Letting Go of Childhood Toys and Memorabilia

Letting Go of Toys

We haven’t picked out a new house, but we started cleaning, packing, and decluttering as though we’ve already found one to love. This week I tackled the closets, beginning the painstaking process of boxing up our belongings in preparation for our move.

I spent two days transporting our possessions out of the darkness and into the light. The contents are now visible in a wall of clear, rectangular boxes that stretch across our living room. Each acts like a window into our lives—a glimpse into all that we own.

A tent with matching sleeping bags sits in one container. A small forest of fake Christmas trees stands in another. Snow pants, Halloween decorations, and a box of long-forgotten dishes take up space, along with too many formerly-loved baby toys.

Should I Keep Baby Toys?

While I’ve purged plenty of possessions over the years, those baby toys are by far the hardest to remove. I whittled down the pile to include sturdy, wooden toys that could stand the test of time and a set of small plastic animals with legs and heads that twist and move.

Every ounce of logic tells me not to move this stuff to our new home. Keeping this container full of old toys isn’t in line with my minimalist ideals. It doesn’t stack up against my desire to be clutter-free either.

My husband and I are past the age of having more children. It should be easy to give these pint-sized playthings a new home, but psychologically it’s more complicated than I ever imagined.

Choosing What to Keep From Your Childhood

What childhood treasures should I hold onto for a little bit longer?

When I was a child, my most coveted possession was a Tiny Tears doll that once belonged to my mom. I received plenty of toys as a child, but I clung to that baby more than any other. 

I enjoyed the weight of her body and the way she closed her eyes when I laid her down to sleep. She was far more delicate and fragile than any of my other toys. Two of her fingers dry rotted and fell off, and others began to crumble. She wasn’t the prettiest or the easiest to love, but I relished her because she belonged to my mother.

I thought of my dolls like real babies and cried when I outgrew them. When I stopped playing with my childhood treasures, I placed them gently in a box w/ small pillows behind their heads and blankets tucked just below their chins. 

Then I slid that box into a corner of my closet and vowed, with tears streaming down my face, never to get rid of them.

Your Children Won’t Feel the Same Attachments You Do

Decades later, I dragged that container out of my childhood closet and plopped it in front of my kids. My youngest dumped out everything inside with utter glee. He carried my old dolls around the house, feeding them, rocking them, and putting them to sleep just like I did as a child.

But his interest was short-lived. Unlike that Tiny Tears doll, the lure of my former treasures wore off after a few days. Shortly after finding that box, he moved back to his other games. The train tracks and marble runs were much more appealing.

My children didn’t share in my childhood experience. They didn’t covet my toys the way I coveted my mother’s. I wasn’t disappointed or upset. I may have strong emotional attachments to these objects, but, understandably, my kids won’t form the same connections to them.

Hours after my little one stopped playing with those old dolls, I packed them into storage. Thirty years after boxing them up, I still didn’t have the heart to let them go.

How to Let Go of Childhood Toys

While preparing for our upcoming move, I came across my old dolls again and vowed to get rid of them. I picked out one or two that I truly loved and sent the rest to donation. It was so much easier this time around. I patted myself on the back and moved on to clear out other bins.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the psychological struggle to purge started all over again. As I stared at my children’s baby toys, I felt the familiar sentimental dread take hold of me.

In general, I enjoy decluttering our house. Once a month, I get the kids involved in cleaning out their toy shelves and donating the excess. But every so often, I find myself deeply attached to an object and hesitant to send it away.

Why is it so hard to get rid of a box that sits untouched in my closet? I don’t want to display these toys, and my kids don’t want to play with them. Passing them on to another child makes perfect sense. Yet my mind is unwilling to pack them up for donation.

When I see those old toys, I picture my boys’ chubby little hands playing with the pieces. I imagine their smiling faces looking up at me with utter delight. I remember the moments of their first few years and relish in the memories of that time in my life. While I consider myself a minimalist, I struggle to let go of them.

My six-year-old says he wants a time machine so he can jump ahead to age ninety-nine. My adult brain can’t comprehend this idea. Why on earth would he want to skip his life away? He can’t explain it to me yet, but as he wants to leap forward, I desperately want the ability to go back.

The Memories of Our Stuff

It’s easy to get rid of most of my kids’ toys, but a few conjure up strong memories that I can’t get past. 

When I was pregnant with my second child, my oldest son and I would sit on the floor and play quiet games together so I could rest. For weeks, perhaps months, we played with a set of brightly colored animals that rode on a plastic train. 

We gave the animals names and voices. We spent hours telling stories of their journeys through jungles and forests as we snuggled in the basement—just the two of us. Those silly plastic animals represent the end of that time. 

My oldest was incredibly attached to me, and for the first three and a half years of life, we rarely spent a minute apart. That all changed when my second child was born. My oldest began to gravitate to my husband as I spent time caring for our newborn.

Those tiny toy animals represent the love we shared before our family of three became four. Logically, I know the memories won’t disappear if I send them out the door, but for some strange reason, I feel like they will.

Keeping Toys for Future Grandchildren

What childhood things should I keep? Does it make sense to keep old toys that my children have outgrown? I dream of becoming a grandmother, but my nine-year-old has told me on more than one occasion that he “won’t be having children.” 

Do I want to hold on to a box of toys that might move sixty miles, only never to see the light of day again? Deep inside, I know it makes zero sense, but when I think back on my mom’s Tiny Tears doll, my heart urges me to hold on.

That’s when I recognize the harsh truth. I’m not holding on to these toys for my kids or my future grandchildren. I’m holding on to them for myself. Clinging on to these baby toys allows me to grasp on to a time I can never get back.

These toys remind me of motherhood, of becoming a new mom after years of infertility struggles. They remind me of the time that my son and I sat alone in a quiet house, trying to figure out how to get through sleep-deprived days.

I can picture those moments so perfectly right now, and the truth is, I don’t need a toy in my hands to remind me of that time in my life.  

The Burden of Our Childhood Memorabilia

Many years ago, just before my first child was born, my mother-in-law brought me into her house and presented me with four large boxes.

Inside I found baby clothing that once belonged to my husband. I sorted through the boxes because I could tell she was excited to show me what was inside. I oohed and aahed over each little pair of pants and shirts, but I didn’t want to put my future child in any of them.

The lightly colored fabrics had yellowed, and the material was itchy and scratchy. Many of the items were no longer safe for children. I can’t tell you how many infant-sized sweatshirts had unsafe drawstrings inside of them.

I felt burdened by the weight of those boxes. What was I going to do with them? I didn’t want to store them or use anything inside, so I took one or two outfits and asked my mother-in-law to hold on to the rest of them. I planned to dress my newborn in one or two for photo ops, then quietly discard them.

Did my mother-in-law notice the stains on those baby clothes, or did each shirt and pair of pants bring back happy memories? I’m sure she was disappointed that I didn’t covet those old items the same way she did.

When my children grow up, I don’t want them to feel the same burden I felt as I opened those old boxes of baby clothes. I don’t want them to feel trapped by the items I treasure.

Objects Can Taint Our Memories Too

Whether we like it or not, physical objects don’t always stand the test of time. I know this from looking inside that old box of baby clothes. I also know this from my own experiences. 

When I was a child, I would visit my grandparent’s house once a week. Whenever I went, my grandmother would call me to the kitchen for cookies and milk. My grandfather sat on one side of a bright green, circular kitchen table, and I sat at the other.

She served milk in a brightly colored mug with a picture of Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger on it. She continued to serve drinks out of the cup long after I grew up. Years later, she brought it out for my children.

After my grandmother died, we spent days cleaning out her house. Looking through rooms full of possessions, I took only two things. One was that old Winnie the Pooh mug. 

I wanted to drink from it and share it with my children. I tried to hold on to my grandmother after she passed, and this mug would be the perfect daily reminder of her presence in my life. But when I brought it home, I realized the cup had a strange and off-putting odor.

Of course, my connection to my grandmother doesn’t have anything to do with that silly old mug. I know deep inside I don’t need that cup to remember her.

Bring Childhood Memorabilia Out of Hiding

What good does it do to keep sentimental possessions stowed away in dark closets only to find they aren’t usable when we bring them back into the light?

My grandfather was a photographer, and my grandmother kept boxes upon boxes of his photographic slides in the corner of her apartment. They sat there for decades after his death until I took the time to look through them. 

I scanned hundreds of slides and created a digital picture frame for my grandmother. She spent hours watching those photographs fade slowly in and out on the screen.

In the middle of the night, when she had trouble sleeping, my grandmother would sit in the living room and watch the old images flip before her eyes. She’d often call me the next day to tell me she saw a photo she’d never seen before. I could hear the giddiness in her voice as she described the photograph in vivid detail.

That digital photo album is by far the best gift I’ve ever given in my life. I took the photographs and memories out of the box, so my grandmother could enjoy them.

What to Do With Old Childhood Toys and Memorabilia

Do you have stuff hiding in boxes? If so, wouldn’t you prefer to give them new life? Wouldn’t it be better to see them than allow them to grow dusty in a long-forgotten corner of your home?

If you have old baby clothes or t-shirts you can’t part with, consider turning them into something new. You can turn them into a quilt, pillow, stuffed animal, or even frame scraps of clothing as a piece of art.

Frame your children’s artwork or place it into a scrapbook that can be placed on a shelf and thumbed through. Ask your children to curate this binder each year, removing older pieces in favor of new ones.

Bring out your photographs, scan them, and place them into digital picture frames. Allow yourself to see the people, places, and events that impacted your life.

Getting Rid of Childhood Memorabilia and Toys

If you don’t want to use the items, think about passing them on to someone who can love them right now. We tend to focus our attention on the past and the future, but what about the present?

Can someone use the stuff we are keeping in storage? Imagine how many children could have worn the clothes my mother-in-law boxed up for future grandchildren. Imagine how incredible it felt for my grandmother to see the photographs her husband captured decades earlier?

Think about the joy you feel when looking at your toys or your children’s toys. Reflect on the deep emotions that run through you as you pick up soft baby clothes and run your fingers through them. You can let go of childhood memorabilia and toys by imagining another parent feeling that same joy. Imagine a child playing with the item you covet. Picture their chubby hands reaching out to grab for it as they look up at their parents and smile.

Why let that stuff sit in a box where it can decay, fall apart or discolor? Why not let a new family enjoy it while it is still in good condition?

What to Keep From Your Childhood

I remind myself of all of these things as I whittle down the stack of baby toys sitting before me. My connection to the physical objects lessens over time, and each time I return to the stash, it’s easier to donate them. I can’t part with everything just yet, but I have a feeling I will soon enough.

In the meantime, I am writing a note about the baby toys I treasure. As I write, I realize my connection is not to the items inside that box but rather to my children whose little hands used to hold them.

How to Help Your Children Get Rid of Childhood Toys

If you think getting rid of childhood toys as an adult is challenging, imagine what it’s like for your children to part with their beloved possessions.

Luckily you can ease them through the process by starting from a very young age. If you’ve never attempted this before, it might help to begin before a major holiday or birthday. 

Let your child know that a gift-giving event is coming up soon, and you don’t have enough room on the shelves for all the new toys and games that will arrive.

Knowing new toys are arriving can make it easier to donate or discard old ones for the first time.

Don’t Let Go of Childhood Toys Without Your Children

Some parents purge their children’s toys while they are in school or napping. Please try not to do this. Letting go of childhood toys is a valuable process for children to learn.

It teaches them to focus on quality versus quantity. Children don’t need shelves full of unwanted stuff. Instead, they need a few items they love to use. Let them come to that realization as you remove toys and make space.

Letting go of childhood toys can be a challenging process, and that’s okay. Take your time and prepare for your children’s heightened emotions.

The Process for Letting Go of Childhood Toys

To begin, write the words “keep,” “broken,” “donate,” “hold for the future,” and “I’m not sure” on five separate pieces of paper. Each label corresponds with the following categories:

  • Keep – Toys your child loves and plays with regularly
  • Broken – Broken toys or games with missing pieces
  • Donate – Toys they’ve outgrown and can easily part with
  • I’m Not Sure – Toys they aren’t ready to part with
  • Hold For the Future – Sentimental treasures

Make a separate space for each label on the floor in front of you. Then walk with your child to the toy shelf or bin and pick up the item on the top of the stack or the toy in the left-most shelf corner.

Hand the toy to your child, then ask:

  • Is this toy broken? Does it have any broken or missing parts?

Ask the child to place it near the “broken” label if the answer is yes. After you finish decluttering, you will discard these toys.

If the toy is functional, ask your child:

  • Do you play with this?

If they answer yes and you know they play with it, place it in the “keep” pile.

If they say yes, but you know they don’t play with it, ask:

  • When did you last play with it?
  • Do you love it as much as your other toys?
  • Would you like to give it to someone who might love it and use it daily?

If your child is willing to donate the toy, place it in the donate category. Praise them for passing on toys to other children that will love them.

Temporarily Letting Go of Childhood Toys

If your child has difficulty parting with a toy they don’t love, ask them to place it in the “I’m not sure” category. Find a bag or box and let your child know that you won’t donate these items just yet. 

Instead, you will place them in a temporary holding bin for three to six months. If your child doesn’t ask for the toy before that date, you will donate it. 

Explain that you aren’t giving away their toys right now. You are simply setting them aside to see if they miss them after they are out of sight.

Creating a temporary holding space often eases your child’s emotional resistance to letting go. You aren’t getting rid of anything yet. If your child decides they miss the toy, you will bring it back out of the bin for them. Otherwise, you will donate in the future.

When the time arrives, pull the items out of the box and let your child look through them. Point out that they haven’t missed any of the toys inside, so now you can get rid of them.

Letting Go of Sentimental Toys and Childhood Memorabilia

Reserve the last category, “hold for the future,” for sentimental toys or childhood memorabilia that your child still loves.

These items might include teddy bears, baby blankets, or toys they love but may have outgrown. Build a shelf to display these treasures or buy a bin to store them, but let your kids know they can’t keep everything. Once the bin or shelf is full, they’ll need to pick and choose which items to store indefinitely. 

What childhood things should you keep? The toys and child memorabilia that elicit the most emotion. The childhood treasures that cause misty-eyed memories and tug at your heart when you consider letting them go.

When it’s tough to say goodbye, consider taking photographs of your child with their toys. Ask them to hug their teddy bears or cover themselves with their baby blankets and solidify the memory of the objects they love.

Print the pictures and place the physical items inside the bin after you do. Eventually, the photograph may be all they need.

17 thoughts on “Letting Go of Childhood Toys and Memorabilia”

  1. My friends report that I am the least sentimental female they know, but at least one has come around to my way of thinking. My friend’s husband was presented with three huge boxes of memorabilia that his mother saved for him. He felt burdened by the gift- and the things in the box held more memories for his mom than for him. He didn’t really want them, but seeing all the time she put into it made him feel guilty about tossing it. My friend is now rethinking all the things she planned to save of her children’s childhoods.

    Updating picture albums is on my retirement to do list, and I haven’t done that yet. Other than that, I’m letting my kids save their own favorite things.

    • This is why I’m considering donating my children’s stuff. I felt terrible when my mother-in-law handed me boxes of stuff I didn’t want. I would never want to do that to my children or their future partners. How do you tell someone you don’t want their stuff when they saved it for decades? Ugh, it’s awful. It put me in a terrible spot. I can imagine it would be even harder for a child who feels guilty for saying “no thanks” to their parent.

  2. I don’t have much from my childhood. By choice.

    For years, I had tubs full of stuff at my parents house. They were gracious enough to lug it all over the country as they moved. When I finally had a place of my own, I collected the tubs and went through them.
    I got rid or donated 95% of it. It’s a memento and cautionary tale of collecting stuff.

    • I’ve been able to whittle away so much over the years. What is left fits in a small plastic box, but I would like to get rid of most of what’s inside that too. I don’t want to be the parent who drags my children’s stuff from house to house and we will probably move again 10 to 12 years from now, so perhaps now is the time to say goodbye. I think your situation is common. Most of us eventually cut ties with the stuff we hold on to. Thank you for your comment.

  3. I recently got rid of a treasured childhood doll. Went mouldy in storage 🙁 As a very sentimental person, the forced parting was hard but a good thing overall.

    • I recently had to throw out my old strawberry shortcake doll for the same reason. It’s crazy how a 40+ year old like me still feels so attached to inanimate old toys. It did make it much easier to let her go though. Thank you for the comment and for letting me know I am not alone.

  4. My children (in their 40’s) wanted pictures from their childhood but did not want scrapbooks or boxes of photos. I sorted the photos, scanned them and gave each one a flash drive of memories at Christmas. Our children had Star Wars toys and Barbies which I kept and our grandchildren spent many happy hours playing with them. (I was their after school Granny Nanny.) Now, it is time to donate those treasures. Good Luck with your decluttering!

    • Thank you for the advice. Photographs are next up on my list of items to digitize and get rid of. I think it’s fun for kids to look through photos, but creating a digital photo album is a much better solution than carrying around books and boxes full of pics!

      It’s great that your grandchildren enjoyed your children’s toys. My youngest has a newfound interest in my old box of toys and is begging me not to get rid of them until he grows up 😉

    • It’s crazy to think how attached I’ve gotten to material objects. Especially since I consider myself a minimalist at heart and hate unnecessary stuff and clutter. It’s much harder than I thought it would be!

  5. I have my two favorite teddy bears and my husband’s Paddington, as well as my mother goose pull toy and childhood books. I’ve tucked them into my bookshelves, and I love seeing them, and my grandchildren borrow books frequently. My mother in law kept Legos, real wood Lincoln logs, tinker toys, and an army of little soldiers, and her 11 grandchildren and bunches of great-grandchildren have spent hours with them whenever they visit. I plan to offer any of them what they want when we downsize, and donate the rest, though my first two teddy bears will probably always be with me.

  6. Toys come and go. Most of them.

    Except the very special ones. The one you slept with throughout your childhood. Some others who had rich characters and were played with from year to year.

    Keep these. You own it to them. They helped to make you the person you are. Getting rid of them would be a betrayal.

    Chris, 44.

  7. In my efforts to learn how to sort through my own childhood toys, school papers, etc., as well as what to hold onto of my children’s, I came across a great way of giving permission for them as grownups, to get rid of the keepsakes they don’t want to keep. I’ve tucked a simple note into the boxes that said that ‘while these items gave me great joy to hold onto for sentimental reasons, you can do whatever you want with them. It’s ok to let them go.’ I think that giving them permission to let go of the stuff they don’t want to keep, frees them up from any guilt or pressure.

    Thanks for your important and thoughtful article.

    • This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing your ideas. Sometimes it’s difficult to let go of childhood toys and memorabilia, I love the idea of giving your old treasures, but including a guilt-free, it’s okay to get rid of this note.

  8. Dear parents!

    When Your kids are very good behaviour all the time and always taking good care of their things, keeping their rooms very clean, loving their favorite things and want to make nice childhood collections of their things: books, clothes, toys, video games, clothes, DVDs and etc, then donataing is very wrong thing to do. If You have few space then storage boxes and shelves will help You out and Your kids will be very happy and thankful then, if they can keep their favourite things. Childhood things are very valuable and it is very sad, if they won’t see them anymore in their life. Every child should have the right to keep their things, if they can take good care of them all the time!!!


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