If your kid is still little, I imagine you're still feeling optimistic about fighting toy creep. Likely, you still think that the burgeoning toy collection isn't anything that can't be fixed by a trip to the Container Store. Let me give you a preview of the future: above my daughters' bed is a large, groaning fishnet full of soft toys. One frayed string and it looks like everything will collapse. This a good symbol for the state of chaos in my house generally; without constantly cleaning up after my kids, I imagine that things would devolve into a pre-agrarian free-for-all within days. My daughters' room is a mess.
My oldest daughter, Ani, is 10 years old and her little sisters, the twins Mia and Laila, just turned 8. They share the room and are all into the same things: Pokemon, the online game Animal Jam and the movie Zootopia. On top of that, they have toys from every thing they've liked within the past year (or two), which includes Lalaloopsy dolls, My Little Pony and Calico Critters. Basically, it's my three daughters and 200 of their closest toy friends. Cleaning that room is Sisyphean; it takes hours of work every week from me and from them. I decided to stop cleaning it for a week, to see what would happen. Would everything come crashing down? Would it turn into a Lord of the Flies situation? I waited to find out.
First, we had to make our peace with the idea that the room would be kept in high order by its custodians. My husband likes to have everything in its rightful place — the toy food has to be stored in the toy kitchen, the Legos have to be in their bin, the stuffed animals belong in the toy hammock — but I just want there to see carpet when I look down at the floor.
After we agreed to strike on cleaning our girls' bedroom, we not to announce it. The logic was that if we told them we weren't going to tell them to clean their room, for an experiment, we would influence the outcome. We wanted this to be a pure study, in the service of, you know, ~science~.
The room became a bigger mess. More and more things accumulated on the floor. It's three people in a room with two chests of drawers, a toy kitchen, a queen sized bed (that the twins share), and a twin bed for Ani, so, in fairness, there isn't a lot of space, but I wanted my girls to see for themselves how that space quickly became smaller when they didn't clean up.
Spoiler: Between days one and three, they did not come to this conclusion.
By the fourth day, a few things had been straightened up. The stuffed animals weren't on the floor, a plus. Some of the toys had been pushed under their beds, which still wasn't good, but at least they weren't a tripping hazard. It was like the room was returning to its original jungle-like form, with toys providing a dense ground cover and also a canopy; a thick ecosystem of Calico Critters.
I still didn't say a thing.
By now, toys carpeted most surfaces, and I was worried that the room posed an existential threat to the family. I told my daughters, "Your room is junky. I'm not coming in there with the baby. I'll fall."
Since they wanted their brother to play with them in there, the girls scrambled to move things out of the middle of the floor. They created a path so I could deliver Kai to their beds. I stayed in the room with them for a while, letting Kai play with his sisters on their beds, and goofing around with them. On the queen-size bed, we had a little oasis from the toy creep.
I had to tell them to clean their room. I absolutely had to. Ani, my 10 year old, usually runs through the house. She doesn't walk, she runs. The rest of us were in the living room watching television when I heard a crash then a loud yelp come from the bedroom. She'd tripped over one of the Barbie doll houses. I'm not sure why that was in the middle of the floor, considering they haven't played with their Barbie toys in months.
I helped her up to her bed and went to get the ice pack, then had a talk with all three of them about the importance of cleaning their room. I told them that it didn't have to be perfect, but we can't let it get so hazardous they hurt themselves.
I assigned jobs to everyone. My husband vacuumed. Laila was in charge of the stuffed animals and finding a proper place for each, whether they belong in the toy hammock or the inner circle of bed-toys. Ani was in charge of the art supplies. Mia took on of the closet. I tackled the toy kitchen. I found all of the play food and put it in the toy refrigerator, dishwasher and microwave, along with all of the toy dishes. It was like being the cleaning staff for The Borrowers.
A Week Later
The girls' room is clean — not perfect, but clean. I am teaching them how to vacuum on their own in case I'm busy with the baby and they need a quick clean up. But there are new rules. No more eating in the bedroom, and they have to start cleaning up the room an hour before bedtime.
Overall, I think it was good to let them take responsibility for their own room, even if it was just for a week. Do I believe that kids at this age are going to just clean up on their own? No, but with a schedule, I think you can get them into the habit. Nothing teaches kids about responsibility like facing the oblivion of a toypocalypse. We went to the edge, and returned a little wiser.