The toy struggle is real
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
Oh it's real. And I'm really changing it. Once and for all.
We have too many toys in my house. Toys that are made of bright colored plastic and glitter and sparkle and they scream “buy me!” when kids walk past them at the store or see them on TV. My house is full of toys that have been played with once and then forgotten. I can count on one hand the toys my kids play with again and again. So I’m doing a toy detox. I’m putting my foot down and getting rid of the toy garbage once and for all.
Winter is here and we’re basically North of the Wall in New England, except no one has John Snow’s cool fur coat. The long months ahead are full of terrors like snow days, sick days, and endless school vacation days and the plastic wasteland that is my playroom just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
But here’s the thing: my kids are hoarders. As soon as I make a donation pile, those items are suddenly the most beloved toys in the whole house. So, in preparation for my least favorite holiday, I had a chat with Santa and he’s going to write my girls a letter and get them on board. He and I are getting rid of the junk, one-hit-wonder toys and I'm overhauling the playroom into a space that will grow with them, invite them to be creative, explore and to play with each other (insert slow clap).
The urge to purge is fierce, but I've also been paying close attention to how they play and I’ve been doing LOTS of research on new toys and things we can add to our day to day life to encourage more imaginative play. Now that they’re at the magical ages of five and two, they actually do play with each other. Rosie is out of the baby toy phase and Belle is fully into the imaginative phase, and she’s bringing her baby sister right along with her.
They play “family” with their dolls and their zoo game is one of the more clever games I’ve ever seen two kids play. They organize all of their stuffed animals into categories and make little animal habitats for each species, including an ocean section for the stuffed dolphin, the mermaid and the seal using a blue bed sheet. At feeding time they use play food from the kitchen to dole out meals. I get all sorts of questions about what bears, pigs, and monkeys eat.
(Sidenote: in five years we’ve managed to collect hundreds of stuffed animals and I swear on all that is holy if one more person brings a stuffed animal into this house I will burn the whole zoo down.)
But really, the zoo is adorable, so that can stay, and so can the play kitchen (more on that later). Plus, there’s no way to recycle stuffed animals (I’m waiting for someone to invent a giant machine that can turn stuffed animals into fleece jackets or something), so until that happens, we’ll just be over here playing zoo.
The plastic Fisher Price farm though: that’s gotta go. No one plays with it. Yes, it’s nostalgic – I had one as a kid too, but it collects dust now. Same with the plastic doll house that sits next to it. And the instruments? Gone. Sure, I’m all for encouraging music, but when was the last time my kids got together and formed a band and actually played with these toys as they’re intended to be played with? Never. They mostly use them as weapons.
See where I’m going here? They don’t play with the actual farm, but they make their own zoo out of stuffed animals, furniture, fake food and bed sheets. They don’t use the dollhouse, but they play family for hours on end.
Keeping their growing imaginations in mind, here’s what's on my must-have list for the playroom makeover:
Way to Play Toys – I found these on Instagram (@waytoplaytoys) and I’m super excited. I got them for my nephew recently for his 6th birthday, and rumor has it, he’s loving them. If you check out the IG account you can get all sorts of ideas for how and where to use them. They’re flexible rubber/plastic tracks that link together like puzzle pieces and can be used at the beach, in the pool, in the grass, the tub, on the rug, in dirt, you name it. They can be rinsed easily with water and packed up to take on the go. I'm already planning to bring them on vacation, for beach days, to the park, hotel rooms! keeping siblings entertained on the sidelines during weekend soccer, etc. My plan is to get a small plastic tote to store them in so when we take them with us anywhere, we can toss in some plastic animals, cars, etc. to incorporate, and when it's time to go, all the mess stays contained until you can rinse them off.
Once I discovered the Way To Play tracks, I went down the rabbit hole of digging around to figure out what all the cool accessories were that the kids in the IG pics were playing with – the wooden rainbow thing, the cute little felt and wooded trees, the best cars, animal figures, etc. Most of the brands are European, go figure (add toys to the list of things they do better than us). Here's what I've found:
Grimms Wooden Toys: What first sucked me in is the wooden rainbow because I kept seeing it set up among the different configurations of the Way to Play tracks above, but then I learned there are SO MANY other cool things you can do with it. Yes, the price shocked me. I’m not so jaded that $100 for a wooden rainbow just rolls off my shoulder. BUT, the quality seems outstanding, and you can do so many cool things with it. If my kids actually love it and use it as much as I’m imagining, then it’s one of those toys I’ll hang on to and pass down to their kids someday. Thus, justifying the price tag. *note, I did find other versions on Etsy for a bit less, but they're not as wide as the Grimms one. The tracks won't fit on them, meaning the pieces of the rainbow wouldn't be able to be used as cute little colorful bridges. Just FYI.
Animal Figurines: last weekend, each of the kids “fell in love” with a little plastic horse at our local toy shop. Little did I know this purchase would lead to hours of imaginative play – inside, and out. We built a farm outside from sticks, bark, pine needles, etc. I definitely had as much fun as they did, so more animals are on the must-have list!
Wood Balancing Rocks: not only are they a balancing game, but the kids can use them in their imaginary villages and incorporate with the tracks, as well.
Nuggett Couch – how fast can I get this delivered? My kids need all the cushions/padded objects they can get. They’re daredevils and this looks amazing. Endless forts, the perfect cozy (washable!) place for sick day snuggles (because you can't wash your actual couch), something to bounce around on, SIGN. ME. UP. This was another Instagram find and the page is full of awesome ideas and ways to configure the cushions @nuggettcomfort.
Balance Board – my kids like to move and they have serious energy to offload so I’m hopeful about this little ditty. Plus it can be used in so many creative ways – including with the Way to Play tracks and the Nuggett Couch (check out @wobbelusa on Instagram for more ideas). There are tons of brands making these in varying price ranges. The one linked above isn’t too bad in terms of price, but I also like the ones that have a felt bottom for use on hardwood and to prevent slipping and sliding.
Last but not least, I'm adding an arts and crafts corner. I have the perfect old table and bench that I plan on painting in my spare time (I'm not laughing, you're laughing). But seriously. These kids can't get enough of the coloring and art making, and I desperately need all the paper and markers out of my kitchen (I know, I know, it'll all still be in my kitchen).
While I'm all for "out with the old, in with the new" these days, there are definitely some longstanding toy favorites that have stood the test of time in our house and have actually been played with. A LOT.
If you're looking for mom/kid tested gifts, here are some of my favorites:
Pottery Barn Play Kitchen: no silly, I did not spend $1000 on this three-piece wonder. I spent $300 and I found it on Craigslist in pristine condition last year (in pink, which is the one I wanted!). Do yourself a favor and stalk your local Craigslist for this item. It’s exceptionally well-made (hence the price) and it can take a beating. The one I bought had gone through two kids already, and it looks just as brand new today as it did when I got it a year ago. I do not plan on getting rid of this ever. I plan on saving it for my grandchildren, that’s how much I love it.
Pretend Makeup Kit: My future sister-in-law recently sent this to the girls as a little pre-flower girl gift and they’ve played with it for hours on end. We also got the hair salon set and it's equally adorable. The hairdryer actually turns on and the lipstick moves up and down. It’s one of those shocking “I didn’t think they’d actually use it THIS much” finds.
Stacking Robots: we’ve had these since my oldest was about two. My godparents found them at a cute little mom and pop toy store in Maine, and since then I think I’ve gifted them to friends and family about a dozen times (thank you Amazon). They’re made in the US and are one of those super simple, but super entertaining toys. Kids simply stack the robots in a handful of configurations to try to get them to balance on their own. Yes, they’re fun for adults too. I speak from experience.
Eric Carle Stuck on Stories: Our babysitter got this for Rosie when she turned two and she plays with it non-stop. You have to match the little characters on each page and stick them to their spot – each critter has a suction backing so pulling them off is just as fun as putting them on!
Bristle Blocks: I don't know, but my kids love these and they make the coolest little creations out of them. Pro tip: save the tote/jug they come in. They're a great toy for weekends away and hotel entertainment.
Stocking stuffer idea: we got this mini bingo set recently and it's basically how I get through dinner time every night. We play while they eat and it's actually pretty fun.
The Book with No Pictures: my three year old niece (impressively) has this entire book memorized, and hearing her recite it is the cutest thing ever. Her mom sent the book to my girls a few months ago and now they insist we read it almost every night.
*Disclaimer: whenever I say my kids play with something for hours on end, I actually mean minutes. I think their max playtime for one single item is 20 min, and in my world that equals 2 hours.