This kid looks happy, right? Well, as a parent, a former early child educator, and a former child, this picture causes me anxiety. There is NO WAY this kid would still be happy when he decides he wants to play with his Matchbox Monster Truck (it's about 2 inches long if you aren't up on your Monster Trucks) and he can't find it because it's buried in the nonsense. I had a toy box when I was little, and it was always a mess. Every once in a while we would dig stuff out all the way to the bottom (destroying our room in the process) and find toys we had been looking for for months. From an educator's perspective, you have to look at the purpose of play- play is not just "play" the way most adults think of it. It is one of the first ways kids learn. They use play to develop new skills, work out things they see in the world around them, express their emotions, and practice socials skills. But how are they supposed to develop skills when their toys look like that?
Toys should be organized. You don't have to have a ton of space to do this- in fact, if you don't have a ton of space, keeping toys organized is the best way to get the most bang for your buck, so to speak. Before we moved, we lived in an 800 square foot house with two kids, a cat, and a dog. Izzy's room was like 10 x 8 and Oliver's bed was in our room. Play room? I think not. But I had this monster bookshelf in the combined living/dining area, and the bottom shelf (and the space under) housed most of their toys, while their dramatic play stuff (kitchen and dress up) took up a corner of Izzy's tiny room. It was tight, and there was no way of escaping kid stuff (which we all want to do sometimes), but they needed the space more than I do.
Now we're lucky. We have a play room. It's not huge, but it's separate from my "grown up" space, so in theory I don't have toys taking over my living room (in reality they find their way in there anyway). Here are some pictures of how I have my kids' play space organized. Obviously not everyone is going to have the space for this, but the organizational principles are the same.
This is the art area. I think that access to art supplies is one of the easiest, most important, and most often overlooked things you can do for your child to help them develop socially, emotionally, and physically (small motor). And I mean more than a bucket of crayons and coloring books (another thing I hate- coloring books). What I have here- in plastic drawers; bottom drawer- paint (finger paint and water colors), paint brushes, paint rollers, and paint dotters; middle drawer- safety scissors, collage paper (scraps, tissue paper, old magazines), other collage materials (ribbon, yarn, fabric and felt scraps) and glue; top drawer- random art supplies like stickers, activity books, and craft sticks. The basket on top holds their paper. The easel is awesome (and I got it second hand at "the sale")- as you see it in the picture, it's folded down like a little desk, but the desk top also flips up to create a standing easel so they can paint either sitting or standing, since each requires different muscles and postures. On the easel you see five double dip paint cups (Discount School Supplies, see below) with lids, so my kids can paint completely independently, as well as markers and Oliver's Tadoodles. Crayons and colored pencils are in re-purposed coffee cans to the side. All of it is easy for them to access themselves and kept organized by them (with my encouragement). I can't stress the importance of the independent part- if your child is under 3 you may want to keep access to paint minimal or limited, but gradually give them more independent access. This requires some supervision, but not only does constant independent access enhance their play experience and encourage them to create as much as they want to, but when paired with certain limits and expectations, it teaches them responsibility. For example, my kids have full access, but they are also 100% responsible for clean up and care for their materials, and they loose access to anything they abuse (for a while- they just recently earned their markers back). Another problem you may encounter is that they blow through materials faster than you can replenish. If your child is 3 or under, this is just what they do- if you give them a pile of paper, they will make one mark on each page. While they should have access to supplies, limit the quantity- there is no reason they can't re-use that paper, especially since art at this age is more about the experience than the product. If your child is older, however, and you have just recently introduced unlimited open ended art, they may need time to adjust to the sudden independence. Just like a child who has been starved will hoard food, they may just be hoarding art. Allow it at first, then set a limit- explain to your child that you will only buy them, say, one package of paper a month. But art supplies are cheap, and your child gets a lot out of them, so supply them to the best of your ability. And check out my link above to Discount School Supply- they have everything you could possibly want to create an educational environment for your child (more than just art supplies, but I mostly use them for that- their art supplies are super cheap!). And they have cheap (and fast!) shipping.
Another note on art supplies- the best art children create is open ended. Give them simple supplies like paper, paint, scissors, glue, markers... and let them go. Supplement these occasionally with odd things like grout spreaders, cookie cutters, sand, spices, coffee... Then let them go. Avoid anything expensive, complicated, or adult-led. You shouldn't need to help or participate. Coloring books do not encourage creativity or expression! I despise product oriented art (in the under 5 set, anyway). When kids are that young the end product is irrelevant (some kids do become product oriented around 4, but you have to follow their lead).
Also concerning art, I will soon be posting about the best way to praise your child.
Since I got off on a tangent, I will do this in two parts, so the remainder of my unsolicited advice on how to organize your child's toys will be posted soon:)