Divide and conquer. Big toy boxes make it too easy for toys to get jumbled together. Better: a bin for Legos, another for action figures, another for dollhouse furniture...
Rotate the goods. Teachers say kids concentrate better on their play when they have just a few good toy choices rather than a dizzying range of options. Keep extra items in your garage or basement in boxes marked "Toys on Vacation," and swap them in every few weeks. Your house will be instantly neater.
Create activity zones. Want to have fun with colored paper, glue, and glitter? It's all neatly stored together in the Crafts Zone. Ready to read a book? Settle into a beanbag chair in the Library Corner. Use lightweight boxes or bins, especially if the room isn't really big enough for so many different "zones," so kids can move their playthings around and put them back without much help from you.
Hold off on bookshelves. Little kids have trouble reading titles on the spines and sliding the books back where they belong. Instead, store books upright in small plastic bins or baskets on the floor or a low shelf. (Shelves are fine once your child's around 7.)
Keep a vinyl tablecloth with the art supplies. It'll be on hand to protect the table or rug (skip disposable ones: not sturdy enough).
Toss the flimsy crayon boxes. Same goes for the marker and colored-pencil boxes. Instead, put drawing tools into lidded boxes or bins. And don't bother saving every free crayon you've collected from restaurant visits. Teachers say most kids just grab the top two or three anyway.
Make a marker-saver. Little hands often can't push tops back onto markers, so they dry out. One alternative: Fill ice-cube trays with plaster of Paris mix. While wet, insert marker tops with openings faceup; let dry. It's easy for kids to push a marker back into its rightful top (or any top!).
Separate supplies for easier access. Small zip-lock plastic bags can hold scissors, glue sticks, pipe cleaners, and more (store the bags together in a plastic bin). Keep colored or drawing paper uncrumpled by storing it in large plastic envelopes, accordion files, or stacking trays.
Teri Cettina has also written for Real Simple and Better Homes and Gardens.
More great teacher tipsDress-up stuff
Load up a big bin. Traditional toy boxes may not be so hot for small toys or stuffed animals, but they work well for dress-up clothes. Kids often end up taking everything out anyway, so they're less likely to miss whatever sinks to the bottom. And it's easy to put it all away.
Or go for two. If your child has a lot of dress-up clothes, though, it can help to separate them by theme or color -- for instance, all costumes (cowboy, fairy) in one box, other clothes (ties, bridesmaid dresses) in another.
Use hooks for the things that are easily crushed or lost. Hang them at kid level next to the dress-up box, or use a short coat rack. Having hats and jewelry for dress-up in sight will also remind your kid of what's in the box.
Toys and games
Label them. Mark containers with simple words and pictures of what's inside. Even prereaders can find what they want (and put it away again!).
Tape 'em. Reinforce game and puzzle boxes as soon as you buy them by putting clear mailing tape on the corners. Or get rid of boxes altogether. Put each game's directions and playing pieces into a large zip-lock plastic bag. Then store the folded game boards in a plastic bin, with the bags of playing pieces in front.
Store puzzles smarter. If you have a lot of wooden-tray puzzles, consider a puzzle rack, available at teacher-supply stores and many toy stores. Jigsaw puzzles can be stored in their reinforced boxes, in clear, lidded boxes, or in zip-lock plastic bags. Be sure to cut out and include the picture of the completed puzzle.
Thanks for the great ideas from these teachers:
Teresa Jenks and Rhiana Kehrli, Portland, Oregon
Janet Kujat, Minneapolis
Terry McDermid, Joplin, Missouri