Strange Hoarding Play Method in 3.5 Year Old

Updated on December 13, 2011
A.G. asks from Portsmouth, VA
18 answers

Something about my son has ALWAYS made me crazy and I was hoping that someone could help me understand the behavior so that it could stop annoying me so much. I have a very normal child twin boy who is a little over 3.5. Ever since I can remember his preferred method of playing with toys is to just make a big pile or to put a "collection" of toys in a bag and carry it around. He only plays with toys in the correct way when someone else leads him to do so. Left to his own devices cars go in a bag and get carried around, they don't ever get used as cars. Same with his action figures and everything else with the exception of legos (he used to do this to legos also but for some reason he stopped). I don't think he does it to protect his toys from his sister because the only time he actually PLAYS with them for their intended use is when she plays with them also. We have these cool tent things that they love to play in but we can't get them out because he/they immediately drag out every toy they own plus every blanket they can find and DUMP them in until they are sitting on a pile of toys like a dragon. I just don't get it and though it seems harmless it makes me CRAZY. If I ask him why he is putting things in a bag he always responds with something like, "we are going camping with my toys" or "I'm taking them to the movies" some sort of imagination journey for which he needs everything he owns. He's been doing this since he was barely toddling. He used to put his bags and his toys in his sisters toy stroller and wheel them all around the house when he was too young to carry them.

One of the biggest problem with this is that it makes it very intimidating for him to clean up anything because he mixes stuff all together. Instead of just having one thing to clean up at a time (we have a trofast system and he's only allowed out two bins at once), he has a mixture of random stuff that looks much scarier and less achievable to both him and myself. I have serious thoughts of just taking away every bag he owns, but I don't want to be cruel and I am pretty sure he will always be able to find some sort of receptacle, or he'll just resort to making a pile. I am not an extremely clean person, but we try hard to clean up all our toys at least twice a day so it never gets too intimidating for them to find a place to play and to find the toys they want.

Mainly does anyone have any explanations for me, any tips for helping him to play normally, and tips for helping him clean up when he's made a crazy jumble, or even just commiseration that other kids DO this. I know that one of the answers is for me to play directly with him more, but it is really hard to make time to do that with 3 kids and one on the way. We find plenty of time to cuddle and read books, but a) I just really don't like to play with toys, I prefer to watch and b) its hard to make time to play when he's perfectly content to just play with his sister, I always try when he asks me to play something with him.

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So What Happened?

Thanks Ladies. I was mostly concerned that A) he really only chooses to play one way (even if it is imaginative). I want to see more variety in his play, but hopefully that will come. Glad to know that this behavior is fairly common. B) thanks for the suggestions on the cleaning up. Like I said I am not a very neat person, I was never taught to clean up after myself as a kid until the room was an overwhelming and intimidating crisis. I still find it hard and fight every day to remember to put things away when I am done with them. I want to make my children's lives easier by instilling good habits in them now so that at least basic picking up is second nature. Please understand that I don't make a big deal of it because I need a pristine house, or because I am too lazy to clean up for/with them.

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answers from Kansas City on

He sounds perfectly normal and honestly, it sounds like you are the one with some of the issues here, not him. I don't understand why adults "freak out" about such small things. He has an incredible imagination, so instead of putting a damper on his imagination, let him explore.

As far as the clean up goes, he's old enough to know that if he takes all of his toys out, then HE'S the one who needs to clean them up, not you or anyone else. So, if he wants to spend all of his time picking up toys, then let him take them out and haul them around.

He is playing normal, so relax a little and enjoy watching him explore.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Youngstown on

I can totally relate. My daughter is 5 and finally starting to actually play with her toys. She loves bags. She has a collection of them full of stuff. It drives me crazy too. She has always put things in bags and carried them around with her. I had to start a rule of what was allowed in the bags because she would take all her little brothers toys away and leave nothing for him to play with. Perhaps you could give him only one bin of toys at a time if he wants to use a bag to play or make a rule only 6 or 10 things in a bag so it doesn't get too full and he won't be overwhelmed come clean up time. It seems to be a phase some kids go through. Good luck.

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answers from Erie on

He is playing normally, the answer he gave you clues me in to that. His play in in his imagination more than in the physical world. For now, if I were you, I would stop trying to organize the toys so much, let him have his "piles" in boxes or bins, use a toy box for the bags he makes and let him be. Provide "scenes" for him to take part in (for camping, going to the store, etc...), he's old enough to start making up plays with puppets, for instance, and he sounds like a kid who would thrive with dramatic play, so encourage that more instead of "sit down and play with this toy like this". And also, start cooking with the kids now. It's the perfect time to start teaching cutting and mixing.

I just read your update and I have to say, I don't ever remember cleaning up all the toys. Ever. For over 12 years we had toys on windowsills, rocks in bowls, Little People set up in a scene on the tables...and I let it stay that way. I refused to stress over having everything neatly organized and just made sure things were clean and nothing was on the stairs lol.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from San Diego on

My son is 3 1/2 and loves carrying his toys around in bags, buckets, random containers. I have most of his toys organized in his room in different containers. ie..hotwheels in this bucket, animals here, little people stuff there. He knows which container everything goes in. So once he is done playing with his backpack stuffed with all different toys he and I will sit down together and sort them out and put them away. IMO the bag think keeps him organized. He will even pack his own backpack to go camping. Of course he will forget some stuff but it is really cute.My husband is one of those people that is always ready for anything so he has all kinds of different things stored away in his truck. I think my son is going to be like him in this since.


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answers from Toledo on

Girl---you think you're going crazy now, wait til you've got a new baby!! Your boy sounds normal to me. Competition seems to be the best motivator for toddlers, so have contests to see who can pick up the toys faster. Less toys = less mess, so put part of them up in a closet for awhile, as someone else suggested. Relax! You've got toddler twins, another child in the mix, and another one coming. No wonder you're stressed. Just remember this---stress is NOT something that happens to us---we create it in ourselves, so it's up to us to learn coping skills.The first question to ask yourself is, "Is this worth my energy stressing over it?" Your kids are loved, clean, fed, clothed, and safe. What more is really important?

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answers from Modesto on

He's only gonna be little for a short time... this hoarding thing is sort of cute and sweet. I'd try to make sure that "like" things could be put in the same recepticle but if that's not possible there's not much you can do except laugh and write this down in his baby book. My sis had a tote bag, she put all her "stuff" in it and it had to go where she went till she was about 5. She jis not longer with us but my mom loves talking about how cute she was with her hoarding and her tote bags.

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answers from San Francisco on

He is normal. He has a wonderful imagination! You should really be sooo happy he does because alot of kids these days don't have that b/c of tv and video games etc. If you are concerned about cleanup, limit the toys to one or two types then make him clean it up. He is old enough to put away his own toys. I am sorry, but I really don't understand your reasoning and why this makes you so crazy???Also, you said you don't directly get down and play? You should! It may make a big difference if he sees you interact with him in this way---model the way things are usually played with and he may follow. But it is really great that he is thinking of all these places that he can bring his toys etc. Play more and stress less! He is totally normal!!!




answers from Pittsburgh on

I haven't read all the responses, but your little boy sounds pretty funny and cute! My son is the same when it comes to playing with the toys when led, but doing his own imagination led thing otherwise. Often, I feel like my husband and I are probably fools for buying all the toys we do. This is because a random household object will usually hold his interest in alone play as long as any toy would. The toys do get out of control, and I like to put things with many pieces out of reach. I save them for guided playtime. Also, my son went through a phase at the same age as your son where he loved to put things into a sack and carry them over his shoulder. I don't know if it is something on tv or what? But that was the main point of his play - to carry his stuff santa style.



answers from Youngstown on

I agree he is playing fine. He is only 3. As for clean up if you only have 2 bins then there should only be 2 types of toys out? Children don't know how to clean so they get overwhelmed and don't want to. My oldest are 8 &5 and I have to say,wrestlers go in wrestler box,cars go in car box, get the idea. If I don't and say go clean your room then NOTHING gets one. One task at a time. Try that for clean up. Don't try to change your son. He is who he is.



answers from Charlotte on




answers from Chicago on

Well for one thing carrying around the toys he wants at that time means that his twin sister can't get them...sounds like he is protecting them to me. Certainly there is no "right way" to play with toys. He obviously has a great imagination and also seems to be quite the problem solver. If I were you, I would take my son carrying around his toys to protect them any day over having screaming matches with his sister when she tries to interrupt his play or take those toys.

Of course one day he'll grow out of day he won't play with toys anymore and you'll have a grown-up son. Nobody will care in 20 years if you have huge piles of toys all over your house today - and most likely you won't care then either. Try to just enjoy today for today and celebrate your healthy, happy, silly little preschoolers. I have a 4 yr old and an 18 month-old, and the weird things they do, say, and weird places they put things is continuously amusing to me. I know I am going to miss this SO much when they grow up.




answers from Phoenix on

I don't really have any tips to change or correct this as it sounds a bit normal - for him. And at least he uses a bag to tote everything around in.

At that age my son insisted on carrying sets of toys around with him and he would literally make his pile by the front door before leaving, then run back and forth carrying as much as he could with each trip to the car. It was entertaining to watch him prepare and transport all this. And then when we arrived at our destination he would cram as much into his arms as possible and walk around with it all. We had a talk and came up with a compromise, that he could only really manage 3 items so he could only take 3 toys: one item per hand and 1 item in his pocket and that it would be easier to find things when leaving. For years I needed to empty his pockets of his little collections before laundering.

You're biggest healthy clue is that he does have a purpose when you ask, like they are going camping. That is developmentally right on and shows a healthy and active imagination.

I believe this will pass, but he might want several favorite items around him for many years.



answers from Gainesville on

I just saw your update-if it seems as though they are overwhelmed you could try what my friend does. She rotates their toys. She takes out a big chunk of the toys and puts them away. Then a month or so later she rotates. That way it seems like all new toys and not so much "stuff" in their play space at once. I've done it to a certain degree and it really works!

I have to agree with everyone else. He's playing perfectly normally! That's his job. That's really his only job right now-play, explore, learn about the world and how to navigate thru it. Think about his behavior-I'm sure he sees you carrying a diaper bag or purse, grocery bags, or dad carrying a bag to work, etc. He's mimicking that behavior! Good for him. That means he's watching and learning. Do you ever have just one or two types of things in your purse or grocery bag? Nope. So why should he have those kinds of limits.

So, really mom, take a step back and let him be him and let him enjoy learning about the world and be a creative playful kid.

My daughter (2.5) does the same type of thing. We went to a local amusement park not long ago and she *had* to take her favorite purse with her. Of course all parks check bags now. The man doing the checking said "Oh what a pretty purse! What do we have inside?" I laughed and said "What doesn't she have inside is the better question!?"



answers from St. Louis on

back off, Mom!

He's an absolutely normal child! Well, no, he's an absolutely phenomenal child.....& I truly applaud his imagination.

Currently, I have 2 boys (age 15 months) & 2 girls (age 2 1/2 & 3 1/2) in my daycare. It is a given that when the tent is out, every single toy - book - doll wll be in that tent! & it's a riot to watch the boys walk around with the dress-up purses & bags...just filled to the top with toys! I caught a pic of one of the boys this week....he had a black velvet purse, overflowing with toys. He was wearing mens work gloves & had placed himself in the time-out spot....& had a baby doll bottle in his mouth. His little head was just bobbing up & down.....& you could tell that he had his own little storyline going! It was a riot!!!

Please try to relax on the toy rules. You will be amazed at how much diversity, creativity, & joy your children will feel! & as for that stupid word "hoarding".....throw it out of your vocabulary!


answers from Pittsburgh on

I am finding out that this is far more common than I realized. My son, almost 5, is a piler. He loves to make/play with/sit amongst piles of toys, usually stuffed toys, blankets, pillows. He is also a packer. He loves to pack things into bags to take with him places, even next door to my mother's house, where he has as many toys and things as he does at home. He has a play house, and currently, there is a pile of about 30 stuffed things in there. The bottom area of his loft bed is also a collection of his stuffed toys, pillows, blankets, etc. And he loves nothing more than to go in there and toss them all about, and sit and play amongst them.

It was a little concerning at first, but as he grew, I see him playing with far more variety, playing games, imaginative play, etc. But he still loves his piles! It does make it a little more intimidating to clean up, but we also have the trofast system, so we have a place for everything, which makes it much easier. We both know where everything's home is, so that makes clean up less daunting.

I know it's a little annoying, but I'd lighten up about it. I think it's certainly within the realm of "normal" and probably more common than you think.



answers from Boston on

In good news, this is totally normal. My daughter especially never used toys the way they were "supposed" to be used. Puzzle pieces were cookies, stuffed animals were babies, etc. In fact, she never really played with toys much at all. Still doesn't. My son is a little bit more hands on with his toys, but they basically only do imaginary play. He has a whole bunch of racecars, and he'll line them up and play with them on the track for about 5 minutes. But play "baby" with his sister? That can last forever (they're 5 and 3, by the way). Right after Christmas their favorite game was to play "Christmas," which was to take every single toy in the playroom, pile it all up in the corner, cover it with a blanket, and then pretend Santa had come. While I'm normally pretty easygoing, that game had to stop right away! I mean, how many times can you put stuff away?!

My best advice is to encourage him to play the way he wants. After all, it's _play_. It's supposed to be _fun_. He has years and years and years ahead of him where he's going to have to do things "right."

But I do understand how frustrating the clean up can be. My advice there is to work on making it a game. He won't always want to play, of course, but at this age, he's still going to need a good amount of help cleaning up anything. Think of all the different ways you can sort those piles - by category, by color, by size. I normally make it a race (i.e. I bet I can pick up all the blue cars before you pick up all the red cars!). That helps a lot.

See also if you can help control the amount of stuff that gets pulled out by playing along. So if you pull out the play tent, tell them they have to get to the imaginary island by boat, and they can only take the stuff that can fit in the boat - then give them a laundry basket boat and tell them that they can only fill it once or it will sink. Don't know if that will work, but I find my kids are much more compliant if they feel I'm playing along.

Finally, remind him as he's pulling stuff out that he's going to have to clean it up, and then be consistent in making him help clean it up. Sometimes now I can get them to not "dump" quite as much stuff by saying "remember how you had to clean all that up yesterday? Let's not make quite as big a mess today."

Most importantly, relax about this. In no time all he's going to want to play with is a handheld gameboy and you'll miss the piles of legos and shoes and adventures with dragons. Good luck.


answers from Biloxi on

Um, my son was fond of string bags and had a collection of them that he kept various things in - toys, books, pens, pencils, paper, candy, gum, photos, notebooks, and things I couldn't identify. I would find them hung on the back of chairs and doorknobs all over the house. Though the contents changed he didn't start getting rid of them until a couple of years ago. He is 14 now. :) He kept a couple "just in case". I never understood the fascination but realized early on that it made him happy. Mind you this started in toddlerhood - the keeping "treasures" in special bags and the string bags were an improvement over plastic grocery bags.

As a toddler he used to keep toys in various drawers and cabinets, even on a shelf in the kitchen pantry. So I am familiar with toy "hoarding". I just learned to live with it. As habits went it was not so bad - I just drew the line at stashing snacks all over the house - it was no fun to find a moldy half eaten cookie in an rarely used desk drawer. So to me the bagging, dragging, and hoarding of toys is completely normal! LOL

They only way to maybe stop the clean up melt downs is to limit the amount of toys he can take out at one time....maybe only one bin or half a bin of toys can be bagged and carted around the house. Do continue to insist that he pick up after himself - maybe not worry too much about the toys getting back in the right bin. I gave that up early on in the toddler years. He seemed to be able to find what he was looking for so it never mattered to me.

I understand how busy you are, but do try to play toys with your kids every once in a awhile. I had a ton of fun re-discovering the joy of "vroom vroom" with tiny cars, making them crash into each other, and the wonder of building things with Legos. Now its all about the DS and video games and I am soooooo bored.

Your children sound lovely and fun. I especially enjoyed the visual of tiny dragon children sitting on piles of treasures!!!



answers from Punta Gorda on

This has been quite interesting reading your post and all the answers. My daughter who is 4 1/2 now has done this forever. I thought it was strange as well but am starting to realize what an incredible imagination she has. She collects rocks and uses them as cell phones. She piles all sorts of toys on her bed and pretends she is on a plane. One time I mistakenly told her to pack her bag for a real plane ride. When She wheeled it out it must've weighed a ton. I pulled out a ceramic soap dispenser amongst other random things and loudly asked her why on earth she would choose to bring this on the plane. She looked at me as if I was a dunce and said she just might need to wash her hands. At our destination half way across the world she carried that backpack with her all the time, everywhere. The only reason she didn't sleep with it was because I wouldn't let her. Needless to say, I, like you tend to over analyze these quirky behaviours but am slowly starting to accept my children as they are... ;)

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