When I relocated from New York City to the West Coast two-and-a-half years ago, on my list of requirements for our new home was an outdoor space. We were leaving the city, in part, to get closer to nature, after all. And where we (my husband and 7-pound papillon, Lulu) were heading in the East Bay, you can basically use your patio year-round.
Pre-move, my California dreamin’ boiled down to this vision: a bungalow with tons of charm and a garden where I could grow my very own citrus tree. Fast-forward a year and a couple months—plus a baby—later, to the start of shelter-in-place mandates in March 2020, and it was clear my persistence on the matter paid off. We might be stuck at home, but at least we can sit outside. Our backyard gave us sanity during a trying year—until a few months ago, when we made the decision to turn our place over to a group of three toddlers (aka our nanny share) after our day care abruptly closed its doors in mid-February.
Like so many others, we’d become surprisingly adept at rolling with life’s punches and pivoting as the ground shifted below us. We quickly reworked our living and working situations to welcome the mini crew into our space. And once again, I rejoiced in the fact that our back patio would save the day, giving the little ones some much-needed outdoor time.
However, in less than three months, my sanctuary has turned into a zone of utter kid chaos. Inside, our home gets tidied, so there’s some semblance of order. But out back, toys are strewn about as if an explosion of bubble wands, partially deflated bouncy balls, and miniature garden tools just went off. So I enlisted some expert organizing advice from Shira Gill, San Francisco–based home organizing expert and author of the upcoming book Minimalista, as well as Los Angeles–based home and closet organizer Yoon Choi.
Gill, quickly understanding my dilemma, suggested limiting quantity and setting clear physical boundaries: “Have the kids pick their current favorites, which can be stored in a single bin, basket, or cubby system. Children are endlessly creative and resourceful, so less is really more.” And she offered the idea of a toy library, where play supplies rotate out when interest wanes. Next step: Choi explained that every organizing job begins with getting rid of things, then categorizing the items you decide to keep, and she gave me straightforward direction for my first move: “Start by asking yourself: What do I use most, what do I use least, and then what can I get rid of?”
Empowered by their advice, I did a deep dive on shoppable solutions that could work for my situation. Here’s what I found.
The Goes-Everywhere Catchall
This water-resistant play mat—designed specifically to be used outdoors—does double duty as a catchall for toys when playtime is over. Just pile any miscellaneous kid clutter in the center, then cinch it up with the drawstring closure to keep all the items contained. Bonus: Its handy built-in shoulder strap makes it a great on-the-go solution.
The covered storage area in this streamlined sandbox is the perfect solution for hiding away shovels and pails when sand play wraps up for the day, but little ones will still be close at hand when they’re ready to get back to it.
The Storage System
To keep smaller items organized, Choi likes the idea of repurposing a shoe rack, such as this powder-coated metal version, as a shelving system. She suggests pairing it with weather-resistant bins in which smaller items can be put away by type.
The Vertical Optimizer
Try installing powder-coated metal hooks above your shelves for extra vertical storage in a designated area. Garden tools and toy-filled totes can hang neatly above the other bits and bobs—and this multihued design lets you color-code things, too.
The Large-Scale Solution
Gill offered two solutions for oversize play equipment: a durable cart on wheels made from the same woven material as outdoor bistro chairs (“Portable storage can be rolled out for playtime and tucked away out of sight when the day is done,” she says), and a mesh-bottom metal pool storage bin that allows wet items to drain easily.
The Lidded Option
Lidded bins—like these outdoor-friendly 14-gallon versions made from recycled milk jugs—offer a “discreet way to toss in and conceal all of the things,” notes Gill. Though she warns that you should “use labeled bins to create order within your storage trunks, so it doesn’t become a huge pileup.”
The Bike Rack
Keep up to five bikes organized with this powder-coated steel rack. Thanks to its freestanding style and light weight (just 23 pounds), it can be set up wherever is best for you and even be moved if needed.
The Sensory Table
Hidden below this kid-size picnic table’s removable top are two bins just waiting for sensory play. Get creative and fill them with water, sand, or dried grains—plus lots of kid-friendly household tools (like measuring cups and wooden spoons). Then just pop the tabletop back on once they’ve had their fill and are on to the next activity. Plus it comes with a super-cute height-adjustable umbrella.
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