How to Organize your Child’s Toys like a Teacher

Education is always evolving. Teachers are moving away from mindless memorization, and endless pencil and paper work. More and more children are participating in play-based learning, using hands on materials, and problem solving based on real world scenarios. Kindergarten classrooms are adopting Montessori and Reggio methods. They are opting for more minimalistic organization of materials and are following an open-ended approach by allowing the children to choose what they are working on.

Here is my daughter working on matching the numbers I had written down on a piece of construction paper.

I am currently on maternity leave, but I have taught French from Kindergarten to grade 6. I often think about how I can be preparing my 2.5 year old daughter for school by fostering her learning and development at home. So I’ve put my teacher hat on to share with you the way I organize our toys and play areas in a way that reflects what’s going on in the classroom and supports early childhood learning.

Less is more

It’s easy to just throw all the toys into one room or corner and call it a play area, but too much stuff to play with is often overwhelming. Kids will pick something, play with it for a few minutes, then quickly lose interest and move on to something else. Next thing you know, half the toys have been dumped on the floor and none of them have really been used.

This is all I have out currently in my daughters room.

The solution? Toy rotations! Store the majority of the toys elsewhere (we have a shelf in the furnace room) and only put out 5-8 toys/activities. Kindergarten classrooms will rotate things on a bi-weekly basis. Sometimes it takes a few days or up to a week for an item to be discovered on a shelf and used to it’s fullest potential, so even if it seems like it hasn’t been touched, leave it out a little longer before switching it up.

Accessible and organized

An important principle of the Montessori method is that materials should be visible and accessible. This helps foster independence and ownership of the space. It also allows children to see what is available. Yes it’s easy to dump everything in one big bin, but then who knows what’s actually in there.

I created a low bench from this unit for my 6 month old. Once she is crawling around, all items will be at her level and easy to pull off the shelf.

Instead, shelves should be low and reachable. A favorite shelving unit for teachers is the IKEA KALLAX. (Yes, teachers buy furniture for their classrooms). The KALLAX is the perfect height, with the right sized open shelves, that can be used against a wall, or floating in the room with accessibility to items on both sides.

This is the KALLAX square unit. There are also rectangular 4 cube and 8 cube units.

Organize small items in open bins or baskets so they are visible. This allows children to choose a basket of items to play with, and also teaches them how to tidy up when done. Ask family or friends if they have small baskets collecting dust or find some at your local dollar store or Value Village. They are awesome for keeping blocks, animals, puzzles, doll accessories, and train tracks organized.

Teacher trick – put a disassembled puzzle in a basket. Kids are more likely to pull it off the shelf and attempt to complete it when it’s undone.

Open-ended items

The toys with the most bang for your buck are the open ended ones. These are toys that inspire imaginative play and can be used in multiple ways. A dancing monster or talking dinosaur only have one purpose. Now I’m not saying give everything you have away and buy new stuff, but definitely look for items that can be used multiple ways.

A shelf in our basement play area. There are blocks, animals, and beads with string.

For instance, blocks are in every Kindergarten classroom. They are great for building structures, practicing fine motor skills, counting and often become part of imaginary play with dolls, animals, trains and cars. Toy animals, vehicles, dress up clothes, and dolls are other examples that are almost always available in the classroom. They can be used in a variety of ways, along with other toys and often help develop rich imaginary play.

Here are some loose parts I’ve recently introduced to my daughter – corks, 2” tiles, and pompoms.

If you’re adventurous, loose parts are also becoming a huge part of early childhood learning. They are basically a collection of organized stuff. Pennies, rocks, seashells, popsicle sticks, wine corks, and old tiles. They can be used to build with, count, or made into an imaginary soup. The great thing about loose parts is they are often free. Start collecting things, or ask around and you’ll be surprised the items you can find. Keep in mind, loose parts should be introduced to older preschool aged children who aren’t tempted to put small items in their mouths.

I hope these tips help and inspire your playroom organization. Like most, I do have a random bin of toys too. Sometimes it’s just fun to play with a singing Minion.

Some of the randoms.

Want more ideas for supporting play-based learning at home? Check out my post on Sensory Bins for more inspiration, or visit my Instagram highlights for tips, DIYs and recipes.