Just like adults, children can find it difficult to focus in environments where there are too many toys. Clutter makes it hard for them to get deep into play and instead they float from toy to toy. It is the parent or caregiver's responsibility to pare things down from time to time, for everyone's sanity.
1. Get Rid of "Busy Toys"
First off, let's eliminate overly-busy toys. What is a busy toy? Anything with batteries! You can also pass on toys with invisible squeakers, mysterious functions, and an overwhelming explosion of colors and textures. Simple toys are the way to go.
Babies are inherently creative, curious beings. A passive toy will encourage the baby to be the active director in their play, instead of being a passive recipient of entertainment from a push-button electric toy.
If your child loves to pretend to work on a "laptop" or to use a "phone" just like you, it's fine to use the children's versions of these things; just take the batteries out. Your child will actually have more fun if it's them doing the pretending, instead of the toy bamboozling them by naming shapes in 3 languages.
For more information about simple toys, check out my Toy Guide or the lovely little book, Simple Toys Make Active Babies by Alexandra Curtis Boyer.
2. Pass On Contraptions
Baby contraptions like bouncers, excersaucers, walkers, and play gyms with dangling toys can go too. These devices take up huge amounts of space in the home and limit babies' movement and ability to be creative with objects. If you find yourself using those devices to keep your baby safe or entertained, consider setting up a Yes Space instead.
3. Give Away Things for Younger Children
There are few toys that young babies love, but a toddler won't pay much attention to. Use your rich knowledge of your baby's preferences to remove items the child hasn't played with in months and probably won't find interesting again. One example is those small stuffed toys about the size of an adult's fist. Rolling babies love to pick these up and examine them, but they get little mileage after that. The same goes for rattles, simple wooden rings, lovey cloths (unless they have been adopted as true lovies!), and other toys designed for the littlest babies.
Keep toys that have a double use as a pretend object, like measuring spoons or muffin cups, as they are likely to experience a resurgence in toddlerhood.
If there is a younger child in the family, or there will be some day, it's okay to put those toys in boxes for later. Do keep in mind that the younger child will receive their own toys as baby shower and birthday gifts, so you really only need to keep the true favorites.
4. Eliminate Duplicates
Unless you're running a child care in your home, you don't need duplicates of objects. Having one or two objects in each category is enough. For example, you probably only need one or two sets of blocks, one or two pull toys, one or two rolling cars, one set of pretend cookware and vegetables, etc. Choose the ones that your child likes the most, are the most beautiful, or the most durable. Pass the rest on.
4. Display The Good Stuff
Now that you have only the Best Toys left in your house, it's time to get organized.
Set the toys up in the play space with intention. Think "Display" not "Storage." Storage is something adults do with the toys not currently in rotation. Display is how the toys in the play space should be arranged. Displayed toys should be easy to see from a distance, placed on shelves almost as if they are in a museum or a nice department store. That means 1-2 toys on each shelf, so they are easy to see and acquire. This also makes them easier to put away, and it is more likely that your baby or toddler will be able to help you.
Display like toys together: a basket full of balls, a shelf with stuffed animals, a shelf with dress up items. I recommend shelves instead of drawers or giant bins, to prevent the temptation to create a dumping grounds for random, unrelated objects that will be hard to find later. Babies are very visual, and they need to be able to see all the toys available at a glance.
5. Limit the Number of Toys
It’s important not to overwhelm the play space with toys. As an approximate guide, try to keep the number of toys immediately available to under 4 for a premobile child, under 8 for a crawling child, and under 12 for a toddler, depending on the size of the space and number of parts to each toy. A set of stacking cups or a basket of duplo blocks counts as one toy by this rule. Another great rule of thumb: don't put out more toys than you are willing to clean up at any given time!
6. Rotate For Variety
Since you have committed to not over-cluttering the play space, you will need a system for storing off-rotation toys. Store the majority of the child’s toys in an adult-only storage space like the hall closet or cabinets with child-proof locks. Then change out some of the toys each week or whenever you think your child might need something new. Don’t rotate all the toys; some consistency is needed to build skills with each toy. By the time your child is a toddler, they can help you choose which toys they want.
A tidy, tasteful setup models a sense of order that your child will internalize. One day, someday, that value will show up as a willingness to clean their room!