The magic in a messy playroom

4257288645_f7663337b0_zWith three kids, you accumulate a fair number of toys. They’re generally stored in the basement playroom, but they have a tendency to spread around the house. I don’t require that they be put away with any regularity. I don’t feel like spending my life cleaning. I see no reason why everything needs to be neat before I go to bed, as if there’s going to be an 11 p.m. inspection. The house will just get messy again, and I’ll never get that hour back.

But I realize this is not a universal feeling. In Better Homes & Gardens this month, a mom of 4 talks about her house being toy free by evening. And this month’s Family Fun magazine (Meredith’s parenting magazine) has a “We asked” section with tips from moms on “How do you encourage your kids to help clean up?”

Some are fine — make a chore checklist, turn it into a game — but the first bothered me. An Illinois mom wrote in that “The rule in our house is that each child can have one set of toys out at a time; before he can go on to another, he has to clean up the first set. If the kids aren’t in the mood to clean up, they don’t have to — they just have to keep playing with the same toy. With this approach, we’ve been able to head off a big mess in the kids’ rooms and the constant ‘clean up your room’ lecture.”

That may head off a big mess, but it also heads off a lot of creative play.

Because here’s the thing — so many toys are so scripted these days, it’s the combination of pieces from multiple kinds of sets that makes the imagination start to work. In our house, Lego cars may become a train that takes you through a dinosaur amusement park, created out of plastic toy dinosaurs and a blue mat (representing a lake) that originally went with a different game. Dozens of stuffed animals may become pupils in a school where you make your own books out of construction paper and markers. 

What does this look like? It looks like a mess. But as Maria Montessori always noted, play is the work of a child.

We’re definitely working on getting the kids to pitch in with chores, and keeping the playroom (and the living room, and their rooms…) at a reasonable level of cleanliness. After all, if the puzzle pieces go missing, or toys disappear under piles, the playroom becomes less fun. I will admit that I sometimes say no to things because I can’t stand the thought of the ensuing mess. Still, the one-kind-of-toy-at-a-time rule sounds bleak. It seems a shame to start life thinking that pulling in items and ideas from multiple categories to solve a problem is a bad thing — a thing that makes mommy unhappy and gets you in trouble. This is the nature of creativity. I tend to think that nurturing that is more important than a spotless house.

In other news: Modern Mrs. Darcy also tries to tolerate messes that are about children discovering things

This is not a photo of our toy car bin, but it could be. Photo courtesy flickr user Slack pics.

25 thoughts on “The magic in a messy playroom

  1. Oh, that does sound like a depressing rule. We try to do a quick pick up each night (mainly the 4yo with some adult help) just because clutter makes me twitchy.

    One thing that helps is having lots of closed cabinets so we do a rotation of what toys are out at any given time. For mine, out of sight = out of mind, so every now and then I’ll put something away and replace it with something else. Working ok so far.

    1. “Clutter makes me twitchy”- that made me laugh, I feel the same way! I would add that occasionally sorting toys- not clearing away, just putting back puzzle pieces, replacing rings on the rock-a-stack- helps to re-start play. My son isn’t old enough to actually do a puzzle, but he likes to play with the pieces. If I don’t put them back occasionally, he won’t find them again. Same with the rock-a-stack. At the end of the day, all the toys get put to the side in our living room, and I’m fine with that as long as they’re neat. I agree with “out of sight, out of mind-” I might not remember to put everything out if they’re not right there. I have to put a reminder on my calendar to cycle in new toys.

  2. Funny, I was just thinking about this last night. We visited a pumpkin patch for pumpkins yesterday. When we got home, my 5 y.o. busted open a brand new craft kit – specifically for making “fiesta flowers” – requested glue, and started making a face on her pumpkin. It was so random and fabulous and different. Thank goodness she can’t read the directions in the kit or I didn’t say no to the glue …

    I do think there’s a lot to be said for starting the morning with a clean house, but toys? Toys are meant to be jumbled up reinvented.

  3. Yeah, I’m not fond of the one-toy-only rule either. I do encourage it with toys like board games or puzzles where if you lose pieces the toy becomes unplayable, but other than that, go for it! Kids use toys in ways I could never predict. But I don’t like having toys everywhere – or other stuff. Too much clutter stresses me out, I can’t find things, I step on things, etc. Though my house is *definitely* not neat and tidy most of the time, we are getting better at cleaning up regularly and not letting the clutter get out of control. On the toy side, what helps us the most is having a 10-minute tidy at the end of each evening and rotating toys so we don’t have heaps out at once – we store the rest in the basement and rotate every so often. I find this helps keep the interest in the toys too!

    1. @Charmaine- I think there may be personality types on clutter. I don’t particularly like it, but it doesn’t really bother me either. I don’t look at my desk (which is full of clutter) and say “I can’t work!” My ability to work and the existence of clutter are two separate things. I am always surprised when organizational types inform readers/clients that cleaning clutter will change their energy, or that clutter reminds them their lives are a mess. Not me. But obviously, people who go into organization professionally are anti-clutter. It’s like time management people stressing the importance of planning. Of course we think that way…

      1. Yes, I’m sure personality types has a lot to do with it. I really dislike working with a messy desk, though also admit that sometimes the need to tidy it before work might have something to do with procrastination. 🙂

        Funnily enough, there are some homes I can go into where they have a *lot* of stuff and it not be super organized at all, yet I love it. Somehow their clutter is so interesting to me (it’s OK to browse in people’s homes, just like in stores, right???) and looks cozy, but clutter in my house just looks messy and reminds me of all the things I haven’t done!

  4. Like Charmaine, I get stressed out if there’s too much clutter. But as long as we’re regularly tidying up in the evenings, toy clutter doesn’t really bother me. The mess of blocks and Legos and cars and trains and whatever else that the kids assemble each day is alive with imagination. It’s not troubling in the way a stack of unfiled papers can be.

  5. I like the “one toy out at a time” rule. The thing to remember is – everytyhing in moderation 🙂 For example, if the kids want to play with blocks/trains/cars – they need to first put away the crayons, paper and markers they’ve been playing with. When they are done buildign castles for their dolls and garages for their cars – they need to put everything away before turning on the music and doing dress up and dance (we have a small house – if they don’t put their constructions away, they’ll be tripping over them). On the other hand, of course they are free to combine different types of toys together (and things that are not toys, too) when they need to…
    Laura, you mentioned Montessori – but as far as I understand, Montessori method is all about having fewer well-crafted toys that are organized and accessible, not a pile of toys in the middle of the floor…

    1. My children have both attended Montessori preschools. They are free to choose their work, but the environment is carefully prepared and very orderly. The students choose one item of work at a time and put it back in its original state before selecting different work. I’m trying to set up areas at home that are more like school–rotating toys, grouping like items together on low shelves that are easy to reach, etc. After I clean my daughter’s room, she’ll play with rediscovered toys for hours.

      1. I’m glad someone weighed in from the Montessori schools. My niece goes to a Montessori preschool and I thought that they did have the “one comes out, one goes back” rule.

        Without some semblance of order, my kids don’t seem to create quite as much. The mass of toys doesn’t inspire like having all the cars in one bucket, all the ponies in another, does.

        Personally, I’d rather do 15 minutes every evening rather than interrupting play and getting them to put their things back.

        Lastly, (and I sound like a real downer) the whole section in Family Fun was bleh to me. The ideas about games, making it fun- I think I was in a bad mood when I read it because all I kept thinking was “Who cares if it’s fun? Just make the kids do it anyway.” Sort of a bah-humbug approach… 🙂

        1. @Katherine – I was more quoting Maria Montessori. The actual school execution of her works I go back and forth on.

          But I’d be curious to hear what you think of Family Fun generally. I found their back-to-school write up of lunchbox fare unintentionally hilarious last month (that was the Lunch box fare in the Pinterest era post).

          1. I just wrote a long reply and got the capthca code wrong. Start over:

            I have not enjoyed the Family Fun subscription enough to renew when the year is up. There is not enough content in the articles for me to come away with much to really ponder. This latest magazine had an article about a mom running her first 5K, but it was only one page. I would have enjoyed reading more- how a mom fits running in her schedule, the shift to making it a priority, dealing with mom guilt, etc and so forth. The article touched on these, but I would have enjoyed reading more.

            Also, I am not a crafts person at all. That’s what parks and rec art classes are for:) So I spend some time flipping through and thinking “People actually do that???”. Like, “DIY Giant Dice (helps with math skills!). That’s not really something that grabs me or inspires me, because it seems too over the top.

            So- it is a magazine I would flip through at the doctor’s office, but I’d never be tempted to smuggle it home in my purse… 🙂

  6. While I am of the “clutter bothers me” personality type, toy clutter specifically does not bother me, as long as the toys are not in the kitchen where I step on them. We do, however, clean up at the end of the day because our dog likes to use wooden blocks/toys as chew toys…a few episodes of THAT and we decided it took less time/energy/stress to do a 10 minute clean up. We usually have the boys do the clean up before bathtime, but if we’re running late or running into obstinance, I’ll do it myself after they are asleep. We keep huge mesh bins to throw most toys into at the end of the day.
    I definitely don’t do the “one toy at a time” thing, because I also am amazed at the imaginative ways toys are sometimes used. Only for things like puzzles that we don’t want to lose, or crayons/art stuff that could make a mess—in those cases, I encourage cleaning up before new activities begin. Its nice now that the little one isn’t SO into mouthing, so that I don’t have to frantically clean up after the 3 year old.

  7. Clutter doesn’t bother me. But I’m also not so concerned that kids will be unable to come up with creative ways to play with things if they only have one toy out at a time. Seems to me that might take more creativity to come up with something new and fun.
    Of course, my toddler, despite having hundreds of toys and books strewn about everywhere, only wants to play with pens and pencils. No matter where we put them she seems to be able to get to them. (The higher we place them, the more she climbs.) Thankfully the erasers she pulls out of the mechanical pencils are probably too small to choke on. And our furniture wasn’t in pristine condition in the first place, and we’ll have to repaint sometime soon anyway, even without the additional art.

  8. I think what you allude to here is a deeper tension in the culture and for women about the space that is ours and the space that you give over to children.. to encourage them and the extend to which this

    we don’t have a TV in the bedroom.. as I don’t want the poison in the place where i sleep or make love. I also don’t like kids toys or books in my bedroom. I allow their books next to my bed .. I allowed my kids to sleep with me .. but I draw the line at their stuff… I do let it around the public areas and their bedroom but I do pick afew rooms that are either clutter free (like the dining room) or kid-toy free… it is about keeping something just for yourself.. also I think the key to happiness is to accept that children are dirty, messy and exhausting… start from there and in a buddhist kind of way they make you happy b/c they live in the moment.. but the constant sale to women of the perfect look or home while parenting in the moment is kind of defeating if not downright malicious and unattainable..

  9. Two thoughts:
    1) We cannot walk through without some amount of picking up as we have no separate play room. The kids play in the living room and dining room which works fine since it’s easier to be around since they are too little to play unsupervised.
    2) When it gets really messy, it’s hard for them to actually play because they are just tripping over everything and have no more space to spread anything out.

  10. This really got my brain turning! Thank you for the stimulating my brain about toys. I have always wanted to implement the “one toy out at a time” policy but have never been able to make it work. Boy does this make it so much more freeing! I totally see what you mean, too, how they use multiple pieces from multiple toy sets to set up imaginative play. My OCD brain wants my kids to only play with one toy set at a time, and to not mix and match. Thanks for the perspective!

  11. Mostly, I don’t mind clutter, particularly not toy clutter. I like to let the kids go where their imaginations take them as their imaginations take them there. As you say, we notice a lot of cross-functional playing. Lego bridges for train tracks, with Little People lining the route and that sort of thing. The only problem is, we have a smallish house and there is no play room. The kids’ play room is our living room. So sometimes, we have to insist that the huge array of stuffed animals that are still patiently waiting their turn for a haircut and/or doctor’s visit (each kid had a different service on offer!) need to get put away, so that we can actually sit on the sofa. Still, we do not require cleanup every night. We require cleanup once every two weeks, in advance of cleaning day, so that our cleaning service can actually clean the floors. We ask for the living room to be tidied whenever the mess gets in our way or otherwise intrudes. In general, their rooms can be as messy as they want, except for the night before the cleaner comes. No food goes into their rooms, so we don’t have a health or varmint concern with the mess. And if a toy gets stepped on and broken, we consider that a teachable moment (after we offer hugs and consolation, of course). We did have a problem just this morning when my 4 y.o. forgot and left some things outside that shouldn’t have gotten wet- and we had fog overnight. I would generally have reminded her to bring those in, but I didn’t know they were outside. Luckily, the things that were actually ruined were inconsequential- but she had a bit of a fright. And really, it isn’t that I think the parents who insist on their kids’ cleaning up before going on to the next toy are doing it “wrong”- I just think we have different preferences and priorities, and that is fine.

  12. There is a balance. I read once about a parent who kept all toys in the closet and made a photo “catalog,” and her kids had to request the toy and the parent would get it out for them. That seems cruel.

    If take one out and put one back works for your family, great. But I agree, crossing character worlds is great to see- today tinkerbell was trying to save Horton’s clover with the help of Shamu. And that can’t happen if everything is always put away.

    However I have found without fail, in the playroom, if you clean it- they will play. And, they will rediscover forgotten toys! Too much out creates chaos and not only are my kids unwilling to play there, they are too overwhelmed to begin to clean it themselves either. But nothing out at all or just one thing is not enough either.

  13. The toy clutter makes me a little crazy … but I think you’re right. I’m constantly trying to negotiate the line between encouraging creativity and not losing my mind.

    I AM getting better at recognizing when my kids (especially a certain 8yo who avowedly hates cleaning up because “playing is always more fun”) are actually done with an activity and having them clean up then.

    Yesterday my kids (the 4 tend to play together, or at least near each other, and the activities spill over) ended up playing “dump trucks make art” because they had several activities going at once, which allowed for the blended, creative play you’re talking about. I think that’s a definite point in favor of the magic of a messy playroom.

  14. I guess I’d like to elaborate a little on my previous point– also Cloud’s.
    It probably doesn’t MATTER for creativity if a playroom is messy or clean. Sure, it’s an empirical question, but in the long-run, probably doesn’t make a lick of difference. Most kids don’t spend all their time trapped in the playroom. Outside experiences can make up for whatever they lack in that one part of their lives.
    Saying that only a clean playroom is good or only a messy playroom is good is just fueling the mommy wars.

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