After the winter holidays, I get into decluttering mode. This is especially true with regard to my daughter Sofie’s stuff. She accrues so many new toys as gifts, and I swear the tiny plastic pieces multiply while we’re sleeping! Pretty soon my internal clutter meter goes off, and I know it’s time to purge.
This can be tough since kids tend to cling to their possessions. Yes, you can do it covertly when your child is not around (a mom’s confession: I sometimes do this), but it will serve you better in the long run to involve kids in the art of letting go.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

For kids too young to grasp this concept (ages 1 through 3), the “out of sight, out of mind” theory works well. When Sofie was that age, I would routinely relocate the less-played-with toys to the basement. Usually, she didn’t even notice their absence, although several times I had to suddenly “find” the such-and-such doll she adamantly remembered having.

Once a toy has sat neglected in the basement for a month, you can move it out of the house.

Making Choices

Starting around age 4 or 5, kids can participate in the decluttering process. At least twice a year (after her birthday and after the winter holidays), I enlist Sofie’s help in choosing which toys to pass on by giving her a cardboard box to fill. I see her thoughtfully weighing these tough choices and believe it helps develop her decision-making skills.

Here are a few tips for this sorting process:

  • Start by making piles based on if the child is ready to let the toy go (yes, no, maybe)
  • Fill a box (one per child)
  • Set a deadline (such as two days; otherwise the procrastination over decisions may be endless)
  • Do it with them (clean out your wardrobe or your old CD and movie collection so the kids see that everyone is participating)
  • Pack the box up and get it out of sight (before regret sets in or a sibling tries to confiscate an item)

Personalize the Action

Giving up toys just to have less of them is not a logical reason for kids, and it might lead to resentment. However, you can gently educate your little ones (even as young as 4) about landfills or, in kid-speak, “mountains of trash that make the earth sick.” Show them online photos or visualize the concept with this sandbox landfill project (PDF).

Or you can appeal to their altruistic nature. Telling your kids about children in the world who don’t have any toys might inspire them to give away more stuff. Whether you’re talking about an outgrown jacket that will keep someone else warm or a favorite toy that will delight a homeless child, putting a face to the action helps reframe the decluttering process.

What Do I Do with the Old Toys?


Typically, toys are composed of several different kinds of materials, which makes recycling a challenge. Check plastic toys for any recycling identification number. You might disassemble items into recyclable components: metal or cardboard pieces, fabric from doll clothes, etc. Electronic toys can often be recycled as e-waste.

And with more toy companies taking eco-friendly steps, the next time you’re buying toys, you may be able to find items that can be easily recycled later.


Many places will accept gently used toys as donations. Here are a few options. (Be sure to clean the toys and remove any batteries first.)

  • Donation Town (They accept gently used, complete toys, from stuffed animals and dolls to sports equipment and puzzles. They’ll come to you and pick it up for free.)
  • Local shelters, daycares or children’s hospitals
  • Local thrift stores
  • Freecycle
  • Stuffed Animals For Emergencies (SAFE)

Other Options

  • Regift toys or books in good condition.
  • Hold a toy swap with your friends or community moms.
  • Have a yard sale, or sell your items on Craigslist or eBay.
  • Upcycle toy parts into crafty creations like this cool lamp (pictured below) made from plastic characters “climbing” the base.

Feature image: Flickr/Evelyn Giggles