mom picking up alphabet blocks

Inside: Have you gotten rid of SO many toys, but you still feel overwhelmed by what’s left? Try the toy checkout system – perfect for bigger families that end up keeping more toys.

I became a minimalist – well, as much a minimalist as you can be with a husband who decidedly isn’t (frugal though he may be) and four small kiddos.

I was tired of cleaning up all the time, especially the toys. I was overwhelmed and exhausted.  

I wanted to homeschool and needed time and energy to do it.


So naturally, like many other exhausted and desperate moms of my generation, I picked up a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and got to work. I pared down that toy collection.

Then I pared it down again. And again. And again.

But it never felt like enough.

The Toy Pick-Up Battles (Sound Familiar?)

But then, this ugly purple airplane taught me a really important lesson about gratitude and minimalism.

Shortly after that, I read this article about another mom quitting minimalism.

This mom’s childhood memories of her mother selling a beloved toy (against her wishes) resurfaced as she was about to purge her kids’ toys for the umpteenth time.

Her story will make you seriously rethink how to do minimalism with kids.

My answer (and hers) to feeling out of control was always just declutter. Get rid of more – more – more.

When I decided to halt my relentless war on toy clutter, I still needed a way to manage the toys we kept without losing my mind. 

What remains of our toy collection is about half of what we had before decluttering, yet I still found myself picking up toys far more often than I would like. 

Because we homeschool and are a one car family, we are home all day most days: I expect the house to get messy.

The problem became determining who exactly was responsible for picking up that mess. With this many kids, they play together a lot, but naturally when it comes time to take ownership of cleaning up the toys, there are no takers.

I was used to hearing remarks like these…

“I didn’t take it out: she did!”

“No, I didn’t really like playing with it. Besides, HE wanted to play with it first!”

And my favorite phrase of all: “The baby did that!” For this statement, I couldn’t really blame them. The toddler is definitely in a pull-everything-off-the-shelf phase.

Related: Toy Rotation – A Hassle-Free Approach for Busy Moms

baby boy playing with blocks, with text overlay "the genius system you need to know to end toy chaos for good (because you're gonna lose your mind cleaning them up)"

The Problem of Toy Ownership

For those of you wondering why I didn’t just say, “Suck it up, buttercups! Everyone clean up…NOW!”, I am pretty invested in things being fair and right.

I want to make sure that what I do as a mom has thought behind it and meaning.

I don’t want to do things just because my parents did them or because parenting expert so and so says its the right way or because it makes my life easier. I want everyone to benefit from my decisions as a mom, not just me (because kids are people, too).

I also want to instill a sense of personal responsibility in my kids.  If all the toys are everyone’s, but only two children played with said toy, why should the third child have to clean it up? On the other hand, I also want to impart a cooperative spirit. Far too often, I’ve heard my kids say, “But it’s not my mess, mom. Why do I have to clean it up?” I want personal responsibility plus offering to help each other.

It’s a crazy balance, right? But back to the problem of managing our toys.

This particular problem, however, was really starting to drive me crazy. I needed a solution that everyone felt was fair and that also eliminated mom as the main toy picker upper.

Finally, finally, after thinking about it for DAYS, I thought of the perfect solution (at least, for right here, right now), and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before.

Seriously, where has this been all my [mom] life?!

This solution ensures that the person who took out the toy is responsible for cleaning up the toy. (Note: I’m sure some other mom probably already thought of this – “there is nothing new under the sun” – but it’s new and life-changing to me!)

The Toy Checkout System

A few personal toys remain out and available all the time for anyone to use:

  • LEGOs
  • Cars
  • Magna-tiles

The other three quarters of our toy collection (you can see what we currently have in this post) are neatly stacked out of sight in the downstairs storage/laundry room.

toy checkout system chart with columns title "Name" and "Toy", pen resting on paper

Next, I took a sheet of paper and made two columns labeled “name” and “toy”.

When a child wants to get a toy out, he writes his name and the toy he is “checking out”. In order to get out a new toy, he has to first clean up and return the toy he originally checked out. Then, that row is crossed out, and he is free to check out a new toy.

That child is welcome to invite other kids to play with the toy and also enlist their help in the clean up, but ultimately, that toy is his responsibility.

At the end of the day, he can’t check out anything else until that toy is back where it came from.

Surprising (or not) Results of Our New System for Toys

The first day I implemented this system, there was so much free space, the kids ran around for more than an hour.

My daughter conducted “fitness classes” for the boys, and they just enjoyed the clean house. She was also so inspired by the wide open space that she voluntarily tidied and vacuumed the entire house.

On days two and three, only my daughter checked out a toy. She promptly returned it.

The boys? They haven’t even asked for anything yet.

We’ll see how it goes, but I anticipate having much more free time, peace, and cleanliness in my future.

Read Next: 12 Tips for Keeping a Clean House with Kids (from a mom of 5)

mom cleaning up toys off the carpet, with text overlay "end toy chaos for good with this genius system (& save your sanity)"

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  1. Thanks for this post! It’s one of the only ones out there! I have recently thought up this system for my own family and just searched online for a bit more inspiration and came access your blog. Thanks for the post! I see the article was written several years ago and I am curious if you have updates on the system especially the style of check in and out. I have a 5 year old who is just beginning to write and a 1.5 year old. Right now it is just verbal but I’m wondering if the method for check in out could be enhanced. Another thought I had was like a magnet or popsicle but I guess it doesn’t matter the display just as long as the system works. Thanks.

  2. A constant struggle at our house too! It seems kids either have a messy gene or an organizer gene, doesn’t it? And the messy ones drive the organizers crazy. And they all drive their moms crazy. 🙂 I am thinking the check-out system might be a big game changer! Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Author

      I absolutely believe that some personalities lend themselves to being messy or organized. I think the organizers probably drive the messy ones crazy too 🙂 I hope this system works well for you Brandi! Thanks for stopping by!

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