What I’ve Learned About Kids and Organizing

Child playing with musical instruments. children and organizing
Image by thedanw from Pixabay

Children bring a lot into our lives: joy, energy, wonder, honesty, and… stuff! For such physically tiny creatures, they often account for a disproportionately large amount of a family’s belongings. Furthermore, especially when they are little, their possessions live in – and often overwhelm – the most convenient and public spaces in the home. While few children voluntarily maintain organized spaces, they can learn techniques and rationale for doing so. When it comes to children and organizing, here are a few things I’ve learned.

1. Children need help establishing systems

Setting up smart organizing systems is beyond the capability of most children. If you ask a child to put things away, he will most likely shove items onto shelves or drop them loosely into containers. They often don’t know what the word “organized” even means, believing instead that they are supposed to make a room look tidy.

If you want your child to keep a playroom or bedroom organized, the parents first have to set it up.

2. Children need to be taught how to use an organizing system.

Like any new tool, children need to be instructed on how to properly maintain their organizing system. Parents can facilitate this process by working with their children in the beginning, showing them item by item where things belong. Labels (pictures and words together) help children remember. At first, have children pick up a toy and ask them where it belongs. Then, patiently wait while they put things away. If a child is having trouble putting an item back (e.g. he can’t get the lid off a box or can’t reach a hook), this will become evident to the parent, and an alteration can be made. Additionally, parents should be willing to help with toys that are heavy or difficult for small hands to properly put away.

Whenever new toys come into the space, such as after a birthday or holiday, parents should be willing to dedicate time to this “training.” Don’t expect children to automatically know where new things should go, or to be perfect after receiving one set of instructions. Stay positive during “reset” time and be clear that the process is about returning toys to their home, not making the space look nice. Over time, a parent can transition to simply sitting in the room and watching children put things away, being available if there is a problem while providing accountability.

If a child complains or makes excuses during reset time, try not reacting at all. Instead wait for him/her to give in and put it away. If a child throws a tantrum or throws a toy, stay calm and remove the toy from the child and put it in a place where it cannot be accessed for a period of time.

Eventually, a child should be able to reset his/her space without supervision.

3. Some children desire an ordered environment more than others.

Just like adults, children are not all the same. Some love to sit and sort doll clothes by type or separate Legos™ by color. They take comfort in having everything “just so.” Other children are less aware of the state of their environment and are comfortable in the midst of a less structured or materially chaotic space.

These varying types are inherent and carry on into adulthood. We grownups also differ in our priorities and preferences when it comes to order. They key with organizing is to set up a system that works for the individual(s). Both children and adults benefit from being able to find what they need, when they need it. Resist the urge to over-organize. Aim to achieve a baseline level of order that all children must maintain. If a specific child longs for more, tweak the system to accommodate his/her desire.

4. When a space gets out of control, children don’t know what to do.

Children can easily become overwhelmed and discouraged. Allowing them to skip putting things away for a couple of days or a week will likely result in a space that is difficult to reset for a number of reasons:

  • The floor is covered with toys, making it difficult to walk around.
  • There are toys blocking access to the cabinets and shelves.
  • Pieces from different toys have become comingled.
  • Supplies are broken, missing their parts, or stuck together.
  • Items that don’t belong in the space have become mixed in with the toys.

Maintaining order is most easily done on a regular/daily basis. When we allow items to pile up, we add a task called “disentangling” to the organizing activity, such as when we have to sort a giant stack of disparate papers, or separate a bin of jumbled puzzle pieces, marbles, figurines, play money, and darts.

Think of it this way: if resetting each evening takes fifteen minutes, the weekly time spent organizing will total about 1 ¾ hours. However, if I put off resetting my space for a week, I will likely spend 3 hours or more trying to sort items and put them away, doubling my required time.

If your child’s play space has gotten largely out of control, it is a good idea to help the child reset and start over. Similarly, if the room becomes exceptionally disordered after a party or playdate, be willing to lend a hand.

5. Many children have too much, but they can’t understand that.

For a variety of reasons, children today often have more than they can reasonably manage. Perhaps loving grandparents have showered the children with gifts. Or they “invited the whole class” to their birthday party and suddenly have 25 new toys to manage. They might also have inherited hand-me-down toys from a friend or family member. Regardless of the source, children often have too many toys in their space, making it hard to maintain order.

I often get pushback from parents when it comes to decluttering toys. Some people say that when they try to remove a toy, the children get very upset. I also hear, “My children are creative and find a way to enjoy all of their toys.” These statements may be true, but they don’t change the reality that “too much of anything is hard to enjoy.” Children need space to play, such as a clear area on the carpet and/or a clear tabletop. They also need to be able to comfortably fit their toys in the designated storage locations. There is such a thing as “too much.” You know you have reached it when resetting a room is physically difficult or when play has spilled over into other rooms because the primary space is too crowded.

If you want to reduce your toy collection, begin by identifying the toys the children play with the most. These are the items for which we want to prioritize space. Toys that are covered in dust have not been touched for a while, which means they can probably go. Most children have toys in their space which they have grown out of, and there are always a few that are broken, missing pieces, or otherwise damaged. Children shouldn’t be expected to declutter their toys completely by themselves. Even most adults need support through this process. Once a quarter, do a culling of playthings. When children are little, parents will handle this process. As children get older, they can be involved in making decisions. If you are sorting and are not sure if a toy will be missed, set it aside in a box with the date on the front… sort of a “trial purge.” If no one has asked for the item by the next quarterly purge, it can go.

6. Children don’t anticipate messes.

Children, due to their developing brains, live largely in the “now.” Most of their decisions and actions are driven by how it impacts them in the current moment. Parents shouldn’t expect a child to realize that pulling out glitter glue at 8pm at night is not a good idea. Children’s brains are not able to look ahead and anticipate making a mess that they won’t have the energy to clean up.

Parents should feel free to set boundaries on which types of toys are available at which times. This includes video games, messy games, high-activity games, and tv time. Just because a child owns a toy doesn’t mean he has free reign to access it at will.

7. Sometime children are better at “letting go” than their parents.

I suggest every household have a donation bin or box set up at all times. Family members who are old enough should be invited to put any items they no longer want into the bin. This might be a shirt that doesn’t feel good, a book they have finished reading, or a toy they don’t play with. Often, a child will tell me that she is doesn’t want a toy anymore, but a parent will come along after her and say, “You can’t give that away… because Grandma gave it to you, because it was expensive, because I (the parent) love it, etc.”

If a child is willing to let go, encourage this instinct rather than second guessing him/her. Yes, if a child wants to give away a family heirloom, a parent may step in after the fact and quietly retrieve it for saving. However, most of the time we should let children make their own decisions. Of course, a child has to be old enough to understand the permanence of giving something away. As I said above, since children live in the “now,” so they may not realize that if they give an item away today that means they can’t have it back tomorrow. Since young children can’t developmentally understand this, parents need to be actively involved in decisions about keeping and donating for little ones. Still, as children get older, a wise parent will appreciate a child’s ability to release what they no longer love, and maybe even learn from it.

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Do you have children? What are thoughts about helping them get and stay organized?