Ask Unclutterer: Teaching children organizing skills

Reader Ines asked the following question in the comments’ section of a post:

I would love love love for you share your thoughts about time management, organization, etc. for young kids. I have struggled with toy clean up for years.

One example, despite modeling over a hundred times how we put away a board game (count the pieces, make sure they are in the right spot, put game back on shelf in closet) before moving on to next item. If I am not there to micro manage, it just doesn’t get done.

Ines, you ask a very good question. It is a question we have been struggling with in our home, as we are trying to teach our son — who recently turned four — how to care for his things. Each child is certainly different, and no single method will work for each kid, but that doesn’t mean children can’t learn how to take care of their possessions. The following are some things we do in our house to get toys back in place:

  • Have fewer toys. Our house is not overflowing with toys, and our son does not seem to notice. Like most children, he has an active imagination, and his knights can do battle on the couch or bookshelf as easily as in a castle. He isn’t deprived by any standard, but in comparison to most of his friends, he doesn’t have a great deal. The fewer toys he has, the fewer that can mess up the house.
  • Regular pruning. He has fewer toys than most of his friends because we regularly get rid of toys. Once a quarter we go through his things with him and we all decide what can stay and what can go. Hard toys (not stuffed animals) and books are easy to donate to charity or pass down to a friend or younger relative. Small doodads he got as party favors go straight to the trash. On the same day, we go through the rest of the house and find items to donate so our son can see he’s not the only one expected to clear clutter.
  • Request experience gifts. If someone asks us what to get our son for his birthday or at the holidays, we usually request experiences (movie passes, museum and/or zoo memberships, etc.) or practical goods (clothes, shoes, school supplies). People still give him toys, but his grandparents often give experiences now.
  • Use small containers for small items. My son has a Playmobil police officer set that came with miniature handcuffs and flashlights and such. The pieces are all less than an inch in size. I made the mistake of putting them in a basket with the motorcycles and police cars and … this was awful. He would dump out the entire container onto the floor to look for the itty bitty flashlight. Now he has pillbox containers for his small items and those pillboxes live inside bigger bins. It’s easy to spot and doesn’t require dumping out the whole box to get to it. We also do this with game pieces — we have small storage containers with compartments for pieces so they aren’t just sitting in the box. If you use these, make sure they’re clear so kids can see inside them without having to open the container.
  • Label everything and have a place for everything. My son is just learning to read, so all of his toy storage has pictures on it and words describing what is to be stored there. We label bins as well as the location in the room where the bin is stored. We attach the labels using velcro so we can move them around to different containers/shelves. You can laminate the labels at Kinkos to make them sturdy. Older children probably don’t need images with the words and you can get by with just a standard label maker printout.
  • Instruct and guide. Modeling behavior is very important, but not all children are learners through observation. In addition to modeling, instruct them on how to put things away, ask them questions at each step of the process, and guide them through the behavior. Be clear from the beginning that you are instructing them: “Now we are going to put away the game and return it to the shelf properly. What is the first step to putting away the game?” These lessons may take weeks or months, depending on the age of the child (obviously, more time is required for younger children). Once they can reliably complete the actions and answer all questions correctly, then you know they are able to do the task on their own. If they don’t complete the task after this lesson, you should repeat the lesson the next time the opportunity arises. Don’t assume your child knows what “clean up your room” or “put away your toys” means to you.
  • Remember they’re kids. A reader shared this gem with me — Children are perfectly capable of doing organizing activities, but they’re not yet necessarily capable of doing those activities perfectly. The hope is that by the time they graduate from high school they will do things perfectly … until then, you instruct and guide them so that each day is a little better. My standards for my four year old are much lower than the standards I have for myself. I still expect him to pick up his toys after he plays with them, but I don’t expect him to do it exactly as I do it.
  • Leave time for cleanup. The hardest part of teaching organizing skills — at least for me — is to pad time into the schedule for cleaning up. If we need to be out the door at 10:00 for swim lessons, at 9:45 all playing must stop and the activity has to be put away. That means as a parent, I have to be ready to leave by 9:45. I can’t supervise and instruct my child while I’m running around the house doing other things. We also have 10 minutes before bath time each night where we walk around the house and pick up errant items and review the family chore chart (more on that below).
  • Heavily rely on clocks and/or the Time Timer. First, we have clocks all over the house, which helps with time management. Second, we also regularly use a Time Timer to give our son an idea of how long things take. I’ll set the Time Timer and say, “all the toys have to be put away before the timer sounds in 15 minutes,” and then we work on cleaning up for 15 minutes together. We also use it when there will be a limited time for playing before heading out of the house and for music practice. I love that thing.
  • Get rid of external distractions while cleaning up. When cleaning up with your child, attentions should be on cleaning up. Turn off the tv, iPad, etc. and focus on returning the room to its preferred state. The only exception to this might be to play a “clean up playlist.” I don’t love Barney, but his “Clean Up Song” is pretty catchy and effective with younger kids. Older kids might benefit from music with a fast beat to help motivate them to move around. I recommend using the exact same playlist for six months or more to reinforce that when they hear the song they know it’s time to clean up.
  • Don’t yell or nag, instead participate. Yelling at your children has been found to be as harmful as hitting a child and nagging creates resentment for you and your kids. Instead, work together when motivations are low. My son won’t yet clean his room unless I’m sitting on his bed talking to him while he does it. He can do it, he just doesn’t want to do it. He’s like many adults who prefer to have accountability partners when they clean and organize. I can’t begrudge him this since I like having company when I’m cleaning.
  • Have clear expectations written or charted for your child. We have a chore chart that outlines what everyone in the house is responsible for each day (dirty clothes in hamper, clearing dishes after meals, taking out trash, putting away toys/activities after using them, etc.). Before bedtime, we review the chart together and discuss what was done and what wasn’t. We don’t have consequences for undone chores, we just usually go with him to do the chore if it wasn’t completed or we let it go and make sure it gets done as part of the next day’s chores.
  • Create incentives. Incentives don’t work for everyone, but our son is currently motivated by them. For example, if he practices his violin every day for 30 minutes for a month, he gets a reward — it might be a trip to the zoo or a toy or a pizza party with his best mate. He decides the reward at the beginning of the month and dad and I discuss it before agreeing to it. We then print out a picture of the reward and hang it next to his practice checklist.

Looking back over this advice, I think a theme is to be involved until your kids have shown they can consistently complete the tasks independently. Until that time, you either have to be involved to instruct and guide or accept that chores won’t get done the way you want them to. A second theme is to work as a team in your home, not as individuals taking up the same living space. But, if all goes well, our children will leave home with the skills to take responsibility for their things.

Thank you, Ines, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for even more advice from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Get organized and ready for back-to-school

Do you have a kid who recently headed back to school? Are things possibly not going as smoothly as planned? The following words of advice might not work for everyone, but these are a few things my wife and I have done to make the return to school less stressful for ourselves and the kids.

First, you’ve got to ease into it. If your kids are like mine, they’ve become accustom to staying up late, sleeping even later and all but ignoring math, English, and science. Giving up all that goodness cold turkey is no fun, so make it less of a jolt. For example, we start reeling in the bed time each night by about 20 minutes for a week prior to the start of school. And, we don’t let down our guard over the weekends — it can be easy to slip into summer habits and make Monday mornings difficult.

Also, as much as I hate to say it, it’s time to wrap up leisurely meals on the deck. September typically means extracurricular activities resume as well, so dinner must occur at a regular time if you’e going to get out the door and back again in time for ballet, soccer and what have you.

Next, designate a landing spot for all their stuff. I wrote about this last year and we’re definitely doing it again this year. Find a home for backpacks, snack bags, hand-outs and all of the stuff that has a tendency to magically disappear between the car and the house. Speaking of bags …

Make sure snack bags, cold packs and the like are in good working order. Last year, we dealt with the most poorly-designed snack bag ever to make it onto a retail shelf. It was tall with a zippered front, and as soon as you put anything into it, the darn thing fell over. It refused to stand and drove all of us slowly bonkers for nine months. It’s gone. Get something you don’t hate that will meet your needs.

Cold packs tend to get beat up, and those without hard plastic exteriors can leak. It’s better to replace them now than before the craziness of the school year begins in earnest.

Buy a calendar for the kids, too. We’ve decided that our 10-year-old is ready to start keeping track of her own stuff. So, we got a calendar just for her room. Now she can write down when her ballet classes are, assignments are due, and so on.

Get a vaccination form from the pediatrician. Certain activities, like sports, might want to see this information. Get one now and tuck it away for the year. It’ll be one less thing to worry about when it’s needed.

Clean off the refrigerator! Here comes a whole new crop of art, papers, permission slips, and who-knows-what. Just don’t let it get out of hand. Also, you’ve got enough magnets, right?

Those are the steps we take every year. How about you? What does your family do to get ready for another school year? Share your words of wisdom in the comments so we all can benefit from your insights.

Charting summer vacation follow-up

Last June, my wife and I decided to save more money and more deeply invest in time we spend with the kids. The result was “Camp Caolo,” our summer-long stay-cation complete with chores, summer rules, goals, a wish list, and more. Now that the summer is over and the kids are about to return to school, I’m taking a look back on what worked, what didn’t, and what we will change next year.

  1. Weekly chores. I’d be lying if I said this went off without a hitch. The kids did their chores, most of the time. Often with protest. But hey, I’m not thrilled about doing my own chores.
  2. The summer rules. “Be nice to everyone or be alone in your room.” “Respect others, their sleep and their stuff.” “No fun until chores are done.” Again, these rules were hit and miss. Following through on number one a few times drove home the notion that we’d do just that: follow through on it. Rule number two was pretty easy to get compliance on, mostly because they slept like logs all summer. Finally, my wife and I did cave on rule number three a few times. Not habitually, but it did happen.
  3. The summer wish list. This was great fun. At the beginning of the summer, we all took sticky notes and wrote down a few things we’d like to do, like visit Boston, establish a family game night, camp out in the back yard, have a movie night, swim in the lake, take a fishing trip, go mini golfing, etc. Really everyone in the family loved moving a “to do” activity to the “We did it!” column. The kids got into figuring out when we might complete a certain activity, and we added a few on the fly. We didn’t get to everything, but now we have goals for long weekends this autumn.
  4. The boredom jar. This was another huge hit. My wife printed many wonderful answers to “What can I do?” onto thin strips of paper, glued them onto tongue depressors, and stuck them into a jar. When the kids asked that inevitable question, we pointed them to the jar. Eventually they’d wander over to it on their own. They ended up making several fun projects and spent lots of time in the yard just being kids. We’re going to keep the jar in play for as long as it’s effective. If you have kids, I recommend making one.

Finally, we bought journals for the kids to update as summer went by with notes and mementos from our activities. This fell by the wayside rather quickly. There was so much other stuff to do that we would forget about it for weeks at a time, and then the thought of getting “caught up” was enough for us to abandon the idea entirely.

Next year we’ll make a few changes. No journals and a little more leeway on chores. They are helpful kids and they do pitch in. So, if there’s an occasional pile-up of flip-flops on the kitchen floor – as there is as I write this – that’s not a big deal as long as it isn’t constant.

I want to say we’ll be less ambitious with proposed activities, but I’m not sure. We missed out on a few and really good ones and that’s disappointing, but not for lack of effort. Plus, we can carry them over to the school year, even though there’s a lot less time to get them done.

The days are getting cooler, the tourists are going home and the summer vacation chart is coming down off of the wall. Next stop is school, scouts, ballet, and so on. Summer 2013 was a good run. Here’s to a safe, fun, and productive autumn for all.

Workspace of the Week: Mid-century modern shared home workspace for parents and child

This week’s Workspace of the Week is localARC’s Steelcase desk-inspired home office for the family:

On the wall opposite the office desk is storage for equipment (like the printer) and supplies:

But then, on the wall to the left of the office desk, next to the door to the room, is this awesome kid’s coloring desk:

This office is full of clean lines and empty of clutter. It is a space where parents and children can work side-by-side and get things done. I find the space incredibly inspiring. Thank you, localARC, for sharing your space with us.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Help your child fly solo with organized planning

Just last weekend, I put my daughter, 10, on an airplane in Boston which was bound for Philadelphia. Neither her mother nor I traveled with her. My heart went with her, however, as the butterflies in my stomach had forced it out of my chest.

What kept me from succumbing to my nerves entirely was thorough preparation. There wasn’t a lot to do, but attending to every detail ahead of time helped ensure a successful experience for my daughter and for me. Here’s how I prepped my 10-year-old to fly as an unaccompanied minor for the first time.

  1. Give the traveler a thorough briefing. This goes without saying, but don’t over look it. Talk about what will happen, yes, but don’t stop once you’re at the airport. Allow the child to be an active participant. Go over the boarding pass and explain the gate, departure time, boarding procedure, etc. Point out members of the crew and what their uniforms looks like. Greet the gate agents. Have her listen to announcements. In other words, help her be a traveler, not a child taking orders from mom or dad. This training can be done each time you fly with your children, even before they go on their own.
  2. Try not to freak out. I cannot overstate this enough. If you’re calm, there is a great chance your child will be calm, too.
  3. Pre-pay for on-board Wi-Fi. If your child will be traveling with a connected device (iPod, phone, iPad, etc.) you can probably pre-pay for on-board Wi-Fi online. Visit the airline’s website for information on this. It saves your child the hassle of trying to do it (my Grace would not have figured it out), and a flight attendant will gladly get her up and running. I wrote my account’s username and password on an index card that my daughter could show an attendant, who gladly got her connected.
  4. Decide well in advance if she will check baggage. Based on your child’s physical size, checked baggage may be beneficial. Walking to and from gates, even when accompanied by an airline representative or parent, can be a challenge with a lot of stuff. A simple, manageable backpack should be all your child has to worry about inside the terminals. The person meeting your child at the destination can help her retrieve her luggage.
  5. Provide DIY entertainment for the flight. Depending on the age of your traveler, the plane’s entertainment system might be difficult to operate. I prepared a small bag full of her favorite things, like those insufferable teeny-bopper magazines and a couple episodes of her favorite TV shows on the iPad mini.
  6. Snacks. Forget the overpriced, unhealthy airport food. I placed a few of her favorite, most portable choices into that same carry-on bag. Skip drinks, though.
  7. Book flights that depart early in the day. Morning flights statistically are less likely to be cancelled or delayed.
  8. Easily identify medical concerns. Pin a print-out of any medical/dietary concerns on your child’s shirt if the child is younger or have instructions in his/her carry-on bag. Point both out the gate agent.
  9. Give your kid a few bucks. Chances are she won’t need it, but I felt better giving Grace a five before leaving her.
  10. Grab some great apps. Grace has a few favorite games, but I also put FlightTrack Pro on her iPad. It lets her track her flight’s progress in real time and has one-tap, pre-written text messages like “I’ve taken off” and “I’ve arrived,” which make communication easy for everyone involved. Some airlines even have baggage tracking apps and/or websites so you can be sure your child’s bags are on the same flight.
  11. Confirm your airline’s policies for unaccompanied minors. My daughter flew on US Airways, which required me to call ahead of time and confirm specific information about the adult dropping her off as well as the adult picking her up. Also, confirm that the gate agent is aware of this information. Plan some extra time into your day as you will not be allowed to leave the gate area until Jr’s plane is physically in the air. If there’s a taxi delay on the runway, you’ll be delayed, too, even though you’re not the one flying.

Our careful preparation helped our daughter’s unaccompanied flights go off without a hitch and the planning was a big part of that. Lastly, let me tell you this: nothing feels better than that phone call from the destination that says, “Safe and sound.”

And for the record, I still had a little trouble with not freaking out.

Charting summer vacation success

As of 2:00 p.m. this past Tuesday, my kids are out of school for the summer. Their elation is quite infectious, I must admit. Now the question comes: What will we do?

In previous years we’ve sent them to camp. The enjoy it immensely and we’re happy to be able to provide that for them. We’ve also done extra dance lessons, taken part in the local recreation department programs and more. But, this summer we’re doing things differently. This year, we’re going to “Camp Caolo.”

Our motivations are twofold. The first is financial. Camp is expensive. So much so that we don’t want to pay for it this year. But our main motivation is time.

My son is eight years old and my daughter is 10. It won’t be long before they don’t want to spend their summers with old mom and dad. Friends, both casual and romantic, will be on our doorstep soon enough. Until then, we want to be totally selfish. We want time with our kids. If this is going to be successful, we’ve got to answer one major question consistently and satisfactorily: “What is there to do?”

Enter the Chart.

The Camp Caolo Chart consists of six sections:

  1. Weekly chores. Yes, chores. I know this is supposed to be fun but everyone has to help out. You’ll notice my wife and I have assignments on there, too.
  2. Daily chores. My son’s list includes feeding the dog, clearing the dishes from the table, and picking up his stuff. My daughter must walk the dog, clear her dishes, and do some reading.
  3. The summer rules. These are pretty basic. “Be nice to everyone or be alone in your room.” “Respect others, their sleep and their stuff.” They love to wake up at 6:00 a.m. and then attempt to have a conversation with my unconscious body. Not fun. “No fun until chores are done.” My wife is not kidding about that one.
  4. A calendar of events.
  5. The Summer Wish List. We all took sticky notes and wrote down a few things we’d like to do, like visit Boston, establish a family game night, camp out in the back yard, have a movie night, swim in the lake, take a fishing tip, go mini golfing. More can be added at any time by anyone.
  6. We did it! As we complete the fun activities, the sticky note is moved to the “We Did It!” section. At the end of the summer, we’ll have a nice record of all the awesome things we’ve done.

That’s pretty cool, but there’s more. My favorite thing is The Boredom Jar. My clever wife has printed many wonderful answers to “What can I do?” onto thin strips of paper.

These will be glued onto tongue depressors and stuck inside a mason jar (there are 40 options in total). Now, when we’re asked “What can I do?” we can invite the kids to pull a stick from The Boredom Jar.

Finally, we took the kids to a craft store last week and let them select a journal/scrapbook. They’ll be adding photos, souvenirs, writings, drawings, etc. to them as our summer progresses.

This is going to be fun and I’m looking forward to it. Adding items to the wish list is great and gives all of us goals for the summer. Plus, The Boredom Jar should be a real boost to the kids’ fun and our sanity. Here’s to a successful Camp Caolo.

Uncluttering your children’s artwork and school papers

Kids often create an enormous amount of artwork — and then there’s the huge volume of schoolwork they come home with, too. Keeping it all would be overwhelming, but how do you decide which things to keep?

Eliminate duplicates

Kids often draw the same thing over and over again. How many nearly identical pictures of cats or superheroes do you need? Consider just keeping representative samples done over the years, which show how your child’s art has evolved.

Jessica Hinton wrote that she used to keep every piece of art her toddler made, but she’s changed her ways:

Today my daughter made 20 portraits of her baby sister, but I only kept one that she called her “favorite.” More likely than not we’ll keep it on the fridge and throw it away when another replaces it tomorrow. Or maybe, just maybe, this will be the one we’ll frame and hold on to for years to come. Maybe.

And as Susan Ward noted, even handprint art — something parents tend to keep — can be overdone:

You probably don’t need to keep two different handprint crafts made during the same week. Your child’s hand has not grown in 48 hours. Pick the cutest one and toss the other.

Choose original art

Drawings your children create out of their imagination will be more meaningful than those where they just filled in the colors in a coloring book.

Keep papers with a personal connection

The essay entitled “My Summer Vacation” or “My Family” is probably more meaningful than the essay on George Washington. Weekly spelling tests can probably be tossed, but a few samples of your child’s handwriting over the years might be fun to keep.

Other likely keepers are the papers (artwork or schoolwork) that showcase your child’s personality and talents. If your child decided to write the essay about George Washington in haiku, it might well become a keeper.

Consider ditching the macaroni art

Anything that’s three-dimensional is going to be harder to store than simple pieces of paper. You may well want to save some of these projects, but for others, it may work fine to just take a photograph of the art. Consider having your child hold that artwork when you take the photo.

Ask your children what to keep

Your children may have their own ideas about what is worth saving. If a particular piece is especially meaningful to your child, it’s probably a keeper, along with a note explaining the significance, if it’s not obvious.

Parents often have more difficulty in parting with the art than their children do. Michael Tortorello, in an article for The New York Times, quoted David Burton, a professor of art education, talking about kids and their art:

Once they’re through with it, they may lose interest in it very quickly. The process is more important than the product for the child.

But Burton also notes that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to see you toss the art into the trash hours after they create it.

Remember that your children, when they’re adults, will thank you for not keeping everything

Most people enjoy seeing a representative sample of the work they did as children. But too many papers takes away that joy.

As a commenter wrote on Apartment Therapy:

A friend of mine was just given a GIANT box of old art and school papers and she cried. Not from joy or sentiment, but from the burden of having to deal with it. It’s now collecting dust in her basement.

Aby Garvey summarizes things nicely:

I use the “ahhh …” test, and keep things that really tug at my heartstrings. It’s the original artwork or the creative writing stories that are most special to me. Spelling tests and math worksheets just don’t have the same tug, but we might keep one or two of those, just so we can see how things change from year to year. By including my child in the process, I also make sure we keep items that are meaningful to her.

Trello is a free, effective, family organizer

A couple years ago, my wife and I succumbed to the fact that individual paper planners weren’t doing it for us. As much as I love jotting things down on paper and carrying a notebook of lists in my back pocket, it’s no good when two people are trying to coordinate Cub Scouts and ballet and play practice and Girl Scouts and chorus and homework, etc.

In other words, our Family, Inc., needed an appropriate tool. For us, it’s Trello.

Trello is a web-based collaboration tool that’s meant for teams, but it’s perfect for families. It runs in a browser so it doesn’t matter if you’re using a Mac or a PC, and it allows you to create “boards” that hold the tasks, assignments, reference materials, and so forth for a given project.

We have a board for each of the kids, as well as for ourselves. In addition to who needs to be where, we add things like what needs to go where (pack the script and change of ballet clothes for Tuesday drop-off) as well as who’s going to do each.

Trello’s emphasis is on speed and no-fuss teamwork. Essentially, a board holds several cards. Each card contains one item in the list of information that becomes the support material for a project. Each board (“William”) holds several boards (“Cub Scouts”). Here’s how we use Trello at Chez Caolo.

The need for quick capture of ideas and news

Items added to Trello from one device show up on another. For example, my wife can update a card on her iPhone and that edit shows up on mine. Likewise, I can make a note from my computer and it shows up on both phones. As we go about our days, it’s comforting and useful to know that we’re in touch and up to date, even on those days when we barley see each other between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (Perhaps you know how that goes?)

As I said, Trello works great in a modern web browser. There are apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, too. But, honestly, the website is smart enough to work and look great on a mobile device, so check it out before you install an app.

Trello is really meant to be used by business teams, but we’re getting a lot out of it as busy parents. In the end, we’re pretty happy with it. Trello is a near ubiquitous capture tool that is always in sync. Shortcuts make it fast and cloud sync lets me stay on top of things.

Saving your “rescue from a fire” item

What would you save if your home were burning? It’s an intriguing question that I hope none of us ever have to face. The point, of course, is a harsh way to get us to consider what’s truly important and want’s expendable.

My wife and my daughter spent this past weekend at a Girl Scout campout. This was the big, multi-troop event that takes place each spring. The girls leave home on Friday night to have a great time, enjoy each other’s company, and return on Sunday with, among other things, a car full of stuff that smells like smoke.

I spent most of Sunday afternoon washing the stinky laundry, including Cow (pictured above). Cow has been with my daughter for a decade. In fact, she’s “had” cow since before she was born. When my wife was pregnant, she and I took at trip to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. I decided it would be fun to win a toy for the new baby on the midway, so I played game after game after game, losing each one in spectacular fashion. I ended up buying Cow from a gift shop (my wife took a photo of the shameful transaction).

My daughter loves Cow and was disappointed when she couldn’t sleep with her on Sunday night because Cow was still wet. That’s when I realized, when my daughter moves out, I’ll keep Cow to remind me of her childhood. Everything else — the artwork, Hogwarts scarf, posters and so on — pale in comparison to Cow’s significance. I could let everything else of hers go. It’s my “rescue from a fire” item I’d grab for my daughter.

A few years ago, when my grandfather passed away, I traveled to New York for the services. We went through the things in his house, and I found many things I wanted to keep. My grandfather was a tremendous artist who worked in pewter and silver mainly, designing flatware and other pieces for Oneida, Ltd. While going through his house, we found so much more than forks, knives and spoons.

There were paintings, sketches, drawings, short stories, tools and so much more, including a steamer trunk from his time in the navy that bore incredible things. I wanted to take so much of it home.

But, I told myself no, and took some time deciding what few items I could store in our house as mementos. As I recovered from the overriding emotion, I thought about it more logically. All of that stuff, as amazing as it was, would be clutter in my home, stuffed in a basement, closet, or attic. I’d take it out to look at occasionally, then infrequently, then almost never. That’s not the kind of treatment my grandfather’s memory deserves.

In the end, I took two spoons he designed, as well as the original sketches for their design. At home, I got a shadowbox from a craft store, mounted them inside and hung the result on a wall as a piece of art. Now I see it almost daily and smile every time I do.

All of the love without the clutter.

My wife did something similar after her grandmother passed away. Her grandmother was a Polish immigrant who often cooked for my wife and her family when she was a kid, generating lasting memories. Today, we have a pastry cutter that she often used and a hand-written recipe plus a photo in a shadowbox that’s hanging, appropriately, in our kitchen.

Here’s one final example. I have a “thing” for T-shirts, much to my wife’s chagrin. Two years ago, she took several of my oldest ones, which I was too afraid to wear due to their age, and had them made into a beautiful quilt that lives on my bed. Again, all the sentiment with none of the clutter.

No, you don’t have to turn off your emotions when de-cluttering. Find that one awesome item (or two or three), treat it with the respect it deserves, and enjoy the uncluttered memories. Treat those things you hope you would be able to save in an emergency with the respect you feel for them.

Safe storage

You’ve uncluttered your home, and now you’re making sure everything you’re saving has its defined storage place. You’ll usually want to store the things you use most often in easy-to-reach places — but please make sure you’re also storing things safely. Here are some of the issues you’ll want to consider.

Medications

A recent study by Safe Kids found that parents know the importance of storing medications up and away from children — but emergency department visits for accidental poisonings are still increasing. What’s going on? Children are ingesting medicines found on the floor, in purses, in pillboxes, etc. They get into these medicines not just at their own homes, but also at the homes of grandparents or other relatives.

So when you’re looking at storage requirements, be sure to think about those pillboxes and purses. And, remember that pets can also get into medications.

For more information, check out the Up and Away website, which reminds us to put every medicine and vitamin container away every time you use it — even if you’re going to use it again in just a few hours.

Toxic materials

Most everyone knows to keep things like pesticides and antifreeze in places where children and pets can’t get to them. But other hazardous products might escape attention.

For example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a safety alert warning about the dangers of single-load liquid laundry packets. These colorful packets look like toys to children, but they often contain chemicals that are dangerous if ingested — so they need to be kept safely away from kids.

If you have pets, please be aware of the materials that may be toxic to them, and store those items appropriately. The Pet Poison Hotline has a detailed list of pet toxins for cats and dogs, including items like chocolate, matches, nicotine, and mothballs. Since so many foods can be poisonous to pets, you’ll want to be sure you have a pet-proof garbage can, one that’s tucked away where pets can’t get into it, or pets that are trained to never raid the garbage can.

Furniture, televisions and other heavy items

Living in earthquake territory, I’ve learned about the perils of toppling bookcases and other heavy items. The Dare to Prepare website reminds readers to tightly secure everything that could injure someone if it falls — as well as any fragile items you would hate to see damaged. The site provides information on how to properly secure bookcases, filing cabinets, etc.

But, until recently, I hadn’t thought about how easily children can get crushed if a television or a piece of heavy furniture were to fall on them — which can happen when a child reaches for something like a remote or climbs onto the furniture to get to an attractive item. The Georgia Department of Public Health has written about these issues, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission has a Tip-Over Information Center. Safe Kids has a report providing extensive information about the TV tip-over problem and how to avoid it.

Plastic bags

Where do you store plastic bags? Do you dispose of dry cleaning bags immediately, in places where young children and pets can’t get hold of them? These bags can present a suffocation risk, so please handle them appropriately. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that you “tie plastic bags in a knot before storing them out of reach and out of sight” if you have children ages 6-12 months.

Being well organized also gives you the opportunity to be more safe in your home. Storing items securely and safely can help to prevent accidents.

How a supermarket snowman helped me eliminate mental clutter

I’ve written about the benefits of a trusted system before. It can be anything you like, really: index cards in your pocket, project management software, a notepad, audio recorder, whatever. The crucial thing is that your brain knows: 1.) You’ll enter information into it reliably; 2.) You’ll check on it regularly, and 3.) Nothing entered into the system will get lost through the cracks. Some people use Getting Things Done, while some use a home-grown solution. When you trust your system in your bones, your brain will stop nagging you about what needs to be done.

That nagging happens to me when I carry around excessive “mental clutter.” As I’ve said before, I use David Allen’s definition of clutter (I’m paraphrasing here): Anything that isn’t where it’s supposed to be for all time. For example, sneakers lying under the coffee table are clutter until they’re placed in the shoe basket in the mudroom. Likewise, “Dentist appointment on the 14th at 9:00 AM” is clutter while it’s in my mind until I write it on a calendar that I know I’ll check.

Mental clutter is detrimental to me in several ways. When I my mind is cluttered I remember obligations when it’s impossible to do anything about them (“Finish William’s Pinewood Derby car” is useless to me while doing 60 mph on the highway), and the subsequent distraction causes me to miss other, more important things.

Now, about the snowman.

A year ago, I was in the checkout line with my then-4-year-old son. He clanked his Keds against the steel shopping cart as I moved bottled water, bagels, and potato chips onto the conveyor belt. While my hands worked I thought about which items would go into the freezer, which ones I’d cook right away, what we’d eat later that night….

“Daddy, look at the snowman.”

“Huh?”

“Look at the snowman.”

“Honey, it’s summer time. There’s no snowman.”

“I see a snowman.”

“Ugh, honey…”

I looked up, my arms moving items from cart to belt, my eyes scanning the store. “Where’s your snowman, honey?”

“Right there.”

He pointed. I looked. I saw it.

A snowman. In the floral department, there was a balloon shaped like a snowman, about 18 inches tall.

I hadn’t noticed it. I never would have if he hadn’t pointed it out. What’s more, he was right. Why would there be a snowman balloon for sale in July? What an odd thing that I missed. What else had I missed? I wanted to know.

That’s when I vowed to notice what I was missing. The first step, I figured, was to identify how I was missing things. Once I found it, I could change it and then cease missing things. I began to monitor my habits. Initially I didn’t change them, I just observed. I was stunned at how frequently I invited distraction upon myself. Here’s what I was doing:

Waking up in the morning, and switching on the news. Dressing while barely glancing at my clothing. Heck, I was watching the news while barely glancing at the TV. Between buttons and sound bites, my eyes were scanning emails while my brain was running its own acrobatics. What will happen today? What will happen this weekend? I need to do laundry. Why are the kids moving so slowly, don’t they know it’s a school day?

There were constant distractions and a mentally consuming dialogue like this throughout the entire day.

Eventually, I realized something significant — I never did what I was doing. For example, when I got dressed in the morning, I didn’t get dressed. Instead, I spent that time filtering much incoming stimuli: The TV, email, my children’s progress toward getting ready for school and so on. My mind wasn’t on what was happening, which was selecting clothing, buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe, tightening a belt.

With the problem identified, I worked on eliminating it. In the morning, I turned off the TV and the computer and just got dressed. I even told myself, “I’m getting dressed.” It was nice! I kept doing it. I found that I appreciate that I have the motor skills required to dress myself. I found that I have nice clothes. I found that my backyard looks nice in the morning through the bedroom window, and I can look down on the berry patch and rhubarb plants. When I was done, I felt, well, happy.

I also realize that there’s so much good in the ordinary. Kurt Vonnegut expressed this more eloquently that I can:

“[When Kurt Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying an envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, I don’t know. The moral of the story is, we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, with the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”

Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to do two things at once. Nor am I suggesting that we eschew productivity or fail to pack the kids’ lunches because it’s time to examine every detail of every moment. I still occasionally write and listen to music at the same time, or breeze through my Twitter stream like a humming bird, or review the day’s schedule in my head. But now I know that’s what I’m doing, if that makes sense. And I’m missing a lot less.

Including snowmen.

Deciding when to let go of your children’s toys

If you have little ones in your life, you might also have a not so little situation known as toy clutter. Letting go of toys can be difficult because you may be considering passing them on to younger or future children or you might think that reducing the number of toys means that you’re depriving your children of enjoyment and learning experiences. You don’t have to be a parent to experience this dilemma. If you’re a grandparent or family member who often has kids stopping in for quick (or long) visits, you will likely need to determine what to do with an overabundance of toys.

How do you decide when it’s okay to let toys go? There isn’t a super hero to swoop in and take away toys that are no longer needed, nor are there flashing signals to let you know the exact moment when it’s time to let go of a toy. But, over time, you’ll begin notice whether your children’s interest in specific toys increases or wanes.

To help you recognize when it’s time to part with some of their playthings:

Oberserve your children during play time

When I was a teacher, I spent a good amount of time observing the children in my classroom. This helped me create lessons that suited their learning styles. Though interacting with them gave me lots of insight, I found that simply observing them when they were “in the moment” helped me to get to know them better. To truly discover the types of toys that your children love (or don’t love), you’ll likely need to do this as well. That doesn’t mean that you need to spend an entire hour with a clipboard in hand ready to jot down what you see. There will be plenty of opportunities for you to figure out which toys they reach for often and which one they don’t pay much attention to. Those that are not as interesting to them anymore are great candidates for donation. And, you can then decide which specific toys you’d like to introduce them to.

Look for toys that do similar things

I once worked for an organization where the motto was, “Each child is unique, precious, and unrepeatable.” Toys on the other hand, are not necessarily unique. You may have duplicates or several that function in extremely similar ways. As I mentioned before, your children will let you know which are their favorites based on their typical play habits. This means you can easily donate or give away the ones they don’t play with often.

Swap toys in/out regularly

Limiting the number of toys that your children have to play with will help you get a better sense of their likes and dislikes, and give them ample opportunities to play with specific things. Having fewer toys to focus on can be less overwhelming for them and they can get on with the business of fully learning about each one (rather than bouncing around from item to item). Rotating toys in and out will also stop them from taking over adult spaces and will make it easier to unclutter and maintain children’s areas in your home.

Once you’ve determined which toys your children no longer play with (and which ones you’ll keep in rotation), you can do a toy swap with friends or donate gently used items to a local family shelter. There are also several organizations, like Goodwill, Loving Hugs, and Second Chance Toys, that will accept used toys that are still in good condition.