Tuesday, July 18, 2017

5 Tips for Car-Free Shopping (from a Mama of 4)

After "What do you do in the winter?" the very next question I usually get asked about our car-free lifestyle is "How do you get groceries?"

Of course, anyone who has lived or is living in a well-designed large city, small town, or neighborhood knows that getting daily necessities is not difficult when everything you need is just a 5- or 10-minute walk away. Especially for singles and couples, a weekly grocery trip using an IKEA bag or granny cart will usually suffice. ZipCar or a good set of pannier bags for your bike might be enough for bigger trips further afield.

But shopping for groceries, household items, and clothing does get more complicated as a family grows, especially when you're not living in an ideal walkable neighborhood (this is true whether you own a car or not, of course). Here are some of the hacks I've been using to make car-free shopping manageable and enjoyable for our family of 6 (oh my).

1) Don't take everyone to the store.

As I've mentioned in a previous post, many families with more than one child begin to divide up errands so that no one parent has to go to the grocery store with all the kids, for example. Going by yourself or with just one child will probably take considerably less time than taking everyone, so it's possible to squeeze in a large grocery run on the weekend or after work. If shopping outside of working hours won't work, consider swapping childcare with a trusted friend so each of you gets some time to do errands alone.

Since our third child was born (and now with four kids under 7), I no longer take all the kids with me to the store at once. I will usually take one, maybe two, during a time when my husband can watch the others. This makes it possible for me to fill our double stroller to the brim with groceries with an older child (age 4 or 6) who can walk the 15 minutes from the store.

 2) Share a warehouse store membership with a friend or family member.

Remember how you and your college roommates shared a Costco membership and took one car every other weekend? You can still do that as a grown-up! You not only save money by splitting a membership, you can also get some friend time to chat. 

Just make sure to ask for a subtotal between your two orders at the checkout so you can split the total. And if your friend has to go out of her way to pick you up, consider buying her a coffee or hot dog once in a while so things feel even.

3) Take advantage of online shopping memberships and subscriptions.

Obviously, shopping online is the way to go for dry goods, clothes, shoes, or really just about anything you might need that can wait a couple days for shipping. I much prefer buying things online to shopping in any big box store. 

Amazon Prime memberships and the Target REDcard are both boons for car-free families. Both offer free shipping and subscriptions on household items you might run out of often. These are especially good if you don't have a warehouse store in your area or can't or don't want to go that route.

4) For children's clothes and shoes, just keep buying the same things in the next size up.

For a while with just one child, I would take the bus to a local mall for my toddler to try on shoes when he needed them. Yikes! Talk about a waste of a perfectly good Saturday. He was bored, I was frantic to find what we needed TODAY, and I knew I probably wasn't even getting the best deals on good-quality shoes (a necessity for a walking family!). 

A kid or two later, I had a breakthrough: once I found a style of shoe that was well-made and comfortable for a certain child, I could just buy the exact same style online in the next size up once the child outgrew them. I can keep an eye out for deals on these styles throughout the year, and even buy two pairs at once (one in the current size, one in the next size) if it's a BOGO deal. 

Buying children's clothing and shoes online also helps to keep their wardrobes simple. Each child has one or two pairs of shoes per season that match everything in their closets. For clothes, we get a lot of hand-me-downs from friends and relatives, but I know where to get basics in some neutral colors that match everything (obviously taking the child's opinion and style into account).

Even parents with cars could probably benefit from the reduced stress of doing children's shopping online. Some of my favorite brands for kids' shoes and clothes are Crocs, StrideRite, Pediped, and Primary.com (a new love).

5) Embrace less.

As almost-sorta-kinda-minimalists, we don't want to fill our home with stuff we don't need that clutters our living space and requires time to maintain and clean. 

Living without owning a car means that in most cases, if we buy it, we have to schlep it. If I find an impulse item at a garage sale, hardware store, or on Craiglist and I can't get it home in the double stroller or bus, then I just don't buy it. This is a beautiful, wonderful thing. 

How often have many of us bought something we thought we needed, then gotten it home and realized it's not going to change our lives in the way that we thought? Or how often have we gone into the mall or a Target (ahem) for one thing and ended up with a dozen new things to live in our homes?

The supposed convenience of owning a car can (though not for all families or individuals, of course) lead to a lack of intentionality when it comes to shopping. If you're considering living car-free or reducing your dependence on cars, you can look forward to many benefits, just one of which is the motivation to say "no" to the excess stuff that can make its way into your home.

What are your favorite car-free shopping hacks?






Tuesday, November 1, 2016

How to Simplify for Stress-Free Holidays

There is a common assumption that although the holidays are joyful, they are also, by nature, stressful. The holiday season conjures up images of parents going store to store, buying extravagant gifts to create the perfect Christmas for their kids.

The supposed perfect holiday includes ideal and plentiful gifts for everyone, lavish meals, and envy-inducing decorations, and advertisers try their hardest to sell us each of these ideas. I cringe at toy catalogs arriving in October, encouraging kids to “find” their Christmas wishes, and after-Thanksgiving sales starting ever earlier, promising amazing deals on things people didn’t even know they wanted and probably don’t need.

It doesn’t have to be this way! Ever since we got married, my husband and I have tried to keep the holidays simple in our home, and we have redoubled our commitment since we had kids. We want to create family traditions that bring us together and create memories of people, experiences, and faith, not just piles of gifts or Martha Stewart-approved decorations and parties.

We want something different for our family, something truly meaningful. Here are some of our strategies.

Dream of what you want the holidays to be

A simple holiday will not look the same in every family. Simplifying just means cutting out the unnecessary to make room for more of what you love.

You know that you don’t want stress and materialism to rule your holidays, but what do you want instead? Do you want to have a fun time as a family, playing games or music, watching holiday movies, baking cookies, spending time in nature? Do you want to explore your faith, share holiday stories with your kids, or volunteer in your community? Do you want to spend less time shopping so you can host a holiday party for your friends this year?

When your kids are grown and starting their own families, what memories of the holidays do you most want them to cherish? Keep that image in your head as you decide where you want to simplify or what you want to add to your celebrations. The chances are good that what you are imagining does not cost much money or center around extravagant gifts.

Examine your motives

If the idea of a simpler holiday makes you nervous, it is likely that you are subconsciously trying to impress someone – your relatives, friends, parents, or neighbors. Do you worry that your sister-in-law will ask your kids, “What did you get for Christmas?” and your kids won’t have impressive responses? Do you go all-out, National Lampoon-style, on lighting displays to impress your neighbors?

Or perhaps you worry that a simpler holiday will mean letting your kids down. I find it very sad that the expression “she wants to give her kids a good Christmas” means “she wants to give her kids a big pile of presents under the tree.” Most of us will readily admit that money cannot buy happiness, and yet we seem to forget this around the holidays. More presents will not make your kids happier; in fact, it could have the opposite effect.

Set limits on gifts

We all enjoy giving good gifts to our children, myself included. I love surprising my kids and seeing their reactions, and hey, it’s been a long time since we all got to play with toys ourselves. While some families choose to simplify by cutting out gifts entirely, I would guess that most of us like the gift-giving aspect of the holidays.

The problem with gift-giving is when it all becomes too much, when it overwhelms both the giver and the recipient. Parents pore over catalogs to make gift lists (or have their kids do so) and spend time wandering malls or circling parking lots. Kids become so starry-eyed and overwhelmed by a pile of gifts that they rip each present open, glance at its contents, and move on to the next, truly enjoying none of them! And in the flurry of activity around gifts, we forget the real meaning of the holiday and the vision we have for our family.

Limits can help by reducing the stress on both the giver and recipient. The giver can enjoy getting just a few well-chosen gifts and stopping when enough is enough. Buying fewer gifts means that each gift can be of high quality and well thought-out. The recipient can better value each gift because it does not get lost in a pile.

Setting limits will look different depending on your specific goals, but decide on a guideline and stick to it. This could be a number of gifts or a budget, or even a theme. Some families choose to do three gifts for each child: one toy, one book, and one new article of clothing. Other families dispense with store-bought gifts and limit the gift exchange to homemade gifts.

We usually aim for three gifts for each child and one or two for each adult. Sometimes we even do joint gifts. For example, when my oldest was about to turn three and could play more board games, we had a Christmas when we stocked up on board games, both kid games and family games. Although we labeled the gifts for specific people to open them, we knew that the games were meant for all of us to enjoy. Last year, we got some musical instruments for us to learn as a family, some percussion for the little ones and a guitar for the adults.

In all of this, the goal is to use gifts to express our love and build memories together, not to make them the focus of the season.

Manage expectations

If your kids are old enough to have memories or expectations of what the holidays should mean, you’ll need to explain that things might be different this year. Market the new-and-improved simplified holiday by telling them about your dreams and vision. For example, they may get fewer gifts, but they will get more time with you doing fun things. If you have specific plans to attend holiday events or do activities together instead of spending time shopping, tell them about those. Most kids will prefer the idea of more fun time with Mom and Dad to a pile of anonymous gifts.

Rather than piling up gifts under the tree over the course of December, we put a pile of (unwrapped) holiday-themed picture books under the tree to be pulled out and read together. This way, kids aren’t constantly fixated on the pile of wrapped gifts, wondering what they could be. (This strategy also prevents babies from eating too much wrapping paper!) We put all the wrapped gifts under the tree on Christmas Eve. 

Last year, when I was reading the Christmas chapter of Little House in the Big Woods with my son, we came to the part where the children opened their stockings on Christmas morning. Each child received a peppermint stick and a pair of red mittens, except for Laura, who received a doll. The author says that all the children “were all so happy they could hardly speak at first.” Can you imagine your children getting so excited over something so simple? Children are not naturally greedy, and no one wants their kids to fret constantly over the toys they didn’t get. This leads to entitlement and subsequent unhappiness. With simplified expectations comes increased gratitude in your children.

Make your vision clear to extended family

Grandparents and aunts and uncles often love to give holiday gifts to children, which can be a challenge if you are trying to take the focus off of gifts this season. As early as you can, try to explain your vision to your extended family, just as you explained it to your children.

Relatives may be on board, may even be excited about your simplified holiday, or they may not. Grandparents who are tired of the rush to buy gifts for multiple grandchildren may welcome the chance to relax. On the other hand, grandparents who are completely sold on the marketed version of the holidays may not understand. They might even be hostile toward your ideas, especially if you are trying to do something different from the way you were raised.

Try to be charitable and calm, and remember that one of your motivations for simplifying the holidays is to build better family relationships. If your relatives start throwing around the G-word, remind them that even the Grinch himself discovered that “Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” If necessary, it’s fine to set limits on the gifts your relatives give your children, as long as you do it with a spirit of gratitude. You wouldn’t want your children to learn bitterness from your exercise in making the holidays more meaningful!

Rest, and breathe

Finally, when it’s Christmas Eve and the stockings are hung (or not) and you didn’t do everything you wanted to do this season, or you did too much, cut yourself some slack.

Take time to breathe, relax, and love your partner and kids. Remember that the holidays are meant to be a time of rest and love.


The details are just details, and the holidays come around every year. If something worked well this year and you found yourselves building some wonderful family memories, then do it again next year. If something didn’t work, try it differently next year. But be sure to take a moment by the fire with some hot chocolate just to enjoy the season.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The #1 Way to Keep Children from Running into the Street

There seems to be an epidemic of children running into the street. I'm not basing this off of any statistics, but judging from many "discipline" discussions around the Internet and in parenting books and magazines, young children, poorly disciplined, want nothing more than to run into the street.

Anytime a parent disagrees with another parent's discipline methods, or feels those methods are too "soft," the immediate question posed is almost always, "But, how will you teach your children not to run into the street???" Personally, I happen to agree with Sara over at Happiness is Here that children too young to understand that streets can be dangerous should not be playing near automobile-containing streets without supervision in the first place.

But as this seems to be such a pressing problem in America today, I thought I should throw my two cents in as well. So here goes... the number 1, almost-fail-proof method for preventing children from running into the street is...

Walk with your children. Walk with them a lot.

Walk with them when they're babies, in carriers or wraps and then strollers. Walk with them when they're starting to toddle by themselves. Walk with them when they're walking confidently, and then riding their bikes.

Walk to the park. Walk to the store. Walk to the library. Walk anywhere you possibly can do so safely, with your children. Make sure to include a variety of types of streets and intersections. Make it a part of your daily life, if possible.

If you walk with your children often, as a way of life, they will learn very early and very quickly what roads are about. They will see cars, driving fast (it is very difficult to gauge just how fast cars are going if you only ever see them from another car). They will see you, walking on the sidewalk, and looking both ways before crossing the street, and waiting at stop lights. They will begin to understand what you are doing, and why, and they will do so too with very little explanation on your part.

And you know what? Children who understand the street because they walk there, a lot, will understand why their grown-ups don't want them running into the street. They will understand on a visceral, intuitive level that they need to be careful.

By the time my son was a young toddler, maybe 15 months old, he seemed to understand about traffic lights and walk signals. He had almost never seen them from a car because we lived in an extremely walkable neighborhood, but he stopped with us at the corner and waited for the light, without being told. From the time he learned to walk, he had been walking with us, not just fake walks to the end of the block, but real walks to get somewhere. When he wasn't walking on his own down the sidewalk, he was in a stroller going somewhere, on a daily basis. It was never necessary to say to him, "Don't step onto the black," or other seemingly-arbitrary explanations I hear adults giving to toddlers to try to keep them out of the street.

My youngest is now 16 months old, and she occasionally slips out the door and down the driveway, with one of us trailing close behind to scoop her up. But I have noticed that she never aims straight for the street. She gets to the bottom of the driveway and then veers either left or right, onto the sidewalk, because she knows that we never walk right out into the street. Children who walk a lot (or are walked a lot) will imitate the behavior of the adults who walk with them.

I am of course not suggesting that you release your toddlers to play by the street unsupervised, but it is comforting to know that children value their own safety almost as much as we do. They will avoid danger once they truly understand that something is dangerous.

Should it be the case that streets in neighborhoods containing humans are dangerous to those humans? No, of course not, and there was a time when children played in the street without care or worry. It was once considered the business of the drivers, horseback riders, motorists, and bicyclists to avoid the children, not the other way around. But until that is the case again, let's stop worrying about how to teach our children to stay out of the street, and show them.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Our Homeschool Day in the life with a 5-, 3-, and 1-year-old

I haven't written much about our home preschool approach recently, but I'm linking up (a little late!) with the Simple Homeschool day in the life post.  As everyone says, there is really no "typical" day in our lives, but this one was fairly representative (at least of what I hope our days can be like :-)). We are pretty unschooly in our approach with these little ones, so you won't find any set curriculum or required schoolwork here, mostly just lots of play and reading.

This day was actually a Sunday, but we don't discriminate between days for the most part.

6:00 AM
The baby wakes up. She sleeps in our room, so she usually just plays on the floor for a while until I get up (which is decidedly not at 6 AM). Although I have ambitions of waking up before my kids, the baby still doesn't sleep through the night at 14 months, so early mornings just aren't happening this season.

8:00 AM
The older two kids wake up and start wandering in to our room.  I help get everyone dressed and downstairs.

9:00 AM
We have breakfast outside on this beautiful spring morning. I make two dozen muffins that only last us through the afternoon! The kids do some impromptu crafts with construction paper and scissors and then play in the digging/mud area in the backyard.



10:00 AM
The 14-month-old goes down for her nap. She is at an in-between stage when she sometimes takes two naps and sometimes just one. When she takes two naps, like she does today, she and my 3-year-old do tag-team naps and I never have more than one kid asleep at one time.

11:00 AM
I have been reading and loving Playing with Math, published by the Natural Math folks, so I am very motivated to let the kids "play math" as much as possible. I get out our Cuisenaire Rods and we play with them for a while, building pyramids this way and that and making designs and "trains."



12:00 PM
We spread out the picnic blanket in the backyard and read picture books in the sunshine.



12:40 PM
The baby wakes up and we have lunch. While the kids are eating, I read some poetry from The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. I have a list of about eight poems or so that I would like the kids to memorize (just to have in their repertoire, not to recite or anything), so I usually read a few of those every day, mixed in with some new ones.

1:10 PM
My 5-year-old is looking at a dinosaur book and discovers that it has games at the back, so we get out game pieces and a die and play it together (with "help" from the baby).

2:00 PM
The 3-year-old goes down for a nap, and I ride my bike to Trader Joe's (this is the only thing that probably wouldn't happen on a weekday). While I'm gone, the baby takes a second nap, and the 5-year-old plays a computer game with Daddy for a bit.

3:30 PM
Mr. 5 loves workbooks of various kinds, so he does some math games in one of his workbooks. My mother-in-law was the first to buy him a workbook when he was about 3 1/2, and I was none too pleased. I was afraid his creativity would suffer and that he would either become a slave to the directions or shy away from any writing or math as a result. As it happened, I left the workbook around for a while and never insisted he do it; he started picking it up from time to time on his own and doing some of the activities. He will occasionally ask us to read the instructions or help with an activity. We don't correct or grade them; I see them as just a supplement to what he learns through play. The grandmothers add workbooks to his collection, and he does them when the mood strikes.



5:00 PM
Miss 3 is up from her nap, and she and I make the blackberry fool from the lovely picture book A Fine Dessert with occasional help from Mr. 5.


6:30 PM
Daddy takes Miss 3 for a ride on his bike while I make dinner. We eat and then enjoy the blackberry fool.

8:00 PM
I put the baby down to bed while the two older kids get ready for bed. I read them a chapter from Ramona the Brave and lie down next to Miss 3 while she falls asleep. Mr. 5 stays up a bit longer reading and drawing in bed.

It is past 9:30 by the time all the kids are asleep. I do some laundry, and Daddy and I watch a DVD and read some before heading off to bed ourselves.

Thanks for joining us on our home preschool day!


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Liebster Award - Thanks!

liebster_



Thanks so much to my friend Shannon over at We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So for nominating me for a Liebster Award! The award is given by smaller bloggers to new or other small bloggers to promote each other's blogs and spread the love. I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy to have my writing recognized by Shannon, who has great things to say about parenting and outdoor living.

Here are the rules for the Liebster Award:


  • Thank the blog that nominated you in a post on your blog.
  • Answer the questions asked by the blog that nominated you.
  • Nominate 5-11 other new bloggers.
  • Create 11 new questions for the nominees to answer.
  • Notify all nominees via social media.


I confess that I don't think I follow 5 new or small-scale bloggers, so I'm opting out of the chain, but I will share some of my favorites at the bottom of this post for you to check out if you're interested.

Meanwhile, here are my answers to Shannon's questions:

1. What is your favorite topic to write about? (This may or may not be what you write about most often.)

Not surprisingly, my favorite topic to write about is the car-free life and everything related to it, especially how we experience the world around us when we travel sans cars. My motivation is never to make anyone feel guilty for owning or using a car, but to inspire people to find ways to incorporate Slow transportation or transit into their lives and feel the benefits.

More recently, I am also excited to write more about alternative education and our leanings toward homeschooling, but I haven't gotten the chance (or gumption) to write much about it on my blog yet. Stay tuned.


2. What are your highest goals and aspirations as a writer?


I would love to expand my writing to include more creative non-fiction and even, eventually, some fiction. I read non-fiction 80% of the time, so that is what I tend to write, but I aspire to get my creative juices flowing. I also dream of combining some of the advice on my blog with some new content to write a book about car-free living for families with kids, similar to How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, which is aimed at single or coupled folks, but with more advice for parents.


3. Do your family members read your writing? If so, what do they think of it?


My mother-in-law is the one who initially encouraged me to start a blog because she was impressed (horrified?) by some of our parenting approaches and values. She and I haven't always seen exactly eye to eye on such topics, so she told me I could write and use her as the contrast to our parenting philosophy! While I have not taken her up on it, that was a very generous offer and I appreciated her encouragement. I believe she still reads the blog sometimes. My husband also occasionally reads my writing and is supremely supportive. We share pretty much all of the values you'll see expressed here, and he claims that I express them much more eloquently than he could, for which I am grateful.

I haven't told anyone on my side of the family about my blog or other writing. I know writing is about being vulnerable, but what can I say? I wanted at least the first few years of my blog to be a safe place to explore my values and practice my writing voice, and it felt safer not to share it with everyone.


4. What is your best travel story?


I don't know if it's my best, but this story reminds me of the sweet innocence of life before smartphones. When I was living in France during my junior year of college, I was supposed to meet some friends in London for the weekend, but I was traveling to the city by myself through the Chunnel and I hadn't made arrangements to meet my friends at the train station. All I knew was the first word in the name of the hotel where we were going to stay and that it was "near Hyde Park." No telephone number. None of the friends I was meeting had cell phones with them. I was too penniless at the time to afford a taxi or even the Tube, so I knew I had to walk, but I had never been to London and didn't have a map either. I walked out of Waterloo Station, turned in the direction that felt like there was water, crossed the Thames, passed Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace, and reached Hyde Park, which is not a tiny place. I asked a sweet old lady for directions (none too helpful) and eventually asked in at another hotel along the northern edge of the park if they had heard of the place I was heading. They vaguely recognized the name and directed me a few blocks over, where I found my hotel and my friends.

I don't know what surprises me the most as I remember this: that I was so ill-prepared to be in an unfamiliar place, that I was so confident that I just started walking without a clue as to where I was supposed to go, or that it all turned out okay in the end!


5. What is your favorite piece of writing OR what piece was the hardest to write?


One blog post I keep returning to (and directing others to) is one I wrote about skywalks in February 2014. Most people don't get what the big deal is about skywalks, even those who are generally in favor of complete streets and walkable neighborhoods, so I was happy to shed some light on the issue. It was also a difficult one to write for the same reason: it's difficult to explain what is wrong with skywalks in a way that is clear and non-judgmental.


6. What is your favorite movie and do you believe it’s the best movie you’ve ever seen? (It may not be!)


This was a tough one! I have a number of favorites, and we check out new movies from the library at least twice a week. But in the end, I have to go with Stranger Than Fiction. It's unusual, it doesn't fit into categories very well, it has some great funny lines that we are constantly quoting around our house ("Don't vorry, it's Vednesday."), and it has some amazing actors in it. It's a little bit meta, but not so much that it twists your brain around too much. It's just a good time! For the record, some of my runners-up were Cape of Good Hope and A Mighty Wind.


7. What is the scariest thing you’ve ever voluntarily done?


Um, I took a ride from a strange (as in unknown) man when I lived in France. It was raining, I was sick, and I was walking to church when I prayed that someone from church would pass by to pick me up. Instead of someone I knew, a stranger stopped to ask for directions and then offered me a ride. I figured that if I was going to engage in Divine Hitchhiking, I had better have a little faith that I wasn't going to be murdered, so I got in. He delivered me to the church door unmurdered. Don't tell my mom. Or my kids.


8. Who is the biggest celebrity you have ever met?


"Met" is a bit of a stretch, but we bumped into Jane Lynch outside this famous tiny crab house in Bethesda, Maryland. She was exclaiming how good the restaurant smelled, which was odd because there were big dumpsters in front that always smelled about how you would expect dumpsters in front of a crab house to smell. We could never figure that out.


9. What is your favorite children’s book?


Just one? No way! I'm going to write whatever comes to mind first because otherwise I will be here all day. I'll try to narrow it to a few picture books and one chapter book I've been reading recently. My favorite picture book from childhood is The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss, my favorite recently-discovered picture book is This Place in the Snow (seasonally inappropriate, I apologize), and how can I not throw in The Little Engine That Could with luscious illustrations by Loren Long? A chapter book I didn't read as a child but recently discovered alongside my 5-year-old is Half Magic by Edward Eager.


10. Where is your favorite place to have lived?


We loved our time in the DC area, but I'm going to have to go with Aix en Provence, France for this one.


11. What was the best part of your day yesterday?


The best part of almost any day is the time I spend reading to my kids, and yesterday was no exception. Extensive reading aloud doesn't always happen on our busiest days, but yesterday, I was able to fit in a chapter from Ramona and Her Mother with my 3- and 5-year-olds. I have to say that the other best part of my day is usually the time after my kids' bedtime, and yesterday was no exception :-) I believe I spent some of that time reading Ida B or The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets.


And my recommended blogs are:


Happiness is Here by Sara

The Finest Muffins and Bagels in All the Land by Elizabeth

Teacher Tom's Blog by Tom


Thanks again to Shannon!




Tuesday, March 1, 2016

How We Keep Toys Manageable (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote about how we keep toy clutter to a minimum in our home by remembering that kids don't need toys from a store and keeping toys simple and beautiful. 

Manage expectations


It's obviously okay to say "no" to a toy your kids want if it is not something you want to buy or have in your house for whatever reason. But how do we keep from running the gauntlet whenever we're in a store? How do we help our kids to be satisfied with what they have, not just to avoid clutter but as a good general life attitude? 

First, we stick to commercial-free TV or mute the commercials, especially around the holidays. Kids can't want something if they don't know it exists (and aren't bombarded with dishonest and manipulative advertising that they might not be able to understand yet). We love to tell a story from when my son was about 2 1/2. He had a new baby sister and so had been (ahem) watching a bit more TV than usual, to give Mama a bit of sanity. My own sister came to visit and was cleaning up a mess made by one of the kids when my dear boy recommended, "You should use Oxi-Clean. It gets out tough stains." Kids absorb advertising messages, whether or not they even understand what they're talking about!

When we go to a store that has toys, we try to explain ahead of time whether this will be a trip to get something for the child, to get something for someone else, or just to look (these trips are rare). I like to have some stores where I never buy toys, like the supermarket, Target, and Ross. We might look, we might get crayons or other art supplies, but not toys. Now they rarely ask for toys in those stores.

Finally, we find that having fewer toys, mixing things up by rotating toys (more on that next), playing outside, and playing with our kids can help them appreciate and enjoy what they already have. 

Purge and rotate


Whenever I am starting to feel overwhelmed by the volume or quality of toys in my home, I purge! Get rid of (or fix) those broken toys that are hanging around, and donate or sell ones your kids have outgrown or that don't promote the kind of play you want in your home (or if you just hate them, that's okay too).

If you still have more toys out in the living area or your kids' rooms than you want, start a toy rotation: box up some of the toys for storage, especially if you have several different versions of a similar kind of toy, such as puzzles or play sets. Rotate toys out and back on a biweekly or monthly basis so toys will stay fresh and new in your kids' minds. Kids will also be able to play better with more space and fewer choices.

Keep grandparents in the loop


I don't know about your parents, but ours LOVE to buy toys for our kids. Love it. It can get a little crazy around Christmas and the birthdays, which in our case is one month-long celebration. While we are grateful for their generosity, we have found that we need to help them to channel their enthusiasm in directions that serve our vision and values for our family. 

Of course, if relatives give our children toys we don't want or have room for, we can always give them away, but I would rather they spend their gift money on things we can get behind. Websites like the SoKind Gift Registry sponsored by Center for a New American Dream can include secondhand items, experiences, donations to charity, and other alternative gifts. I recommend starting a registry well before the holidays or birthdays so givers have time to order things if necessary. 

Other alternatives to toys could include magazine subscriptions, museum or gift memberships, gift certificates for other family activities, experiences with the grandparents (get Grandma to take the kids to a jumpy castle place for a couple of hours - a gift for you too!), art supplies, or books (we rarely buy new picture books for the kids, but grandparents are happy to do so). 

If you need to, you can set a gift limit for birthdays and holidays (say, three gifts including one toy only). Try to explain your vision for your home, either in terms of avoiding clutter or encouraging imagination in your kids. I know from experience that limits without an accompanying explanation can lead to confusion, especially when you are choosing to do things differently than your own parents did.

Play!


This is probably the hardest suggestion for me to follow, considering all of the other things I need or want to do when we're at home. Without exception, getting involved and playing with my kids is the number-one way to keep toy clutter at bay. I am their favorite toy! When I play with my kids, either by building something with them out of K'NEX, doing a science experiment or craft, reading aloud, going outside with them, or making a block tower, a number of magical things happen. 

My kids are less likely to ask to watch TV or get new toys because they aren't "bored." I gain more of a sense of what they like to do and can suggest other activities when they tire of one game or another. They get the sense that their toys are interesting because Mama finds them interesting. They get new ideas for how to use the toys they have. As any parent knows, yelling "Go play with your toys!" while we are doing something of our own and ignoring the kid never works, no matter how many toys she has.

How do you avoid toy clutter in your home? 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How We Keep Toys Manageable (Part 1)

This is part of a series on my home decluttering efforts.

Most Americans assume that you cannot have a simple, clutter-free home with kids, and toys are a major reason for this assumption. Toys are seemingly pervasive where children are concerned: there are Christmas and birthday presents, gifts from visiting relatives, gifts from in-town relatives, souvenirs from vacations, and of course, toys from visits to the dentist, doctor, supermarket, and post office. We obviously don't have to get toys from every (or any!) one of these sources, but they are there, and it can be easy to give in a little too much and end up with toy clutter. I find that too many toys quickly make a house feel cluttered, which frustrates parents and frazzles kids.

Kids can become overwhelmed by too many toys and react in whatever way their craziness happens to tend (because we all have that crazy just waiting to come out). In one of my all-time favorite parenting books, Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne describes noticing that an overwhelming environment, including too many toys, clothes, and even books, caused undue stress in children, prompting them to display behaviors we associate with anxiety, OCD, and ADHD.

So... with all this temptation to keep getting fun, cute, and "educational" toys, what is a simplicity-minded parent to do?

Remember that kids don't need toys from a store


True confession: I really love buying toys for my kids. Not all toys; some I find unbelievably obnoxious, but when I feel like a particular toy will make a particular child happy, or contribute to an interest, or lead to some new ways of playing, I can be a woman possessed. I sometimes even feel annoyed at having to give away some of "my" toy ideas for my kids so relatives can buy them Christmas and birthday gifts. It's silly, but there it is.

That being said, my reasonable side tells me that in reality, kids don't need toys at all! Anyone who has observed children deep in play can attest to this. For about 20 minutes now, my kids have been digging in the dirt in our front yard. I believe they are pirates digging for buried treasure, and their tools consist of one adult trowel and one kid-sized sandbox shovel. The real toys are the rocks and the dirt, and these are free and plentiful.

A German kindergarten recently drew international media coverage for agreeing to participate in a research study to remove all the toys from the classroom for three months. At the end of the three months, there was less fighting and more imaginative play among the children than before the experiment. Instead of toys, we try to give our kids good outdoor space (including local parks and natural areas!), access to grown-up activities like cooking and cleaning, and lots of art supplies and library books.


Keep toys simple


The simpler a toy is, the more kids can do with it in imaginary play. A super turbo character superhero spacecraft with sound and light buttons does pretty much one thing, and the kids do pretty much one thing - push buttons. With these toys, kids aren't the creators of stories; they become toy operators. The toy is so complex and self-contained that it doesn't require any imagination. 

Simple toys like blocks and building toys, sticks, fabric for dress-up, pillows, ropes, and simple dolls and animals, can be used a million different ways, so kids don't need as many toys. They also evolve as the child grows. We have a set of wooden blocks that we got when my eldest was one year old, and four years later, our kids play with them almost every day, making complex structures or pretending they are treasures of one sort or another.

Let toys be beautiful


This may seem silly. What does it matter if toys are beautiful, and do kids really care? First of all (and this was our primary motivation when we started getting beautiful toys for our kids), handcrafted toys made of natural materials like wood and fabric look nicer in the adult areas of your home, which makes it look less cluttered (even when it is). I like to use natural woven baskets for toy storage, and canvas bags like these for plastic pieces, to make our home look more uniform and make cleanup easier. Bright plastic toys and storage bins stand out more against a background of adult decor.



As to whether kids enjoy beautiful toys more, a quote widely attributed to Plato has it that the most effective education for a child is to play amongst lovely things. With beautiful, natural toys, young children are exposed to a variety of textures and weights. They learn aesthetic principles by handling handcrafted items, and they can learn to imagine how their toys were made (and subsequently learn to make their own). 

To me, beauty is a good in and of itself, so filling our kids' lives with more beauty surely can't hurt. Finally, as an added bonus, beautiful toys cost more, so you (and the grandparents) will likely buy fewer of them!

Check in next week for Part 2 of how we manage toy clutter.