How The Kroleski Family Does Toys – Our Rotation Process

Being the aspiring minimalists we are, my wife and I brought our first child home to our small apartment that had very few baby toys in it – everything fit in/on a toy box that sat on our bay window seat.

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Our first apartment with the toy box on the window seat.

Over the three years that followed, despite our best intentions, our house has accumulated many more toys. Though they are individually great – the trouble with toys, as is the trouble with most things, is that their value does not scale linearly. More toys does not equal more fun or more learning. There are diminishing returns. Eventually even negative returns where more toys results only in more mess, stress and frustration.

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This is almost all of our toys, spread out on the floor. It was really overwhelming to me to see it like this.

A knee-jerk reaction might be to get rid of most everything – to go full minimalist. While that reaction will provide some benefits, we feel it would be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

We are attempting to get the best of both worlds via a toy philosophy and rotation process that I will describe below.

First Principles

I should mention early that toys are just one of the ways our children spend their play time (time excluding sleep and meals). As we thought about it we realized it probably only makes up ~15-30% of their time – variance by age & season. Books, crafts, outdoor activities, indoor physical play (wrestling, dancing, etc.), talking and simply looking out the window make up the rest of the time. Screen time is negligible.

Since this post is focused on toys, however, it might seem as though they are a more significant part of our life so I wanted to include that comment.

Now I will set some context for the world toys exist in and the purpose we intend them for. Here are three sets of factors we kept in mind while creating our optimized solution.

The Purpose of Toys

To discuss the purpose of toys we must discuss the purpose of child rearing. (We could go so far as to discuss the purpose of life, but I suspect this post will be long enough as is.)

In the Kroleski Family we view it as our parental responsibility to teach our children the skills they need to thrive in this world and fulfill the mission they were created for.

I personally think of it as having ~18 years to train a deep learning system before setting it loose on the world.

This is a top life priority for my wife and me. She is a full time mom (+housekeeper) and even though I spend the majority of my day working in an office, child rearing is not an afterthought.

With all of that in mind, toys help us in a few ways:

  1. They are an appropriate object to focus energy on – as opposed to something they shouldn’t touch, a vase, a knife, etc.
  2. They serve as tools to help us equip them with important skills and concepts – fine motor skills, cause & effect, creativity, focus, etc.
  3. They are fun and entertaining – which is a good thing in itself and also helps the parents be able to focus on other things at times.

I should note here that I am limiting my discussion to toys. In our house this doesn’t include books, craft items (crayons, playdough, paint, etc.), certain furniture-like objects (rocking horse) or outdoor gear (bikes, camping gear, etc.) – each of which has their own (though somewhat similar) system.

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Other Factors to Consider

Toys and children present some other limiters, trade offs and circumstances that must be kept in mind as well:

  1. Some toys are only appropriate or engaging during certain developmental windows
  2. Children can become overwhelmed quite easily as they are still developing focusing & coping capacities – toys can cause this both individually and collectively through overstimulation.
  3. Children can become fixated on toys as objects of desire which can be disruptive to the child rearing process
  4. Parents play with children and enjoy variety
  5. Many people enjoy giving gifts and toys are a mainstay gift for children – this includes friends and especially grandparents
  6. Children and parents tire of doing the same thing for long periods or repeatedly
  7. There is an opportunity cost of not presenting children with new challenges

Our Minimalist House

Finally, we must account for their environment. These toys are physical objects within our house, where we try to maintain a particular sense of order. We generally seek to live by the following principles:

  1. Everything is in its place when we go to bed at night so we wake up to a clean house and a fresh day
  2. Less visual distraction allows for more focus – flat surfaces are not there to host stacks of objects
  3. Stepping on oddly shaped & sharp objects is less desirable than not stepping on said objects
  4. There should be room for silence – it encourages reflection

Our Working Solutions

With the above in mind, we’ve implemented the following solutions. This is very much a living solution that will change as our children grow, we face new challenges, we bump into the limits of our current plan’s foresight and/or any of the factors above shift.

Toy Philosophy

We generally don’t view toys as something that are owned by/ associated with specific children. There are not “Hunter’s toys” or “Theo’s toys”. All of the toys in our house are items that we share. The only objects in our house that really have specific child association are their special blankets they each received when they were born.

We do enforce the idea that when someone is playing with something, another person is not allowed to take it from them without asking. Sharing, asking and proposing trades is encouraged but ultimately temporary.

This system of non-ownership is fine in the house and allows some nice benefits, but does start to break down when we are at the park as not all children have the same view about their toys. I am still working out how to resolve this but generally sharing principles apply while at the park and I work to make sure our children don’t go home with someone else’s toys.

Toys are transient. The vast majority of toys in our house were once played with by someone else (including myself or my wife when we were respectively children), all of them will get played with by multiple siblings and eventually most will all find a new home where they can be played with. I believe this mindset helps develop a better relationship with ‘stuff’ while also allowing a more full appreciation of the specialness of the present moment.

We don’t use toys as motivators. There is no concept of ‘if you do X you will be able to play with Y’ or ‘if you do X, we will get you Y’. I suspect this one gets harder as children get older, but it is something we plan to avoid.

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Theo enjoys the trains, but more in a Godzilla way.

We do not use toys as a way to show our love. We do use them to some degree as means to facilitate play time together, which is how we do show our love. I am intentional around this topic because I think using objects as a sign of love can create a mental fixations on objects which can result in negative consumption behaviors later in life that are hard to break free of.

We avoid making a big deal about new toys. I’ll describe our toy process more below, but new toys are generally just introduced into the fray unwrapped and ready to play with, the same way used toys or existing toys are. I believe that making a big deal about new ownership of a toy trains the brain to overdevelop stimulus pathways that will result in future desire to purchase things, even when those things aren’t needed. I want to help my children have grander motivations.

Toy Selection

The bar a toy must be above in order to earn its stay in our house is fairly high. It must be fun to play with, able to teach something, safe, quality made and properly working. A toy might lose its keep if it breaks beyond repair or repeatedly demonstrates it isn’t capable of facilitating play. (I should note that ‘beyond repair’ is pretty hard to reach in our house because I am a fixer.)

We often supplement toys with non-toys that meet the same bar – rubber spatulas, measuring cups, delivery boxes, camping flashlights, pots & pans, etc.

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An example of the boys playing with non-toys. Water fun using our makeshift porch pool & some pots, pans and measuring cups.

We prefer toys that do not make electronic noise. We are fine with whistles and drums, but steer away from beeping, singing and such. There are exceptions. The boy’s uncle created the first one with an electronic music box that played classical tunes. It doesn’t suffer us the experience of incessant, undesired or seemingly random commencement as most electronic-noise toys do, so it was granted stay.

We generally maintain the less is better and so try not to have a toy if another toy already serves that purpose. We aren’t running 100% lean right now though. An astute observer might notice that there are over a dozen different balls in the picture above. Our middle child really likes playing with balls and we allow a bit more there because sometimes a specific size, shape, color, texture or bounce pattern will get extra engagement on a given week. We might thin it out eventually but haven’t done so to date.

Maintaining a high bar on toy selection becomes difficult when faced with the reality of gifts – especially if you as fortunate as we are to have lots of loving and generous people around you. People close to us generally know our minimalist tendencies and try to respect them, which helps reduce overall toy input volume. We also work to try and redirect gift giving towards other things like clothes or focus it on specific types of toys we think are good. That said, sometimes grandma just really wants to get her grandson a certain toy and we practice mercy around this (to an extent).

Because the boys get plenty of new toys from others, we rarely feel anything else is needed. I’ve now been a parent for nearly three years and have yet to buy a new toy. I did purchase that train set from someone I was buying a stroller from – the boys had enjoyed playing trains with their cousin, the price was amazing and I knew we would be able to create some crazy-fun track setups – I was right.

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One of our awesome train setups. I’ve only introduced about half of the tracks so far, the more complex pieces will come out as the boys get older and can use them.

The Toy Rotation Process

We practice a rotation process with toys so that only a small amount is available to play with at any given point.

All toys permanently live in a a few storage containers in the basement and every week some small portion of those toys, comes to visit us in the house. (This shelf is showing the normal state of all of the things that are spread out in the picture at the top of this post.)

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The closet in our basement store toys on one shelf & camping gear on another. The top shelf normally has our sleeping bags on it (unstuffed) but I removed them for this picture to help with lighting.
The Process

On Sunday night, while the children are sleeping, one of us parents will collect the toys from the house and switch them with items from the basement.

The process involves putting things away in zip lock bags by type to help keep things orderly – all cars go together as do puppets, etc.

We then select a few new toys that we think will be good for the coming week – I’ll write more about the selection process below.

On Monday morning the boys wake up to a fresh set of toys. It is sort of a special morning where they go to see what they have to play with for that week. It captures much of the excitement of what you might expect of a child on Christmas morning but in a way that seems healthier.

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A close up of a few of the items. I’m noticing now that everything on this table was a gift.
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We have a strange alcove room in our house that we’ve deemed the play room – we put the toys out in there and they slowly make their way into the living room throughout the day before going back at clean up time before bed.

Here are two pictures of recent rotation to show you the amount of toys that get rotated in. We use that blue and white basket to rotate them and generally all toys go back in that basket at clean up time in the evening.

Toy Rotation Benefits

We see this rotation process as having a few benefits:

  1. Toys stay fresh. Since toys go away, when they do come back they are more appreciated.
  2. The amount of toys to play with at any point is limited, which helps encourage focus.
  3. The amount of toys to clean up at the end of the day is limited, which helps ensure success
  4. As parents we have a lever to guide our children’s play based on things we think they will enjoy and that will challenge them
Toy Rotation Tips & Tricks

1) Coming Up With A Good Rotation

At first we just grabbed a few things but over time we’ve become more intentional about what goes into a week’s rotation. We consider what the week will be like – for example, if it will be raining and we will spend lots of time indoors – what toys have been out recently, what might help stretch a child and what they have been interested in lately.

We, informally, regard toys as being of different tiers. We always try to include one of our ‘top tier’ toys, such as the legos, wooden blocks or space tops. We also include a few other toys that are ‘middle tier’ and ‘bottom tier’ to help provide some diversity.

Hunter making some lego airplanes. We’re still working on the concept of aerodynamics – that plane in the back would have trouble flying…

Toys will periodically get moved around based on the development of our children and how engaging those toys were.

I also try to make sure there is something for each child. As I said above, we don’t really believe in toy-child association/ownership but I do know that each of my children has certain preferences.

2) Experiment Often

We also typically include a few experimental toys – things we aren’t sure they are old enough for or that they didn’t like previously. We want to see if anything has changed.

To give you one example, I (somewhat selfishly) tried for a long time to rotate some of my old Star Wars action figures into the mix because I really wanted to do Darth Vader voices and such as I played with the boys. They never really took on but I kept trying every few months. On one such month, my eldest child, who was on an space shuttle kick, saw Boba Fett and exclaimed “It’s an astronaut!” That is now one of his favorite toys and I get to tell him all about Boba Fett (we focus on the astronaut part of things and not the killer-for-hire part).

I have a ton of other anecdotes about times where a seemingly never played with toy became a hit for a reason I couldn’t have predicted. That is some of the reason I am ok having what I consider to be an exorbitant amount of toys in our house – you never know when one will catch on. Thanks to the rotation process, the toys that haven’t caught on aren’t causing clutter in our living space, they are in storage space out of mind.

3) Putting Toys on Ice

We often put toys on ice for a period. That basically just means it won’t be rotated in. Some toys are great for a specific development state and sometimes we have no child in that state, so we might let a specific toy sit for six months and then introduce it gain.

Toys can also go on ice if they become frustrating to either a child or an adult. Our space tops toy was a great family activity, we parents could launch the tops and the boys enjoyed chasing the spinning tops. Eventually our eldest wanted to launch the tops but didn’t quite have the strength, which caused a lot of frustration for him. We put it on ice for a bit until and then tried again after he had grown a bit more and he was then able to operate it. Putting it on ice helped ensure the toy is still loved while avoiding a frustration that we didn’t feel was of the productive/beneficial kind.

4) Requesting Rotations

Our eldest child, now 2 1/2, understands the rotation process and periodically asks for something specific. We’ve generally been encouraging of this as it helps teach him patience, delayed gratification and allows him an easy way to participate in a decision process that affects him. It also helps us make sure we create an engaging rotation for that week.

5) Slippage

Inevitably, there will be weeks where there are more toys at the end of the week than the beginning. Sometimes this happens because we get out a specific toy to help with a specific thing during the week, sometimes we grant a request early, sometimes a new toy is introduced to the house, and often we get out toys when company is coming to make sure there are enough and appropriate toys for whoever is coming over.

We don’t stress over this too much, we know that it will only be a few days before they rotate back and we have a small amount again. In rare cases, there are way too many things out and we’ll put a few back.

6) Don’t Always Play The Hits

It is important, though sometimes difficult, to rest the best toys. Sometimes we want to leave the legos out for an extra week because the boys have been doing so great with them. I think that if you wait until a toy goes stale, you’ve messed up the whole system. I push myself to rotate it while it is still hot, bring something else in and then know that it will come back hot next time.

7) Borrow Toys From Others Too

Along with rotating toys from the basement, we do a fair bit of borrowing/trading toys with other families, mainly our in-laws who live near by. I find it especially easy since we already have an established practice of rotation – having random toys appear and disappear isn’t strange for our children, they don’t know the difference if the toys go into our basement or someone else’s house.

Borrowing toys creates the same benefits as rotating toys in that it allows children to play with new things for a period. It has the added benefit that it doesn’t increase the storage space needed in the basement for you since you are drawing from a pool stored at other houses.

I’ve heard about companies that are popping up in this space – I think that is a great idea. I’m not sure the business model is sustainable based on the availability & size, but if you don’t have friends with kids to trade with, a service is a great place to start.

8) Certain Toys Have Specific Homes

We have a few items that live in a specific place. The magnetic letters live on the fridge, the toy workbench lives next to my work bench in the garage, the water toys live on the porch in the summer and get put away in the winter, etc.

Parenting Is An Exercise In Discovering Gratitude

Somewhere between wiping snotty noses and changing another overflowing diaper I look at my middle child, trying to squirm away from me, and tell him I’m doing this to help him. He isn’t really participating in the conversation.

He should be grateful. I think to myself that some day in the future he should thank me for all of these things I’m doing for him.

Then, the blunt hit of seeing the obvious, I remember that I was a child. That someone changed my overflowing diapers and dealt with my temper tantrums. Although I’ve thanked her and made cards for Mother’s Day, the gratitude somehow becomes more real after experiencing the other side.

Then the realization goes deeper. I see that in the same way I did not fully appreciate the things done for me then, there are certainly things I don’t yet appreciate that are done for me now.

I have experienced, through my children, a proxy for two years of the care it took to raise me. But there were 28 other years of different kinds of care. Some day I might grow to fully appreciate those as well.

Thank you Mom for thirty years. For the things I know about, the things I fully appreciate and the things I don’t yet.

Measuring Maturity Development

One of my favorite mental pastimes is reducing complex concepts into algorithms or metrics. One recent item I’ve been thinking about is how to measure maturity – specifically as related to the concept of child rearing & personal development.

The topic is simple – there is a clear difference between a mature adult and a child. There is also a notable difference between adults; one that ‘really has it together’ and another that is ‘immature for their age’. The complex part is defining and measuring that in a consistent way. How would you quantify mature? How would you program a computer to recognize it?

What is most interesting to me is to find a way measure maturity development and then use that measurement to set goals for how I raise my children. Benchmarks to help me see if I’m doing a good job introducing them to new challenges. Tools to facilitate conversations I have with my wife about how we can better serve our children.

The Metric Prototype

The concept I’ve come to is a simple three number measurement showing: independence interdependence and dependents.

Lets look at each.

Independence

The concept of being able to live your life without external input; financially, physically, emotionally, etc.

I would measure this on a scale of zero to one. 1.0 meaning an individual could operate completely independently and 0.0 meaning they could not do anything for themselves.

For example, my two week old baby girl has no independence. She can not do a single thing without help from (mostly) mama: nourishing her body, cleaning herself, protecting herself from the elements, even going to sleep often requires a lot of help. To give her independence a number, it would be near-zero.

In contrast, my two year old is becoming somewhat independent. He is potty trained, except for wiping after #2. He can climb into his high chair and feed himself, given someone provides and prepares the food for him. He can take off his shoes and is learning to get undressed by himself. If I were to give him a number for his independence, on a scale of zero to one, it would perhaps be in the 0.15-0.25 range.

A well adjusted adult could, in theory, eventually hit 1.0 when they were living in a house paid for by income they generated, able to take care of themselves through a basic day, able to react appropriately to environmental and social inputs and manage their emotional health, etc.

I will note that I use the would ‘could’ which might be different that what is actually observed, this is due to the next item.

One item of quick note is that I assume a 1.0 of independence to be an adult taking care of themselves, but there is clearly a difference between scraping by and thriving. There is also the interesting case of hedonistic adaptation where an individual that was once independent might increase what they depend on, thus eventually falling below their own 1.0.

Interdependence

The concept of living with shared dependencies.

I didn’t originally think about this concept, but as a started to test various straw men against the other two factors, I realized that it is in an important piece of context. Many individuals chose never to strive for full independence for very good reasons. The positive aspects of this type of joint relationship are what I would measure as interdependence.

I am not yet able to make a value claim about this aspect, how much is ideal and/or which pole is better. For today I simply want to find a way to quantify its existence.

I would measure this on a scale of zero to one. 1.0 meaning an individual was completely dependent on one or more people, but was equally contributing to those people. 0.0 meaning the individual operated with no interdependence. Note that interdependence and independence are orthogonal. A person operating with zero interdependence could be completely independent, completely dependent, or anything in between.

As an example of interdependence, my wife and I have chosen to divide tasks in our lives, creating a division of labor within our family unit. This allows us each to focus on certain things we are best at. It also, by definition, creates interdependencies. Specifically, I work for a salary that provides our house with the majority of our financial income. My wife is dependent on me for that currently, though she can and has done so independently in the past. She, (among many other things), manages much of our social lives, corresponding, coordinating, hosting and remembering to send birthday wishes. I am dependent on her for that, though at one point I was able to do so myself. At this point in our lives I might measure our interdependence somewhere around 0.2.

In contrast to that, I know some married couples that essentially continue to operate completely independently on many levels. They each maintain their own professions, finances, schedules, social relationships, etc. They might measure much closer 0.0.

At the other extreme are cultures that live in a community of high interdependence. The example that comes to mind for me is a commune where everyone has a task, but no one exchanges money – some farm, some clean, some cook, some entertain, etc. Individuals in those communities might have a very high level of interdependence, perhaps 0.5 or higher.

I can not think of a true example of anything near a 1.0, though I would be delightedly surprised to find one.

I would like to note that a close relative to interdependence is ‘codependence’, which is often used as a term to describe unhealthy relationships. From what I’ve read, the key difference between the healthy state of interdependence and the unhealthy state of codependence is that the individual retains the ability to be independent. It sounds like this is an issue of debate in the profession of physiology and I suspect biologists would weigh in as well.

Dependents

The number of other people sustained by your input.

I would measure this on a scale of zero upwards, with the maximum being somewhere around the population of the earth, plus or minus.

The common example is having children. A naive approach to measuring dependents would be to assign each child one point and divide it across those that take care of them. That might be 0.5 to each of two parents, it might be a full point to a single parent, or there might be some smaller fraction taken on by grandparents, other family members, the state, etc.

My naive approach above assumes a binary which is in fact not true. There is such a thing as being a bad parent and similarly there is such a thing as being a mediocre parent or only partially caring for dependents. Acknowledging that, it wouldn’t affect the metric’s template, only an individual metric – so this is something I will defer to a later time to think more about.

Of note, we are talking about measuring maturity and the issue of children presents an interesting case. There is no maturity requirement involved in the act of creating children (despite that depictions of it are described as ‘mature’) and certainly for some, the way they ended up with a child is a sign of the opposite. Raising children always requires maturity though. For some the child is a forcing function, their maturity rapidly increases to meet the bar. For others their lack of maturity is evident and someone else must raise the child.

It is really important to me to stress that having children is not the only form of dependents and is in fact not be the best for everyone. The world has been blessed in many ways by those that have not had children and as such were able to invest more energy in other efforts.

For some this might come in the form of taking care of elderly parents or other family members. Another example that comes to mind for me is volunteers who tutor, mentor or help those not related to them. A few people in my circle right now are investing a lot of time helping a family of refugees transition to life in America. This is certainly a situation that creates a partial dependent.

Someone that always has energy to help those around them might in fact have a larger impact than those having children. Ra

The Metric

As I described above, I would display this as a simple three number measurement showing: independence interdependence and dependents. To be displayed in the following manner: 0.7 : 0.3 : 0.2

What this gives us is a quick glance to see development or arrested development.

My newborn for example would measure at: 0.0: 0.0 : 0.0

A young child would develop to something around: 0.3 : 0.0-0.2 : 0.0

At some point in adolescence we would expect: 0.8 : 0.0-.03 : 0.0

Until the child became an independent adult: 1.0 : 0.0-0.5 : 0.0

And ultimately when they began caring for others: 1.0 : 0.0-0.5 : 1.0-5.0

Conclusion

As I’ve stated, my intention is to create a tool to allow me to better think about child development. The above is my current prototype, something I intend to explore further. I will certainly need to refine the concept and to date the measurements are inexact, meaning a rubric is needed. Creating that will require a much broader exploration of the topic.

What I love about this project is that even if the metric is useless as a tool, the research I do to come up with it will require me to learn a lot more about child development, which will certainly benefit the initial goal.