3 by 3: Minimalism with Kids

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.

how to be more minimalist with small kids toys

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 sf 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 kids book shelf. 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 everyday 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, puzzles 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 is 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 less 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, somethings 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 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….out 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 day care.

No judgement 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 sf 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 breath.

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 it’s 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 less 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?

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41 thoughts on “3 by 3: Minimalism with Kids

  1. I did something like this recently with JuggerBaby. I normally only accept about 5% of the toys that zir family wants to hand down to zir. That keeps the total chaos down. Then I boxed up 95% of the toys, and boxed up most of zir books – though ze is free to rummage through those at will and does every day. Some large musical toys that stay out. One box of toys was within reach if ze ever got curious and dug through it. Then I made up a few “plane packs” of several small toys that fit in a ziplock that would travel well. In one, a deck of cards, a tiny bag of Legos, a handful of bead necklaces, four crayons. In another bag, reusable stickers and a pad of paper, a small toy car.

    It took three weeks for zir to open the big box of toys, ze has been playing with the one plane pack every single day. And ze is always responsible for putting away zir own toys. If ze doesn’t want to, I will, but when I have to put away half or more of a toy, it goes into timeout. After two days, ze can have it back as long as ze continues to put it away. Ze normally enjoys putting things away but ze IS 2, and defiance is kind of part of the game right now, so it took one round of timeout for zir to become diligent at putting away each toy before starting to play with others. I’ve also noticed that the scarcity does seem to cut down on the possessiveness and fighting! Ze also reads a greater variety of books when they’re in the boxes versus visible on the bookshelf. We can’t test this further at daycare, unfortunately, but I think it’d be an interesting test!

    Ultimately I ever bought into the sense that kids would hate scarcity / minimalism. I grew up without any toys and as a result, had to spend a lot more time outdoors inventing games and exploring. It was a good thing! The only thing I’m doing very differently is making a lot of books available in any language I can read – we can afford to supply books in a way my parents couldn’t, and I think it’s really important to foster that love of reading.

    • Books are still a week point in my tidy space. But I rotate through the books, so about 50% are boxed away at a time. That still leaves about 50-75 books available. Plus library books. We have 2 kid bookcases, and other than the baby, the kids can get the books stacked up in about 5 minutes. They do a lot more reading now (even the kids who can’t read, pretend to read) =) I use to spend a solid 30 minutes a day picking up toys! Plus a few hours each month. Now we find much more enjoyable ways to fill that time. =)

  2. Little Bit’s room had gotten ridiculously overstuffed, so we packed up all of her toys and moved the totes into the spare bedroom. Not once has she asked for any of them. Some of this may be due to video games…she’s happy most of the time to play Minecraft or Roblox on her Kindle. If we take the Kindle away, we get major complaints. But everything else? Not so much. The Easter Bunny brought a new water bottle to replace the old leaky one this year, and she was pretty happy.

  3. My wife does something similar. She switches out toys regularly for our son. At night, the mess is less and as you said, he plays with his toys more. Glad to see it works for you guys.

    I am always amazed at what they gravitate to. Currently my son is a lego building machine. 2 weeks ago, forget about it. He was not interested. It is fun to see him change and adapt.

    I think that the 3×3 method is also great for kids. It gives them a clearer mind when they are not distracted by 20 different toys to play with. Especially toys with a ton of noise, lights, etc.

    • I think too many toys can be overwhelming and distracting. Just having a few things they can focus on and enjoy seems to keep everyone happier. Plus they get so excited to see toys they haven’t played with in a few months.

  4. Haha! Sometimes while the kids are at school, I’ll raid their toy bins and get rid of things I haven’t seen them play with in months. The toys get bagged and put away for a few weeks. If no complaints, then out it goes for good.

    • I totally use to do that do. It was like a test period. “Will they even notice this is gone?” =) I’ve even done that with my own clothing. If I put it in a bag for 6 months and it never occurs to me to go grab an item from the bag, then it’s safe to give away. =)

  5. I don’t plan on settling down and having kids until I’m semi-retired (hopefully by the time I’m 40). Having kids when you have a lot of money will be so much easier. I think a study done by CNBC showed that a kid will cost $230k to raise.

    • Having the extra time will be awesome as well. I think the cost of raising kids varies a lot, and a huge chunk of our costs have related to loss of income. I’ve missed out on about 7 years of full time employment so far between our 6 kids. Even at 30k a year earnings, that comes to 210k. But it’s been worth every penny. =)

  6. Kids toys are the bane of my existence. I really do love your idea. My little one does have a big bookcase and I try to rotate the toys because kids really do just play with what they see. So many times I see some piece of crap toy on the floor and want to throw it out and I say to myself “oh but they play with this.” The I realize they play with whatever is around. So there is no reason to hold on to it. My little one doesn’t actually play with lots of toys but he is a prolific artist and I find the papers to be almost more of an issue. I am constantly filing drawings away, furtively throwing some out. Exhausting!

    • Oh the paper! We actually have a rule about that. They get to keep one piece of art for 1 day. Next day it has to go. Everything gets thrown out at the end of the night. They are totally use to it now. As long as they get to pick one thing to hold on to for a day, they are happy. So max we only have 4 paper items at a time (baby doesn’t get to keep his stuff!)

  7. Wow this sounds ingenious. We have a 3 year old and now a newborn, but I can see how the toys will mount and we’ve already experienced the tornado affect of kiddo wanting to play with every toy. We have a clean-up song that helps (thanks to daycare), but I love all the benefits you noted from the 3 x 3 rule, especially how it sparks creativity and they play with toys longer. I’ll be mentioning this idea to my wife, thanks!

    • Awesome! I think you will love it. It’s easier to start at this age; it just becomes the normal way of life. I think it really helps build their attention span. I pulled out magnatiles Sunday, which they hadn’t seen in 4 months, and they played for an hour straight (4, 5 and 8 year old).

  8. We should adopt this. Our version currently is clean up time, they start and get about 10-15 minutes to clean up then we come behind and take away whatever isn’t cleaned up. This usually leads to wailing an complaints of “it’s too hard” and I’m tired” or “I need help” but I noticed that I had taken away a full bin of toys about 3 weeks ago now and they probably couldn’t even name what was in it. No asking for things from it or anything, just moving on to the next toys. I’ll have to figure out a good way to implement this strategy.

    • I think of it as “setting them up for success.” If I know they will make more of a mess with the current toys than they can reasonably clean up, it’s my fault. When we first started, that is how I phrased it to ease them into the whole idea. “Mama gave you way more toys than you could possibly clean up or take care of. I’m sorry. This is my fault your room has gotten so bad. But I will make sure that you have the right amount of toys that you can take care of.” Instead of me being the Hulk about how much of a disaster their room was, I owned my part and tried to be a positive part of the solution.

      My 8 year old at the time looked at me suspiciously like he was thinking, “I like the way she is saying this, but I’m sure not I like what it means….” Smart kid.

      • Yeah that’s a great point. I like phrasing it that way so it isn’t saying they’re the only ones at fault, but we all are and here’s how we’ll make it better in the future. I like it!

  9. I love this idea! We are drowning in toys…I always suggest to get rid of items, but my husband is such a pack rat himself that he won’t back me up. We have a whole area in our basement that I call the toy graveyard…seriously and he still won’t let me throw it away. 🙂 I sent him your blog entry and hope that he reads it and gets on board. Wish me luck!

    • Good luck! There are so many advantages to parents and kids alike. And if you are reading Brittany’s husband: Give it a try! A 6 month test. Less cleaning, happier kids, happier wife, more time and energy for fun stuff, all you might lose is a day of sorting and putting the toys up. =) You can do it!

  10. Interesting! My son just turned a year old, so we’re currently navigating these waters. Right now he has one of those cube storage things in the bottom of his closet (a 3×2). The bottom 3 baskets are for toys. Larger toys that won’t fit in the baskets can be lined up against the window. If I run out of space I have to purge toys. We also request that grandparents keep any toys they’ve bought at their house until my son is old enough for them.

    I don’t think kids need access to that many toys. We usually get out one basket a day. But the kid’s favorite “toy” right now is my makeup brush. Ha!

    I prefer quality over quantity, especially if it’s a toy that he can grow with. I love watching how my son interacts with the same toy differently as he gets older.

    • I totally go for quality over quantity! It’s awesome to start a system when they are young. =) We tend to focus more on “experiences” for gifts now, and the family has made the shift as well. We still do a few new toys at Christmas. But mostly adding to the awesome sets we already have or things that can be used up. (like art kits and science experiments)

  11. This is brilliant!
    I should implement this for myself too. One book, one project, and one new recipe at a time until they’re completed, then I can choose another 🙂

  12. This is brilliant! Got to give this a try 🙂
    Single kid though…get’s spoiled by the grandparents and family. Difficult to keep the number of toys limited.

    • It’s tough to put a limit on toys coming in! We have tried to at least direct towards toys we know the kids will love and use a long time. Or consumable things like finger paint, origami paper, or coloring books. Now that they are getting bigger, we can push the experiences more. And I make an impassioned plea about how our home is already bursting at the seams. =)

  13. Bravo for fighting toy sprawl! I’m not a minimalist myself, but I do believe less is more when it comes to kiddos. I remember being just as content with a fancy toy as I was with a stick and some dirt. Simple childhood is best. 🙂

  14. LOVE THIS!! Congrats on RSF cred. You are exactly the mom I would want to be had I ever had kids. 🙂 I love the aftermath that they are the outside more and crafting. Using their intelligent and imaginative minds. Nicely done!!

    • One in, one out is a great strategy! This will also help you figure which ones are ready to be the “one out” toy. Any toy not picked for 6-12 months are good options. =)

  15. This is awesome! We found ourselves in a similar situation. We had one child, decided to adopt two, and got pregnant with our fourth. Now my wife is pregnant with our fifth! Children are such a blessing, and we love every minute of it. The 3×3 idea seems like it would be highly effective for us, and it would be REALLY good for my 3 yr old, though it would apply to everyone. This post was so enlightening. Thank you! 🙂