern Anna Medina can be emailed at

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