by Susan McCarthy
Everyday practice: Be the example.
Have you ever watched kids in daycare or preschool put away their toys? It gets done. (Okay, there’s even slacker-preschoolers who let other kids put away most of the toys while they put away the one that they continue to play with during clean-up time.)
I don’t have kids, but I’ve taught ages 3-to-14 for 26-years, so I’m using that experience and set of observations for this article. (Plus the information I’ve read or gathered from parents.)
Explain What "Clean Your Room" Means
Kids don’t necessarily understand what it means when you tell them to “go clean your room.” You may think that they will put things back the way you had them, but chances are they don’t have that image in their mind. You can help them by putting things away, taking pictures of the room, and posting those pictures for easy comparison. This gives kids a tangible point of reference.
Show them how to do a task (say, putting tee shirts into a drawer) and then have them do the action and even talk through what they are doing. This covers multiple learning styles by looking, doing, touching, and speaking/hearing their way through the process.
Also "clean your room" may be too overwhelming a directive. Be specific -
Demonstrate the Desired Behaviors
If you walk in the house, dump the mail into an overflowing basket and drop your coat over the back of a chair, it’s going to be more difficult to convince your kids that they can’t drop their stuff in a pile by the door.
If kids see you decluttering, organizing, and tidying, they’ll better learn that telling them to hang up their coat or pick up their toys isn’t tortuous busywork given to kids but part of the process that keeps their home a pleasant space.
Establish Zones of Activity and Storage
Kids’ rooms can get messy because a lot goes on in the space – sleeping, clothing and shoe storage, toy storage, book storage, storage of sports equipment, display of art projects and awards, homework, craft projects, playing with toys, reading, practicing music.
If kids’ stuff ends up everywhere in the house, consider where you want different activities, display, and storage to occur. Just in their room? Different activities in different locations? Keep things simple. If kids have a table or desk in their room that’s to be used for homework and for craft projects, then the table or desk should be kept clear (except for maybe a lamp) and supplies associated with homework or crafts should be stored nearby. (This could be a set of shelves or a rolling cart set next to the table or desk.)
Think about a kindergarten classroom – the tables and chairs get used for all sorts of activities and after each activity, they get cleared off. This eliminates distractions during projects. Also, by clearing the space, it’s easy to see what has been left in the wrong place.
And, for other areas of the house – exactly where do you want backpacks or coats hung or outdoor toys stored? Eliminate vagueness – do you want outdoor toys anywhere in the garage or in the big blue bin next to the door?
Give Everything a Home
If you are a minimalist family, you may be able to get away with a single toy box; otherwise, you want multiple bins with single-functions so toys stay sorted by type. Why? If a child has to root around in a single toy box for what they want to play with, chances are that they will also pull out toys that were in their way.
Because they didn’t play with a toy, some kids won’t put away things that got pulled out in the process of looking for something else because, as they see it, they didn’t play with it, so they aren’t responsible for putting it away. (If you haven’t experienced this, I’m not joking, I’ve encountered this attitude several times.)
As I mentioned with the previous tip, eliminate vagueness. Books go on this shelf, puzzles on that shelf; play food belongs in the red bin, dishes in the blue bin, cars in the green bin.
This means that when new toys are added, they will be fit into the designated home. If there isn’t space, then have your kids decide what they can donate to others.
Skip the Covered Bins
Covers on bins can get in the way of some kids’ play. Either they don’t see the toys in a covered bin or feel that they can’t open it and remove the contents. Also, if a cover goes on a bin, then a wayward toy that didn’t get into the bin might not make it because the child doesn’t open the bin.
You can also signify that play time or arts and craft time is over by putting the bin covers in place after things have been put away.
Question Why a Task Isn't Being Done
A child might not hang up their clothing because they can’t reach the rod the hangers are on. Or, the hangers have a grippy texture that makes it difficult to slide the clothing on. Or, the hangers are sized for adult clothing. Or, a series of hooks would be easier than clothes hangers.
If your child forgets about things that go into drawers, they may need open storage. A set of open bins in the closet could be easier for storing underwear, socks, hats, gloves, etc. You may have to establish routines and organizing systems different from those that work for you.
Give Kids a "to Donate" Box
If your child puts on a shirt that’s too short, do they know that they can take it off and put it in a “to donate” box. The same box could also be used for toys the child is no longer interested in. You still have final say over the items, but if there is a box in the corner of the closet, it will help kids understand that they can declutter when necessary.
Get Kids Involved in Decluttering
Although it’s easier to step in and do something for a child, then they forever rely on you to do the task because they feel no ownership over completing the job on their own. Have them help decide what they want to keep and what they can donate to others. Even toddlers and preschoolers can be asked to pick out their favorite toys. A lot of parents discover that their kids play more creatively when they have fewer toys.
While you may feel comfortable taking your donations immediately to the drop-off center, with kids, you may need to hold onto boxes of toys and books for a few months to be certain they’ve moved past those items.
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Susan, chief (and only) organized squirrel at A Less Cluttered Life, pursues learning, practicing, and sharing information about the everyday habits that can lead to living a better life.