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?

35 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned About Kids and Organizing”

  1. One very important point with working with children and teaching them to put things away is to never redo what they have accomplished if it is correct at all. Don’t straighten the box or books on the shelf. Don’t remake the bed. When you do these things you are saying to them, “You did not do a very good job.” and they will stop trying.

    1. I love this so much, Jonda. I can look back on my own parenting of my girls when they were little and I think I failed often on this one. I should have simply affirmed their effort, communicating my faith in their ability. My perfectionism probably undermined that. All I can do is apologize and move forward.

  2. We go through my girls’ stuff pretty much every 3-4 months (seasonally) at this point. And we help them purge things they no longer need or outgrown. So, we definitely encourage our girls to let go of things when necessary, because our space is limited storage-wise so helps to keep on top of things before it gets out of control on all ends. But thanks for the gentle reminder here still.

    1. I love that you have been doing this seasonal purge for awhile. By now, your girls are probably comfortable with the process, which is exactly what you want. Decluttering should be one of the tasks we perform as part of living, not a huge project we put off because it feels hard!

  3. So many great points here. The idea that kids have too much but can’t understand it resonates, and reminds me of a series of photos that came out a while back showing children with their toys from countries around the world. Unsurprisingly, the US children had the most – and it was eye opening to see children perfectly happy with much less. I love the idea of setting something aside with a date on it. We also used to rotate toys when ours were little, keeping some out of sight for a month or two before they came back out (and seemed brand new again).

    1. Rotating toys is a great idea. Especially when they are little and don’t remember so well, they definitely seem brand new again. I know our hearts are in the right place when we shower our children with toys, but I’ve also seen how too much can be distressing. A few beloved toys can bring just as much joy as a roomful of “meh” toys.

  4. You can never undersestimate the value of modeling. The modeling starts as a toddler and continues through high school. Modeling and consistency are what make it easiest for kids to get organized. You should be modelling what other’s need to see.

    1. I love that, Ellen. Modeling not only the behavior, but also the attitude. If Mom complains about resetting, decluttering, organizing, etc., the children will learn this mindset.

  5. What amazing ideas for helping children learn the skills of organizing. And they have mostly learned skills. Yes. Some kids might be “born organized,” like a few of us organizers (guilty as charged,) but many more benefit from easy systems, boundaries, and a lot of patience. This often means going at your kids’ pace when it comes time to clear the decks or making decisions. Your advice about honoring your child’s decisions is so important. If they are ready to let go, don’t second guess. Because in honoring their choice, you are also helping to build their self-esteem.

    1. That’s exactly it, Linda. You build your child’s self-esteem and confidence in his/her ability to make decisions about stuff. That is very empowering and will help them be successful adults, particularly in the way they manage their belongings!

  6. Seana,
    This is the most thorough post on kids and organizing their things. Every point that you made is spot on.
    I think you are right that a parent has to supervise pick up and put away. Teaching a child organizing skills, how to do it, is critical.
    I also like your point that, just like adults, children have their own style. Detailed and not so. Both are just fine.
    When my kids were small and lots of new toys came into the home after the holidays or a birthday, I would rotate the toys every 3-6 months. Rarely, did they ask for a certain toy to play with, that had been put away. Too many toys can be downright overwhelming.
    Clean up time was a challenge in our home as I have twins. Sometimes I would have to tell them that if you don’t pick up and put away I’m going to have to toss anything that is still on the floor. I would bring out a big black garbage bag and within a minute all the toys were picked up. Fast forward to today. My twins are grown up, I have to say, somewhat neat and organized, and no repercussions from the big black garbage bag. Except, taking out the trash.

    1. I can imagine that a big, black trash bag was very motivating! Twins are tricky, especially if one ends up doing all the work. There is no simple formula, as children and their personalities are all different. The key with organizing (as with most things), is consistency. Keep trying, and be present as much as is necessary to ensure the job gets done!

  7. Great tips! I totally agree. I do find the smaller the child, the more simple the system, the better. The overflow bins are usually a good indication that they need to be gone through. Sit down and spend time with the kids to see how they respond to a particular bin or bag of stuff. Notice if they are ignoring it completely. Ask them about that bin. Do they know what is in it? If not, they may not care about it.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…How to Encourage Your Kids to Do Household ChoresMy Profile

  8. Kids! So easy to miss the opportunity to teach the value of organization while their still young and eager to please. Can you write a version of this for teenagers please? 🙂

  9. So much wisdom in one compact blog post!

    “Resist the urge to over-organize” is brilliant, because parents who are otherwise organized (and those who aren’t) are far more often overwhelmed by their children’s play areas. There’s a huge difference between creating a toy area, a stuffed animal area, and a book area and arranging the toys by color, the stuffed animals by size, and the books by author! Some parents need to be “gentled” into finding that middle ground.

    And yes, I’ve seen a lot of parents unwilling to allow their kids to let go of things they (the kids) know they’ll never use or play with again.
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Paper Doll’s Secrets: Shred Successfully & Save MoneyMy Profile

    1. I’ve heard parents complain about having to sit on the floor and organize toys by color or size after the children go to bed. I always ask why they are doing that? If the child cared, he/she would do that. If they don’t care, why do you, right?

  10. This is a lovely post. I so agree with all you have said here, and I can’t wait to share it. In my experience, teaching children about organization yields (mostly) great results. While they need continuing guidance and reminders, they are often quick to pick up on basic concepts.

    1. I agree, if you start young enough, and with a positive vibe, most kids catch on quickly. It takes a bit of invested time, but it is so worth it!

  11. OH! Your last point hit home. I have worked with several moms and their kids and afterward, I often offer my observations to the mom. They want to keep way more than the kids. They are teaching their kids to second guess themselves.

    We used to have a game in my house. I’d turn on the bathwater in the tube and while it was filling my kids would quickly clean up their rooms. It was only a few minutes, but it kept their rooms pretty organized.
    Janet Schiesl recently posted…Prioritizing Organizing in 5 MinutesMy Profile

    1. They really are teachable! It’s a great time to teach them to value and enjoy the process of keeping their space organized and fresh, right?

  12. Getting children to learn to manage their toys in an organized fashion will start them on a path they can enjoy their whole lives. It’s definitely a process and a continuing effort even into adulthood. Great ideas.

  13. OMG, it’s like you can see our family! And yes, I so feel that one about the parents having different views on “stuff” or at least not compromising about it. I’ve gotten to see more his side of things now.
    And kids do need help. This is so brilliant.

    1. Teaching kids to feel comforting organizing and letting go really is a gift that lasts a lifetime! I’m picturing your adorable family and your renovated home and sending you happy thoughts on this beautifully warm day, Tamara!

  14. Pingback: 20 Quick Tips for an Organized Summer | The Seana Method Organizing & Productivity

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