Conquering Kids' Clutter

by Debbie Williams
Spring is here, and with it comes the urge to clean, de-clutter, and toss out (until next year, when we start all over again.) 

For some reason, after the holidays and again in the springtime, I find myself drawn to minimalist decorating. You know the style: no knick-knacks, a few things hung on the walls, throw out all the kids' toys... 

OK, that is a bit drastic. But with a preschooler's Hot Wheels taking over my living room, I'm getting ready to regroup. Perhaps a few of these organizing tips will help you in your quest to conquer clutter in kids' rooms.

Contain Yourself
Remember all those plastic tubs with lids you bought on sale? You know the ones, stacked in your closet or truck of your car? This is the time to put them to good use.

Blocks, doll clothes, small toy cars, tinker toys, play dough, and all the other loose items floating around the house belong together. I strongly recommend using shelves with tubs of different sizes as opposed to toy boxes. Toys last longer when they're stored gently and not stacked, and the kids can find things easier. It reduces boredom and makes for fewer trips to the toy store as well.

Small plastic shoe boxes are perfect for Legos, Barbie clothes, and hot wheels. Find totes a size larger with handles on the top for easy carrying to and from the play area.

Larger tubs hold blocks, play food and dishes, and other pieces that just seem to multiply in the night.

Save the large tubs for train sets, car tracks, doll accessories, and sports gear.

Flat under-the-bed boxes are wonderful for out of season clothes and toys. Most closets are not large enough for toys and clothes, so store unused toys as you would clothing: kites, beach gear, and baseball gear is stashed during winter months; football, hockey stick, and ice skates are stored during the summer.

Buy clear tubs for easy viewing, or label with words or pictures for younger children. If they can't see what's inside, chances are they won't use the toys in your nicely organized containers. 

Get creative, and let the kids help you label the boxes with photos or magazine clippings of the items. This is a good rainy day project, and it promotes reading skills for the little ones.

What's Your Hang-up?

One of the key rules in organizing and decorating is to utilize vertical space. Often we place furniture around the room with nothing above it, forming a nice horizontal line. There is a lot of unclaimed storage and visually appealing space right above the furniture line!

Hat racks, expandable or pegged, make wonderful hooks for stuffed animals, dress up clothes, hats, jackets, back packs, and book bags.

Smaller items can be hung to organize them by function: sports gear (baseball hat, glove, cleats), or fashion (jewelry, belts, scarves, hats).

More is better? I once saw an entire wall of a kids' room lined with pegged hat racks, creating a chair rail. The pegs were at eye level for the little ones, who hung stuffed animals from ribbons, hats, totes filled with blocks, and various light-weight kiddie treasures. Very creative.

One at a Time, Please
In the lower grades of elementary school, the classrooms are set up in learning centers. And to contain the clutter in the classroom, Miss Crabtree has a strict rule of putting a toy away before taking out another one. This may seem strict in your own home and does not work with every child. With my own son, I have the "three toy rule": he may play with three toys, then it's time to put them away before dragging out another one. It works well with puzzles, books, and other like items. If you start young, they may continue this "clean as you go" rule throughout life.

Be sure to provide ample shelving, simple containers, and practical solutions for this rule. I found when my son was an infant that board books fell right through the slatted bookcase in his room, so I found stacking bins in primary colors for the smaller books. We use the bookcase for large toys instead. Bend the rules, and create new ones.

Upstairs or Downstairs? Inside or outside? 
How many times have you heard the back door open and close during a warm summer day? In Texas, where we live, the flies come in and the air conditioned air rushes out. Toys in the hands of an active child follow the same rule, and inventory has to be taken at the day's end to make sure baseball mitts are not left outside, and bubble mowers are not dripping on the carpet.

Assign rules to the toys and try to stick to them: inside toys, outside toys, upstairs toys, downstairs toys. Often this is a safety factor, such as all toys that can be thrown are outdoor toys (balls, bats, Frisbees). All paper items are indoor toys (books, kites).
If you have a two-story home, upstairs toys are not dragged downstairs, they stay in the bedroom or playroom. Keep a few toys on a small shelf, in a wicker basket or toy bin downstairs in the family room. These must be cleaned up each night before bedtime. Downstairs push or riding toys must stay downstairs and off the steps.

More Vertical Space Ideas
To further utilize vertical space, install shelves and paint them to match the wall. Hang toy hammocks for stuffed animals. Spray paint a long shower tension rod, wrap with Velcro strips, and stick up stuffed animals.

Old soda crates found at flea markets can be cleaned up and painted to house treasures of all kinds: collections (shells, rocks, key rings, kids meal toys). Smaller versions can be purchased at craft and discount stores.

Interior decorators encourage us to keep our collections, but to consolidate rather than scatter them for drama. Encourage your child's creativity by enlisting their help for novel solutions for storage. Give them a budget, make a list of things to contain, and see what they come up with. Perhaps they'll surprise you and suggest taking a box full to their favorite children's charity, or have a garage sale to raise money for newer toys. 

Involving your kids in the planning, prioritizing, sorting, and containing stages ensures better (not perfect) participating in the maintenance of clutter. And who knows? You may actually nurture a minimalist of your own in the process. Or a packrat with incredibly organized closets.

Copyright 1999-2000 by Debbie Williams
Reprinted with permission.
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