This morning I watched my five year old help put away the dishes. (i.e. not really “dishes” but plastic cups and plates). I watched him stack up the plastic cups according to color and then, finding that his tower was too tall to fit in the cabinet, proceeded to unstack the cups and realize he needed to make two towers. Then he had to figure out a color pattern that would allow him to fit two towers into the cabinet. This was a tricky process because he wanted both his towers to match, and we have three colors of cups.
I was very tempted to interrupt this painstaking process to tell him to hurry up and help me before I did it all without him. But before I did so, this little voice in my head told me not to. And as I watched him with a little more interest, it hit me that this is probably why this particular child is the most organized of all my children. He’s able! Don’t ruin it!
Of course my other three children are not that way naturally. But there are ways to help an unorganized kid become more organized. My husband and I have worked hard on this trait because we all stay at home together (we homeschool and my husband works from home). We would go crazy if we didn’t have some order.
So here are some things we’ve learned:
1. Clean up every night is important. And they should do it, not you! (I actually clean up my own stuff while they kids clean.) We have made the kids clean up their stuff every night before pajamas since we only had one baby and he was about 15 to 18months old. Somewhere around that time, we started doing that regularly with him, and we never went back. This makes a nice habit in the back of the kids’ minds that whatever mess they make, they will be accountable for at the end of the day. It keeps them mindful of their stuff… that things won’t get forgotten, glossed over, or ignored for long. And it keeps them remembering what they actually own, which helps them figure out what to do when they’re bored. And it supports the ethic of being generally clean in the house, which is the foundation you’re looking for.
Lastly, it keeps you from welfaring them and getting so mad that they have so much stuff that you threaten never to buy another Lego again!
2. Having a place for everything is important. You can’t really expect things to stay organized unless everything in your house has a home. If it doesn’t have a home, expect it to be on your counter, floor, or stairs. It will sit there until you die, basically, because no-one knows where it goes but you can’t throw it out. So make sure that whatever your kids play with, you have a storage container big enough to hold it. And that there is a place for that container (which can sometimes be a bigger problem). Even if it is just a specific corner of the room, that’s enough. Obviously really huge items can’t be stored away, but make sure they have a corner or place too.
3. Try to keep similar things together. In our house, we have “centers” where similar stuff is grouped. So there is a place for art things, which keeps crayons from being everywhere (usually). We also have most of the building toys upstairs in the bedrooms so that when it’s Saturday Building Morning, the huge mess of pieces can be contained in a place smaller than the entire basement floor. Big noisy toys and gross motor toys tend to collect in the basement. We don’t have centers for everything, but obviously books are grouped together in one or two places, outside toys are in holey laundry baskets outside, and homeschool stuff has its own cubby. Sometimes the kids get permission to travel with something somewhere, but they always have to bring it back. Now they do that automatically.
This mental organization also helps them decide where they want to play and what they want to do… are they in an artsy mood? A building mood? A run-around mood?
4. There is some value in pretty/matching storage containers. While I have never succeeded in having my closets or shelves look like they should be in a magazine (i.e. who has CLOTHES which fit a color scheme?), I have found out that there is some value in appearance when it comes to organizing. While kids are not naturally trained to appreciate beauty or style the way adults can, they are able to appreciate symmetry and order. They are able to appreciate a neat cubby that is color coded and well-sized. Or matching baskets with labels. Or even a closet organizer. They don’t know exactly why they like it, but they like it.
In the early baby days, our house was tiny and did not have any closets in the kids’ bedrooms. In general we were low on storage space. So my husband and I took one closet in the living area (a coveted place), and turned it into the babies’ toy closet. We installed that cheap running shelving and invested in approximately 20 Rubbermaid clear buckets of various sizes to fill with their toys. And we organized those toys and put the buckets on the shelves. So every day the babies would toddle over to the closet and look at all those buckets–they had labels and matching lids–and you could just see the ooooh’s!…hmmm’s…whaaa’s?! And every day we would help them clean up and put those buckets back.
Today our stuff isn’t that consolidated because we have a bigger house, more complex toys, and more “centers.” But we have invested in a couple pieces of furniture from IKEA and whatever, to make the visual organization more clear and appealing. And we still have those buckets in various places. The kids are visually trained to sense organization or not because they can SEE whether things are at the same height, the lids matching, etc.
5. Keep the organizers as close to the items as possible. Put laundry baskets in the hallway, bathroom, or bedrooms. Put toy buckets near the toys they belong to. Put organizers for crayons or whatever on the desk they use the most. Put school organizers near the coat closet or front door. Wherever things are actually used, or dropped, put the storage stuff there. Don’t expect kids to return something to another room. And don’t expect them to go through more than one step (i.e. opening a lid, hanging on a hook) to put something back properly.
6. Massive cleaning (purging) is necessary. Any good cleaning magazine will tell you that getting rid of stuff is important, and it is. But throwing away helps you stay organized in addition to lightening the load. It helps because many times when you have systems of organization already in your house, your house is still messy because there is spillover– all those places are all used up and all the extra stuff is messing up your daily living space. Purging every six months or so helps free up space in the places you’ve already allocated for stuff. This is particularly true of kids clothes and toys.
Every seasonal change (i.e. hot to cold, cold to hot), we have one day where we go through all the kids’ clothes. It takes all day and I’m exhausted by the end. And the kids are fed up pulling shirts on and off! But we do this because I want to have an inventory of everything in the house that they wear. I want to find the items we’ve lost, take stock of what I need to buy and what I don’t, and reassess the articles I thought we’d use but didn’t. Or the things I wasn’t sure they’d still fit in but kept around just in case. We have an extremely small clothes budget (i.e. thrift store, Old Navy), but I tend to scrap stuff if I’m not sure who it will fit or if it will last one through one more season of washing and drying. I make sure all their stuff fits in their drawers and we don’t have extra articles cluttering up their closets (where their other stuff is already stored). Off-season stuff goes in a huge Rubbermaid bucket in the basement.
We also go through toys about once a year. We go through all puzzles and take out ones we hate or have too many pieces missing. We get rid of toys and books they’ve outgrown. We put away toys or books that we don’t want to give away but aren’t being used like we thought. (They will feel new when they come out later). We search under dressers and beds and make them clean again. We reorganize bookshelves by giving each person a shelf and color/size/or subject coding. We throw away broken things and have a talk about accountability. We make sure that each person has enough stuff they love… and a private place for their most treasured items… and talk about being thankful for the things they have.
A 6-8 year old is usually able organize their own bookshelf, desk, closet, dresser, or toybox, even if it takes all day. That’s fine… let them. I usually set some parameters and let them have at it (i.e. I want you to take out enough toys that the lid fits on easily without bumping up. or, I want you to move enough books to the basement that all your books here fit on one shelf.) With a younger child, include them in the organizing process, but do it and oversee it yourself. They’ll learn. I used to make my younger children put puzzles together to see what was missing, or things like that, as we cleaned. I also asked them their opinions about stuff and gauged their reactions as we uncovered things.
Lastly, a lot of organizers have a rule that if something new comes in, something old comes out. We tried to do that and it was too hard for us. But we do have a Christmas rule: we will either prepare for the onrush of new stuff by getting rid of old stuff, or we will do a deep purge post-Christmas.
7. Be organized yourself. Kids need models and they notice if your extra grocery bags are kept in a certain place, you have recycle buckets for different kinds of bottles, and if your silverware drawer has a nice, neat tray in there. They notice whether your closet is all junky and you have to take out six things to get the vacuum. And they notice if you’re digging through your garage to find a tennis ball or screwdriver. Chances are, if they see you using your organizers, they will know what to do when you put something in their bathroom or bedroom to use!
8. Mess is less important than organization. At least in our house, good organizing doesn’t keep our peeps from making messes. As it shouldn’t! It can’t be healthy to try and keep kids neat the whole day. “Cleaning as you go” may work for some, but I find, like cooking, it’s often easier to just mess up the whole kitchen and then attack it at the end. There is freedom to do what you have to do. So accept mess, but only on the condition that it gets cleaned up.
In our home, the rule is the house must be clean on waking up and going to bed. I have this rule even for myself and my kitchen. Sometimes this leads to disorder over time as people clean up but don’t organize correctly as they clean– pieces get stuck in the wrong buckets, or the corners of closets collect random items. So when things get terrible because everything is out of its place we take a Saturday morning and reorganize it. We put Barbie shoes back in the Barbie bag, DVDs back in their cases, and game pieces back in their boxes. Many times kids won’t play with stuff because important pieces are missing. Who will play Mouse Trap if they’re missing a part? Or Nerf gun if they’re missing the bullets? So organization is more important to keeping kids using their stuff, than it is preventing mess.
Lastly, accept that when organizing, things will get messier before they get cleaner. Cleaning is for external appearances, but organizing is for internal. If you catch your kids making a huge mess in their rooms as they’re organizing them, that’s good! It’s part of going through everything and putting it back right. They will take at least double the time you take, to do it, but smile and encourage =) They are learning things that will be natural for them later.