A few years back, I arrived home to find a wide-eyed 5-year-old boy with big hazelnut eyes sitting in my living room. His social worker had dropped him off that morning. That afternoon was our first time meeting. A few months later, his two little sisters came to live with us as well. A year later, we unexpectedly found out we were expecting. Add in our oldest biological child, and we went from 1 child to 5 kids in less than 2 years—big family trial by fire. And ended up with a TON of toys. Well, we did have a ton of toys until last year.

We almost moved into a bigger house just to fit our stuff. After a long search, I figured it would cost us $700 extra a month to find something similar but bigger than the 1650 square foot home we currently live in. $700 a month could buy a lot of fun or freedom. So instead, we took a hard look at all our possessions and the value they provided us. Rather than holding on to stuff we rarely used, didn’t really need, or weren’t adding a ton of value, we let them go and were able to walk away from the 9-5 instead.

This last year has been a work in progress on moving towards a more minimalist life. More of the stuff that matters, less of the stuff that doesn’t. That is our motto. Our moving target.

One question we get over and over is how to pull this off with 5 little kids. Here is the simple solution we started with.

3 Toys for 3 Days


We have a large shelf, and  ALL the toys stay on there. The kids each get to pick 3 toys to play with for the next 3 days. Sets (like puzzles, legos, blocks) count as 1 toy.

Each night they are responsible for picking up their 3 toys. If the task is too hard, that toy is removed as an option until they can handle it.

After 3 days, they can swap out the toys for new toys from the shelf as long as their 3 toys are cleaned up.

This is how we started. And it’s been brilliant.

Life changed.

They still are able to read books from the kid’s bookshelf. They have a bucket of crayons and markers. They have access to a whole ream of white printer paper and a few coloring books. They can also play outside on the trampoline, swing set, or basketball hoop.

It’s been over a year. Here are my observations so far:

They found other things to do.

They read, color, and create imaginary games FAR more often. That is how they spend about 30-50% of their time if the weather isn’t great. Armed with a ream of white paper, the 8 and 9-year-old took up paper airplane folding and origami. The 4 and 5-year-old’s started writing, tracing, and drawing real pictures. And they play outside more. We just finished 6 long months of winter, but every day they would head outside for a bit, mostly unprompted.

They play longer with each toy.

When the toy room was filled to the brim with toys, they would flutter from toy to toy every few minutes like an ADHD butterfly. Now they will actually set up and play with things for 10, 20, or 40 minutes. With all the pieces of a puzzle or toy actually together, they set things up and enjoy them. The floor is no longer an ABC soup of wooden blocks, train tracks, matchbox cars, plastic food, doll clothes, puzzle pieces, and legos, plus 100 other random things.

They have space to play.

The floors are clear, and it’s easy to set up train tracks or do a large floor puzzle. All the pieces are together and organized. Playing is just easier.

I don’t pick up toys.

Um…I don’t pick up toys!!!!!! Ever. If it’s too hard to pick up the toys, then they have too many toys. That’s the rule. If 3 toys are too much, OK. How many can you handle. 2 toys? 1 toy? Here’s the thing. My kids hate picking up toys as much as I did. This is SO much easier for all of us. More time playing. Less time cleaning.

More creativity

The things they come up with amaze me now. The games. The stories. The art. The forts. The things they can create with our Amazon boxes. Some parents think their kids are creative geniuses. Might weren’t. Well, they still aren’t. But I am legit impressed every once in a while now.

Less fighting

So here was a strange dynamic shift. The fewer toys they had to pick from, the less they fought over them. They use to argue constantly over who had what toy. While playing with one thing, they would be angry someone else was walking near a toy they looked at 30 minutes ago. Somehow, by pure magic, that stopped. I have no explanation. But as a mom, some things you just take a win and don’t question.

They are slightly more OK getting rid of toys.

If they haven’t picked a toy off the shelf for 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, well, they are a bit more comfortable letting it go. Because they see they have never liked it enough to put it into the rotation. And…..it’s also easier for me to sneak toys away in the dark of the night. I’ll admit it. I do it. If they haven’t asked for a stuffed animal for 6 months, it goes in a brown paper bag to be donated. I make witty references to mob bosses and stuffed animals taking water naps. It’s lost on them. One day they will look back and realize my comedic genius.

My house doesn’t look like a daycare.

No judgment here if that is how you live, but it stresses me out. I love my kids SO much, but I want my home to look like grown-ups live there too. I can’t relax in a tidal wave of toys.

We fit more comfortably in our home.

So we have 7 people and a dog named Cheesy Taco that lives here. Our lovely 1650 square foot home was feeling a bit tight. But after we purged our old sentimental items and set up the toy shelf, it all actually fits rather nicely. There is open space. Clear floors. And crazy enough, a bit of empty space in the closets. (It’s tiny, but it’s there!) I can finally breathe.

3 x 3. That’s how we started—3 toys for 3 days.

They actually don’t need that much.

After a year, it’s more like 1 or 2 toys for 1 or 2 weeks. That seems to be the rhythm that we have fallen into. Between the 4 older kids, that means we have about 5-8 toys in rotation at a time. It’s our sweet spot for the time being.

Kids love it!

This might be a shock to you, but a lot of kids hate picking up and organizing 100’s of toys. This isn’t how my 4-year-old would opt to spend a sunny warm Saturday afternoon. Weird, right? I know a lot of parents worry that their kids will kick, scream and cry big hot tears at the idea. After the initial adjustment, our kids much prefer this to the old way of toy carpet.

Here is how I pitched this.

Step One:

I set the stage by letting my kids go weeks without cleaning their room. Till the floor is a thick cloud of chaos. Then I said it was finally time to clean up. They could take as long as they needed. And they only had to clean up the toys they wanted to keep in their rooms. Everything that was too much hassle to clean, I would take and put on this nifty new shelf. They each cleaned up about 5 things before breaking into frustrated tears at the overwhelming task ahead of them.

Step Two:

With 5 toys put away and a sea of chaos before us, we went through the sea and tossed out all the things that were broken or not of use (like every single thing we have ever brought home from McDonald’s). We did a small donation pile. Easy stuff first. Start small. They have already cried once today. Then I helped them organize and clean up the rest to go on the shelf. It’s a big, horrible job. I talked a lot about how big and horrible this was. Like, “Let’s never do this again. There are so many other fun things we could be doing right now, right?” Lots of head nodding at this point. Cleaning sucks. Everything but those few toys they cleaned on their own finds its new home on the storage shelf.

Step Three:

Every night they have to pick up and organize their tiny pile of toys. If they complain or don’t want to, I offer to take the burdensome toys to the shelf. They are starting to see the light at this point and will often shrug and say, “OK, I don’t really need that toy.” They have a cleaning attention span of about 4-6 minutes. So if they picked a toy set, like Legos, that might be all one of them can handle.

It might take a day to get set up. But it’s worth a try. 3 x 3. The kids are happier. The grown-ups are happier. We have more time to play and less time cleaning (also correlated, less time spend arguing about cleaning!). We have fewer toys overall, but toys that the kids really like and last a long time.  Minimalism with little kids at it’s best.

For Conversation:

Have you tried something like this? Did it work?

How many toys do you think kids need access to on any given day?

Quality over quantity?