Your children can have toys and you can have an uncluttered home

A few times after speaking and writing about having an uncluttered home, people have said to me:

You obviously don’t have kids.

I know that these are lighthearted statements meant to let off a little steam about one’s personal experience, but they always rub me the wrong way.

Simply stated: Having children and being uncluttered are not mutually exclusive endeavors. You can have both. Problems occur when people (of any age) have more stuff than they can store and routines do not exist to take care of the things they own.

If a child has so many toys that they are strewn in every room of the house, it’s time to get rid of a large selection of the toys. If the child doesn’t have a toy chest, cabinet, or closet to properly store his toys, then he needs one. Lay out all of your child’s toys on the living room floor for him to review. Next, have him pick which toys will be kept and which ones will be donated to charity (or recycled or thrown away, if necessary). Have your child go with you to make the charitable donation so that he can see the children who are benefitting from his generosity. Then, after returning home, organize the remaining toys in a designated storage area.

A reader on the site recently left a comment that I agree with wholeheartedly:

If a child is old enough to get out a toy to play, she is old enough to put it away.

Yes, it takes diligence to monitor a child’s behavior to know when to encourage her to put away her things after play time, but it’s not impossible. If you’re unable to keep on top of toys being put away at the end of every play time, then have a routine in place where the child walks through the entire house and puts away all errant toys 15 minutes before starting her bedtime routine. Teaching children these life skills at an early age will help them to always live an uncluttered life. Yes, there will be times when your encouragement will be met with resistance, but such are the ways of parenthood.

Be sure to check out our previous posts in the Baby and Children categories to get even more ideas and suggestions about keeping toy clutter under control.

71 Comments for “Your children can have toys and you can have an uncluttered home”

  1. posted by Dan on

    I have a very active 18 mo old son who is incredible at dismantling anything. Needless to say he is not so good at putting things back together. He still doesnt understand how Mr. Potato Head works but he does understand that his parts belong in his silly suitcase. Same goes for the shapes and the ring tower. Before we leave his play room, we make a game of putting all the toys away. He loves it and his play room is clean all the time.

  2. posted by Kate on

    I not only have 6-year-old twins, but I also run a daycare in my home. This means hyper-organization is an essential skill. It also means that as my children outgrow a developmental stage of toy, I need to store it for the daycare kids, so I can’t purge as much as most families.

    I closeted off an entire end of the playroom with sliding doors, and bought utility shelving that neatly fits pairs of rubbermaid bins. Toys are divided into categories – puppets, dolls, food-dishes-kitchen toys, blocks, Little People Kingdom, Playmobil (and Playmobil, and Playmobil…) There are pull-out drawers for playdough, drawing materials, and art supplies – pull out the whole drawer to use, then slide it back.

    Where my system fails, is small uncategorized toys – fast-food toys, kinder toys, loot-bags from birthday parties, holiday stocking stuffers. I dread Christmas and Birthday time – often I end up with a fly-lady laundry basket of debris after Christmas that lives in a stack of similar clutter baskets in my bedroom closet – often for months.

    If it has a bin, I can cope. If it doesn’t – I’m lost. Any suggestions?

  3. posted by anniep on

    I agree whole-heartedly. I have three kids, I have a very organized home, I do not beat them into submission to maintain organization. Everything has a bin or drawer – there is no question of “where” something goes. We are blessed enough to have a toy room, but that room is as neat as the rest of the house. I troubles me when people say, “its our toy room and we just close the door.” Seriously what are we teaching our children if we just let them throw their toys willy-nilly and not to have any respect for things that they (or we) own. I think that is the biggest thing for me is that if they care for their items – they’ll always be there and be there in one piece. Ultimately it makes less work for me so I don’t have to be running around the house looking for that one toy. They are accountable – if it turns up missing they have no one to blame, but themselves. It’s a daily education, especially with young kids – you can’t just give them a bin and with a hope and prayer they put it away – it takes time and repetition and the one day they’ll do it all on their own. Thats when you can pat yourself on the back.

  4. posted by Sylvia on

    First, I was a bit peeved at this post (which is rare, since I LOVE this blog) but then the nugget of truth seeped in. You are right. I have a 6 year old child that could be a whole lot neater IF we organized her toys and LABELED where the toys belong. Thanks for the push. I have been seeing the clutter but not wanting to tackle the task! KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK! Looking forward to your book!

  5. posted by Krys Slovacek on

    Yes! Exactly! My daughter is only a few months old, but I’m already planning how to organize her toys and how to teach her to put them away when she’s done with them.

    My nephews come to visit, and I have toys just for them stored in baskets in our library. When they play, we enjoy everything in the baskets in any way we wish – strewn all over the living room? Sure! No problem! But as soon as we’re done playing, back in the baskets they go.

    I’ve never had to nag them to pick things up (all the credit to their mom on that, of course!!), and this system has worked great. I just need to keep it up with my own daughter when she’s older.

    Thanks for the validation that this CAN work!!

  6. posted by Anna on

    They’ll become messy teenagers anyway… 😛

  7. posted by Eden on

    Yeah I’ve tried every system known to man, including reducing the number of toys. When it takes five minutes to gather and store as compared to five seconds to dump the box, it’s a losing battle. The only solution I have with my children at this age is to learn to live with a certain amount of clutter. I have too much else to do, which I’m about to go and do, to worry about whether the Geotrax pieces are put away in the boxes I provide for them. And everyone I know with children has this same problem and everyone I know who’s had children completely identifies (and says there’s no good way around the clutter).

  8. posted by Cole Brodine on

    First, my credentials: I have a 2 year old (almost 3), and another child who will be born on Wednesday (Horray for planned C-sections!).

    We have the toy box and closet with toy storage. From the very beginning, we have made my daughter put away her toys. The “incentive” I use is witholding other things. She can’t get out more toys until she puts those away. She can’t watch TV until she puts toys away. She can’t have a snack until she puts toys away. You get the drift.

    We also my our child pick up toys when we visit someone else’s house. There’s nothing I hate more then having people visit with children who don’t help pickup toys before they go.

    Something my wife and I do, which helps us stay more organized: We don’t buy toys for our children. The grandparents, friends, etc, buy out children plenty of toys. I started a college savings fund (529 savings plan) and on our children’s birthday, I deposit the money I was going to spend on toys in the fund.

    I do get my daughter gifts. I try to get something she can use, but will still find “fun”. I bought her a Disney Princess shower curtain for the bathroom she uses. We bought her disney princess pillowcases. They’re things she would need anyway, but there’s no reason they can’t be fun.

    Things may change once they get old enough to ask for specific things, but we’ll have to see how it goes.

  9. posted by NancyV908 on

    I agree with Eden. There’s only so much you can do. I think if you live with children, you have to accept some degree of clutter. That does NOT mean caving in to it & letting it take over. I have designated areas for everything and I encourage & enforce (when possible) the rule not to start with a new thing till the old one is put away. But I also have a creative five-yr-old who dumps out blocks, trains, you-name-it–& then spends the afternoon playing with all of them, making elaborate tracks. So my house is often a mess, but I’m not going to damp his creativity by reining it in. However, every night we have Family Cleanup–that takes care of it. Till the next day. I am teaching my kids to be neat & organized, & it is working as well as can be expected. But I feel the “as well as can be expected” part is crucial to keep in mind.

  10. posted by Michele on

    My daughter (age 10) is with me about half the time. On weeknights when she’s with me, she sets the kitchen timer and straightens her room for 10 minutes. On weekends, we add an extra 30 minutes.

    I think that to say “you obviously don’t have kids” is to scapegoat one’s children for having a messy home. I think it’s not very nice, either, because it’s blame-shifting. It shifts the blame for not cleaning up from the responsible adults to the children who are too young to have complete self-discipline. It’s not fair.

    Also, there’s a happy medium between never making the kids do housework, and constantly nagging. Kids, being kids, will need prodding and reminders before they internalize uncluttering behaviors (putting away their dishes after a meal, hanging up their towels neatly, making the bed in the morning, etc.). And there’s a happy medium between allowing the kids to wreck the house, and being a complete neat freak and going ballistic when the slightest thing is out of place. Kids can’t get something as perfectly neat and clean as an adult should, so lowering standards is OK. Eliminating standards is not.

  11. posted by Jasileet on

    It’s great to say that kids should put away their own toys post-conception but it really comes down to parents creating an organized space (more room than stuff), setting an example of neat behavior and helping them take care of their possessions, take pride in their space. Be aware, a hyper-tidy, minimal environment might be less stimulating to toddlers.

  12. posted by Sky on

    I raised 4 sons and our home was clean, tidy and organized. We had our routines and chores and it made everyday life easier. When they were teenagers, they each had their own room and were allowed to keep them as they wanted. They got out of control at times but eventually they cleaned them. As adults, they have nice homes and continue to be organized.
    It’s all in the training and examples set….early on.

  13. posted by Liz on

    My husband and I have been very good about getting our daughter to clean up after herself–we still have problems, though! To make things as easy as possible, all of her toys go into labeled bins at a height she can reach. There are a few exceptions since there are some toys that are too small for her to play with once her baby brother is crawling. We also have a very finite way of limiting the toy clutter. We are filling one wall in the kids’ room with a Trofast shelving system from IKEA (that the aforementioned bins fit into). The kids will share this and once it’s full, that’s it. We think it provides enough space for them to have toys without going crazy.

  14. posted by sims on

    any good storage solutions that can keep the often used toys instantly visible and accessible. and easy to store it back in? we have a trunk like storage which is a mess in itself!!

  15. posted by Shay on

    I’ll preface this by saying I don’t have children yet. However, I have an observation agreeing with the user who wrote “I troubles me when people say, “its our toy room and we just close the door.””

    The parents of a good friend of mine who became my college roommate took this approach. It was her bedroom, and she could keep it how she liked, which usually meant ankle deep in clothes, shoes, and books.

    As I tried to point out to my mom when I was in high school, this approach seemed to work just fine! But once she moved out of her parents house, a flaw in the logic appeared. It wasn’t her *room* she felt she could treat that way, it was her *space* – which came to mean her (and my )dorm room, her (and my) apartment, and later her entire home was cluttered and messy.

    It hurt, but I’ve thanked my mom for not taking this approach, and I’ve no intention of doing so with my own kids. Keep at it, parents – we who will live with your children thank you!

  16. posted by Another Deb on

    A friend was so good at training her daughter to be neat that as a toddler, the child would put a coaster under her own baby bottle. The light switches in the house were also placed low. And the child would turn out lights as she left the room.. whether anyone else was in it or not, of course, but she was trained!

  17. posted by Sue on

    I’m a prime example of what happens when parents don’t teach children to clean up after themselves. We become adults that have clutter problems.

    I’m still trying to unlearn years of “leave it out until you get so fed up you have to spend an entire day putting things away, and by then you’ve misplaced pieces and stubbed your toe once or twice”, and retrain myself to clean up after myself every day, after I’m done with whatever I’m doing.

  18. posted by Another Deb on

    By the way, thanks to all of those who have their children help sort and put away their toys. You are teaching them classification, observation and problem-solving skills. I appreciate that when they are 13 and in my class! I especially appreciate the parents who taught their children to clean up after themselvs, no matter where they are.

  19. posted by Jessica on

    I have a 2 and 4 1/2 year girls. And while my house is very clutter-free, this does not easily extend to the play room. The fact is that children have a lot of ‘stuff’. We rarely buy them toys but the rest of my family more than makes up for that, despite repeated attempts to reduce that.

    My kids love to dump out the baskets and storage bins I bought, mixing everything up. I used to spend an hour (HOUR!) every night on their playroom, carefully putting everything back into the clearly labeled bins. I soon realized that this was craziness, as I never got much of anything else done.

    I do encourage/make my girls put away their toys, but this is MUCH easier said than done. You can not have a ‘one toy out’ rule because many toys are an assemblage of pieces (for example, all kitchen/food sets, legos, Barbie dolls). Kids have wonderful imaginations and I have seen my girls set up elaborate scenarios using just about every toy they own. As they get older, the toys become smaller. My daughter’s Barbie Food Star came with 50 little pieces!

    When my first daughter was a baby I too thought that I could just limit the number of toys and teach her to properly put everything away. It is a constant battle and one that I know I am going to ‘lose’ in the short term. I can only try to model behavior by keeping my house as clutter-free as I can.

    Also, where do you donate toys?? Most places will not except them (especially stuffed animals) and not many toys survive childhood intact or in great condition.

  20. posted by [email protected] on

    I have mixed feelings about this entry. I’m a pretty uncluttery person, and I work hard to have my children clean up their toys, but things are never perfectly uncluttered in their rooms. I have four kids, ages 9 and under, and I’m trying to learn to relax a bit about the mess.

    At the very least, I think this article should contain an acknowledgment of the fact that a clutter-free life is far easier to manage if you don’t have kids.

    And perhaps the writer for Unclutterer who has kids should tackle the kid-related posts, just for the sake of having some credibility on the subject (remember when the readers got all annoyed, and rightly so, because your male writer wrote about having an uncluttered purse? lol) It’s easier to take advice from someone who has some experience in the area where they’re giving advice.

  21. posted by Anne on

    Toy clutter is a huge problem in our house. We live in a townhouse, so we don’t have the luxury of a separate playroom. Our living room is also our play room.

    The toy clutter is mostly shoved to the side of the room, where our 2-year-old can barely see what it is he has to play with.

    The challenge is to keep the living room looking mostly like a living room, not like a play room. So far we’ve not had much success. We bought a three-drawer toy bench, but it doesn’t hold very much, and what it does hold … well, out of sight, out of mind. Same for everything “cleverly” stored in a leather ottoman.

    I know the solution is probably a variety of stackable, labeled bins. One day I’ll have the time and the clear-headedness to make that happen. Maybe before the boy goes off to college.

  22. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Kristen — Are you sure I don’t have kids? I’ve mentioned in the past that I didn’t have kids “yet” … but I love that you are making assumptions about my current state of being. Since we’re such good friends and you know everything there is about me … oh wait, you’ve never even met me … interesting …

    More important, assuming that a non-parent doesn’t have credibility is also horrible logic. I know many childcare providers who are better at “parenting” than people with children who live under their roofs.

  23. posted by catherine on

    “You don’t have kids.” Oh boy, that makes me mad. I categorize that right with all those other “you don’t know because you are not white/black/religious/atheist/straight/gay/poor/rich/educated/uneducated…” ETC!

    You have to judge people by their IDEAS, not the person’s origin, skin color, size of family, or whatever badge of honor one may claim. The key thing is to note when someone says this kind of nonsense to you. Since they are stating such an ignorant idea, you may ignore them! Or call them ignorant. Whichever works!

  24. posted by Erin Doland on

    @catherine — “You have to judge people by their IDEAS, not the person’s origin, skin color, size of family, or whatever badge of honor one may claim.”

    Well said!!!

  25. posted by Fat Bob on

    Well, experience and personal testimony does count for _something_. You have to weigh these things – if someone is very similar to you and has figured out how to solve your problem, their opinion should count for more (to you) and vice-versa.

    I’ve found that the easiest first thing to do is trim the amount of toys that they have in the first place. My children very rarely notice when I do this since this is stuff that they barely play with.

    I think this article puts forward an ideal situation, something that you might want to aim towards, but there are tradeoffs that you have to decide for yourself. For example, getting children to put away a days-worth of toys at the end of the day when they are most tired will inevitably lead to more immediate conflict than the alternative.

  26. posted by Shannon on

    You know what first sprang to mind when I read in your post about people saying “You obviously don’t have kids”? That they probably want (need?) you to tell them exactly what they need to do to solve that problem.

    My house is neither super organized or terribly cluttered, it’s somewhere in between, probably like most homes. And I realize that I’m completely responsible for that. Yes, I have two young children, and we do a fairly respectable job of having them clean up after themselves. We’ve made it a part of their end of day routine, that they put away their toys before getting in the bath. But I also know that things could be a whole lot more organized. Catalogs from Organized Living, The Container Store, Pottery Barn and Ikea are like “mom porn”. I fantasize about having a home that is tastefully decorated, amazingly organized and spotlessly clean. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I’m going to keep plugging away and working on it. I’m like Erin, being organized is not something I learned at a young age, but I’m sure trying to learn it now. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading Unclutterer and learning new ideas.

  27. posted by Fat Bob on

    btw, i’d like to see more articles on this topic – it’s definitely the worst ongoing problem with mess in my house. Everything else, you fix and it stays fixed, children are constantly changing 🙂

  28. posted by Laura on

    I have an eight month old and a house we are working on being uncluttered, though we really have much more grown-up clutter than baby clutter. I strongly agree that it is important to teach your kids how to be tidy growing up. I grew up in a messy house and it’s taken me a while to learn how to be tidy and reduce clutter, versus my husband who was strongly influenced by his exceedingly tidy and organized grandfather.

    One thing I have included as part of the baby’s bedtime routine is to put away all toys we’ve pulled out around the house (usually mostly in the home office), which I frame as “saying night-night to the toys”. Obviously, I’m doing all the clean up now (while I hold her), but as she gets bigger we’ll have the structure in place to put things away nightly.

  29. posted by EconGrrl on

    I have good friend who is the mother of a 2 year old, and a Montessori teacher. Her daughter has about 8 toys available to her at any given time, and a box or two of others. My friend rotates toys in and out of the available shelf. Even if she has to put them all away, it doesn’t take 5 minutes. It’s a system that works very well for my friend.

    Thank you for this post, maybe a few of us will notice and quit scapegoating our children, or our jobs, or our spouses for our clutter habit!

  30. posted by Sapphire on

    To those who are trying (sometimes against screaming resistance) to help their children to become more organized and clutter-free: Stick with it, it will work eventually! When I first moved in with my husband and his two boys, ages 4 and 9, the child-clutter situation was absolutely out of control. Toys were scattered through literally every room of the house, each child had an enormous toybox (4’x4’x30″ or so!) that was filled to heaping with toys and pieces of toys, inside toys were outside, outside toys were inside…ouch!

    I lived with it for a few months while I was settling into the household and getting to know the boys and watching which toys were actually being played with. When I decided it was time to do something about it, I talked to the boys about whether they played with all their toys, which were their favorites, etc. Then, on their week at their Mom’s house, I gathered up every toy in the house, went through piece by piece, threw away the broken things, and boxed up the good but unwanted toys. (I kept the boxes for a while, just to make sure I hadn’t taken something somebody really wanted. They never asked about a single toy.)

    Then I put everything away in a designated spot in each boy’s room. Blocks in this drawer, cars in this drawer, legos in this bucket, and so forth. I’ve never seen such delighted kids in my life! Not only did they actually have some space to play, they could find the toys they wanted when they wanted them. We agreed on a rule for the kids to spend 5 minutes every night before dinner picking up, and half an hour every Sunday.

    Sure, there was some resistance. Some nights there was a LOT of resistance! But over a period of several months, two kids who were among the messiest I’ve ever seen learned to pick up after themselves. Did I help them? Of course! Did I do it FOR them? Never.

  31. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Fat-Bob and others … I agree that _some_ experience is better than _no_ experience, but you’ll never find someone with the exact same circumstances as you. Some of the best parenting advice I’ve received has been from our adoption social worker who is single, never married, and without children. She’s devoted her life to studying and working with children, and I wholeheartedly trust what she has to say. In parenting, and everything else we do, it’s about collecting as many (figurative) tools in your bag of tricks as you can and pulling out the one that fits your need best at that time. What works for one family and/or child, doesn’t work for all. What works once might not always work. Collect as much good information as you can from as many trusted sources as you can. Come to think of it, some of the best parenting advice I’ve been given has come from children under the age of seven. I’m amazed at how much wisdom some children posses.

  32. posted by Consultant Calamities on

    Yeah, I used to hate comments like “You’ll NEVER have time for your scrapbook hobby once you have kids” and “your house won’t be so clean once you have kids.”

    I may only have 1 child but GUESS WHAT naysayers, I still have time for my scrapbooks (MORE time now, go figure?) AND…I/we have taught our son how to organize his room and PICK UP AFTER HIMSELF. ever since he could walk, he was taught at the end of the night before bed to put his toys all in 1 spot in the living room. Plus, we just re-configured his closet to have more shelves/storage for toys. we rotate things, and every 2-3 months we make a donation pile…

    and he HELPS with all of that!! I have to initiate, but he helps and willingly puts things in the “to donate” pile. He grew up doing it, so its just something he’s always done.

    I just roll my eyes at the excuse people give of having a messy house just because they have a child. teach them NOW, to make everyone’s lives much easier and less messy!!! also, if you teach them young, they will have skills on how to clean and organize as an adult, so they won’t STRUGGLE with these areas as an adult!

  33. posted by coco on

    I have 2 boys. One is 10 and bio, the other is 8 and was adopted last year from china.
    with my bio boy, he never had more toys than could fit into a laundry basket. our new chinese son isn’t really into toys.
    they do have a couple footballs, and bikes that are outside.
    inside they have an Xbox, a TV, a computer and a few books that we read before bed.

    we are adopting again, (an infant) and i once again won’t allow more toys than will fit in one small basket.

    i realize that i am very hard core, but i can’t function in any amount of clutter. my husband and kids like having a sparse, organized home. and also, we have 4 people, soon to be 5 in a 1000 sq. foot house. any amount of clutter is crazy town.

  34. posted by momofthree on

    Three kids, each about 2 years apart, in a 920 sf house. Yep, we taught the kids the rule of putting everything away before their bath times so that the house looked somewhat neat when mom and dad went to bed. Our only exception to the rule is: LEGO!! That is our favorite all time toy, we still like to sit with the kids and build.
    All the lego tubs (too many to count–sad, ain’t it?) were able to be left in the living room when creations were “in the process”. We are a family of five and we could sit together for hours and play with that stuff.
    As the oldest heads off to college, I will be curious to know if she will continue to abide by the “putting away” rule when in the dorm…A mom can dream, can’t she??

  35. posted by Yolanda on

    We live in a 1000 sq ft condo and I have a daughter who will turn two in a couple of weeks. Having a child has meant making different choices (mostly in terms of storage), but it hasn’t meant living in a cluttered home. For instance, two drawers in our entertainment system used to hold DVDs and board games. They now hold easy access toys for my daughter. With only a couple of exceptions, if it doesn’t fit in those drawers, it doesn’t stay in the house. When new things come in, older things go. But new things are 90% limited to Christmas and her birthday right now (I recognize this may change a bit as she grows older and can express her desires more). But kids just don’t need as many toys (or clothes) as marketers would love for you to believe. I have opted to give her fewer, more open-ended and imaginative toys, over quantity. I’d prefer for her to have one wooden xylophone that she plays with for 5 years, than an entire orchestra of battery-powered plastic instruments that break in six months.

    We have also taught her from very early in her second year that putting toys away is a part of her daily routine. In the beginning, she managed to put a single Lego in the box. Now she puts them all away without our asking. She also helps unload the dishwasher and put clothes in the dryer. Toddlers love getting the chance to do anything that feels part of the adult world, so it’s a no-brainer to feed on that desire and instill skills that will benefit them for life.

    I also really like this Chore Chart for Preschoolers from Simplemom: .

  36. posted by Leslie on

    For Kate: I don’t know if it will work for you (with the daycare situation), but when my boys were little they each had a smallish Rubbermaid container (about one size up from the “shoebox” size) for all their goodie bag/fast food type toys. They could keep as much as they wanted as long as it fit into the box. If they came home with new treasures that wouldn’t fit, then they had to toss some of the old stuff–things that had usually lost their appeal anyway. It probably helped that we didn’t eat fast food very often. 🙂

    I’m a big fan of tubs for large collections–Legos, Star Wars stuff, etc. Our rule was put it away when you’re done. That meant when you stopped playing with it if you were in the living room (4 people–1064 sq. ft), longer if it was an elaborate Lego project in your own bedroom. As long as there was a clear path from the door to the bed to the closet, and all the not-yet-used Legos were put away each night we were good to go.

    My boys are 17 and 22 now, and we’re still in the 1064 sq. ft., so they’re both fairly organized from necessity. Plus we’ve always tried to purge what we no longer use. So for Jessica: we’ve given toys to charities that shelter abused women and their children, taken them to our church for use in the children’s classes, given them to friends with children younger than ours, and just plain thrown them out if they’re no longer in good shape. If it’s trash, it’s trash.

  37. posted by Diana on

    I found that rotating toys helped a lot with our toy clutter, especially when I keep the number of multiple piece toys to a minimum. I also make sure that one “messy” toy is allowed per room. This toy gets picked up at least once a day and put in its place in its entirety (sometimes by just me, sometimes by my child).

    The result? Far fewer visitor comments about too many toys. Now those visitors are also better able to play with my child. Closer family and friends realize the importance of “good” (constructive) toys in our home, as opposed to the basic $10 “junk” toy, and if inclined to purchase a toy try to keep the quality in mind as well.

    There is also a one-month policy on the junk toys that do arrive. After that time, they are either tossed or donated.

  38. posted by coco on

    it’s good to see that people still live in small houses. most people think they have to move to a bigger house instead of purging and organizing.

  39. posted by Nancy on

    My husband and I live in a small one bedroom apartment with our two year old. He plays with his toys throughout the day and sometimes they are strewn around the living room all day. We started very early, around 18 months, getting him excited about putting his toys away. He has a strict bedtime routine and putting toys away is a part of it. All we have to do is say “it’s time to put toys away” and he gets into it. We clap and show excitement and with every toy he drops in the box he smiles knowing that he’s done something good. Our apartment is by no means clutter free, far from it, and we don’t have a fancy organization system for the toys, just two plastic boxes in the corner of the living room. Just giving him enthusiastic praise has worked really well.

  40. posted by Angela on

    My mother raised 2 kids in around 1500 sq ft and her house was definitely uncluttered. My friends always marveled at how clean my room was…I think I’m making up for lost time since my own home is definitely not uncluttered – and it’s just me, the husband, and the dog…no kids! Systems seem to come and go with me – there’s always something better to do than “pick up.” Any suggestions? I’m working hard on the 15 minute nightly theory. It’s coming along…but…

  41. posted by jena on

    I have two girls, 10 and 7 years old. We have always kept toys to a minimum. Which has not always been easy to explain to grandparents. I think children that do not have a lot of toys are more creative. This has shown through in the girls abilities in school. We too live in a small apartment, which we get along in just fine, but you have to think before bring more in to the house.
    In our house plain paper, pens, crayons, makers, and pencils are like the best stuff ever. Plus, paper is recyclable!

  42. posted by Amy in Ann Arbor on

    My immediate reaction was what Diana said, about rotating toys. The best part is that a young child will forget about the toys that are put away. When they are brought out again, they are *new toys*.

    I also have a comment on the discussion about parenting. The happiest way, by far, to live life is to be compassionate with others, rather than judgemental. You don’t know what any given family struggles with. We have to choose our battles, as they come.

    In my case, since *Daddy* won’t put away HIS toys, I just tried to be a good influence, and increased our expectations for the kids along with their privileges, as they grew up.

    Parents, or anyone dealing with dependents, will have to choose their battles. A parent who reads to their child deserves about 100 points, with about 2 demerits for scattered toys.

    Good luck with your adoption journey, Erin! That path has it’s own special challenges too.

  43. posted by Amy in Ann Arbor on

    Sorry about the repetition above–I let myself be in a rush!

  44. posted by lola meyer on

    What a lively topic! As so many others have said, fewer toys, and toys that are creative, such as Legos or art supplies were the keys to success in our home. My boys are 16 and 19 now, but I noticed when they were young, if we had too many toys, they were overwhelmed and didn’t enjoy themselves as much. Deleting the excess was the typical routine in those years…and thank heavens for rubbermaid containers! We had one set of shelves and when that was full, it was time to edit the collection. No matter what our occupation, we are all in “management”… our lives, children, homes, etc… Thanks for all the great management ideas!

  45. posted by Di on

    It is interesting that this seems to equate clutter with mess. It is completely possible to have one without the other :).

    As suggested and many of the replies have stated, getting the children to help from an early age is important. It is pre-dinner in our house that rooms need to be tidy. Also about every 6 months we (kids included)go though the toys and find ones that are no longer being used/played with to donate etc.


  46. posted by Fiona on

    It’s nice to read so many good ideas & suggestions for habits/routines.

    Our Toy Library has a useful system of putting all the parts to toys in labelled Ziplock bags. Instead of having 80 pieces of toy food in a Rubbermaid tub, they have 8 Ziplock bags in a lidded tub with all the food sorted and classified eg. “10 Fruits”, “10 Vegetables”, “5 breads”.

    We have to pay a $5 fine for each piece we lose from Toy Library so we have had to learn the hard way that we need to sort-and-count things back into the bags at the end of each play-session. It’s easier for a 3-5 year old to count out “10 breads”, “10 vegies” at pack up time, rather than “80 pieces of food”, so it works for us.

    After 2 years of borrowing toys from this library, it has just become an ingrained habit for my 5 yo son to sort-and-count at the end of every play session (be that an hour long, or a whole day). He’s happy to do it, because he knows he won’t get to keep borrowing toys if he can’t look after them.

    We’ve copied the system at home now. It makes pack-up so much easier and we don’t lose things now. Toy Library also massively helps with us reducing the number of permanent toys in the house.

  47. posted by Jay on

    My wife, two kids (2 and 5 years old), and I live in a small house. We rely heavily on shelves and plastic boxes to store toys. The living room/dining room are the main play areas, and the kids put toys away every night. My wife and I sometimes help out if the kids are making an effort to put away the toys. We believe that learning to be responsible is important, as is learning (from our sometime example) to be helpful.

    Some things that have worked for us (through trial and error):

    (1) To save money and keep from being overrun with books and DVDs, we check out lots of books and DVDs from the library. At any given time, we have 60 to 100 books and 2 to 10 DVDs from the library. While this may seem like a lot, the items fit on one shelf. Online renewals and account viewing help us keep the items for as long as possible and return them on time.

    (2) Buy compatible items, if possible. For example, we own lots of Legos. We keep some specialized sets separate, but, for the most part, we mix them all together in a huge box. While there are lots of Legos, picking them up is easy because there is often very little sorting that needs to be done. Many go in the same box.

    Along the same lines, if your kids like trains, stick to one set. For example, at Target, the Thomas the Tank Engine series comes in 3 different sets, all by the same company. One is plastic, another wooden, and the third metal. The tracks and accessories for each set are incompatible with the ones from the other sets. Our kids have one large train set only because their trains, tracks, etc. all belong to one set that fits together. It is more fun for them to have one large set than several small ones.

    (3) If our kids are given a toy that we do not like or do not want to fool with on a daily basis, for whatever reason, we simply tell our kids immediately (and excitedly) that these toys are outdoor toys that will be fun to play with outdoors. Then, we put the toys on the screened porch in boxes on shelves. The kids have never asked to play with these toys indoors. They have sometimes played with these toys outdoors, but, typically, these toys are forgotten.

    (4) Some toys (bulky, large metal trucks, like Tonka trucks; or toys to be thrown, like Frisbees) are clearly outdoor toys and never come in the house.

  48. posted by Brooks on

    “Clean up, clean up, everybody, everywhere,
    Clean up, clean up, everybody do their share!”

    Our 2 year old knows that when we sing that song, it’s time to start cleaning up. She sings along and actually puts stuff away. Certainly not perfect every time, but gets the job done most the time. Lots of praise along with making it fun seems to help.

  49. posted by Fiona on

    LOL, I sound a bit OTT to say (2 comments back) that we sort everything into Ziplocks. Obviously not the big, generic things like masses of Duplo, train tracks etc. which all go in a big tub. More the itsy-bitsy sets that we want to keep together or not lose specific bits.

  50. posted by Alison on

    I find other people are very willing to excuse my out-of-control messiness with the line ‘but you have kids so of course your house will be messy!’

    Unfortunately, I know that I was pretty untidy before I had kids, and if I think about other families around me, then actually they run the whole gamut from clinically minimal to cereal up the wall. In the end, I think it’s more about personalities and systems.

  51. posted by Matt on

    Having a child has forced our house to become uncluttered. How do you stop a 1 year old eating, poking, prodding, licking, unplugging, toppling, or dismantling things if they are not in their place, safely locked away? Until we has our child and needed to lock things away, we had no need to be uncluttered, now we are obsessed with it.

    Life with child and clutter was a stress. Life with child and no clutter is a joy.

  52. posted by [email protected] Frugal Girl on

    Erin, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be offensive. I did double-check your bio to see if you had kids, and since your bio didn’t mention them (and your fellow writer’s bio did mention his), I thought it was safe to assume that you didn’t have any. I don’t claim to know everything about you…I just thought that you didn’t have kids, that’s all. 🙂

    Matt, I totally agree. I’ve had close calls with all four of my kids, who despite my valiant efforts towards cleanliness have all managed to find choking hazards, and I’ve often wondered how they would even have survived if I wasn’t as neat as I am. lol

  53. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Kristen — Thank you for the apology! I’m not sure you needed to give one, but I appreciate it anyway. And, please accept mine for being snarky. Parenthood is a touchy issue for me.

    That being said … you won’t ever see my parenting status change in my bio. This isn’t a mommy blog (I really like mommy blogs, we just aren’t one) and I won’t talk about my children on here. We have a rule, only guest authors and male staffers can reference their individual kids. If Teri or I talk about children, it is in the general sense. We do this because the majority of our readership is male and/or childless, and other websites (like Parenthacks) service the mommy market specifically.

    HOWEVER, I do talk about personal parenting issues on from time-to-time. Since Real Simple is a woman’s magazine and their readership has more children as an overall percentage, it works well with their format.

  54. posted by Kris on

    While in general I think there is good advice in this article, I do think as parents or caregivers we really need to keep a child’s developmental stage in mind to keep our expectations reasonable. It would be helpful to include a rough age at which you can actually have your child help choose which toys to keep and which to give away. My 22 month old is not developmentally capable of understanding that concept. For now, we just round up toys he’s lost interest in and spirit them away when he’s napping. You can’t do it while they’re in the room at this age because for some reason anything in the box becomes suddenly fascinating.

  55. posted by Marie on

    When I was a kid, I had a “one out” rule. If I was done playing with X, I couldn’t play with Y until X was put away. The only time things ever got cluttered was when X was a big system of parts, like Leggos or a dollhouse with furniture.

    Having a pet also teaches a child to clean up. After my cat ate half my Barbie shoes, I was a lot more careful that every little piece was put away.

  56. posted by Karen on

    You know, i have three boys. We homeschool. Since the kids are home all day long, we get clutter throughout the day. Long ago I accepted that there would be toys in every room, as long as I had little kids.

    The family room is where most of our toys are. We have baskets, about three large and two small, and the children know where all the toys go, so when it’s pick up time (before nap and before bed) it’s easy for them to scoop and drop. In between nap and bed, I honestly don’t worry about toys being scattered. Bedrooms don’t have toys, just stuffed animals, clothes and books for bedtime. We’ve found the kids go to bed better if they aren’t distracted by toys up there.

    Honestly, I’d rather have a happy home than a perfectly tidy one. My mom was so focused on keeping clutter–which she defined as anything as small as a book left on a coffee table–to a minimum, that my friends, when they came over, would ask “is your house always this….uh, clean?” It wasn’t a compliment. Our house was cold and sterile; my future husband, when he first saw my parents’ house, said it was like a museum.

    I had a very unhappy childhood. My mom would regularly “raid’ my bedroom and throw the “clutter” around in a frenzy, yelling all the time. It makes me sad when I hear about parents bemoaning the toys and clutter, as if the children and their toys are such a burden to their uncluttered lifestyle. There will come a day when the kids are gone, and the house will be as clean and perfect as you like. I keep the kitchen clean and tidy (“as the kitchen goes, so does the house” is a rule I live by and it seems to be true), and keep up on the laundry and bathrooms, but toys? Unless they’re in the way of traffic, I don’t worry too much. We try to keep a happy medium–a house we can all live in comfortably, but which looks lived in. Our family room looks like a playroom, yes, because we have KIDS. We chose to have kids, and with kids come toys and a bit of chaos. Embrace it, find a system to help you live with it without stressing about every stray Lego, teach kids to pick up after themselves without nagging or yelling at them, and you’ll be a lot happier.

  57. posted by Peony Moss on

    @sims — Forget the trunk. Child-height shelves are the way to go — slightly deep, if possible (playsets and bins will sit better.)

    Note all the suggestions above about each toy Having A Place. In some preschools, they put a picture of the toy on its spot on the shelf, so when it’s time to put the red car away, you look for the picture of the red car. Things like Legos, toy soldiers, etc go in labeled bins. The bins with the hinged attached lids are particularly good.

    I’ve found it helpful to have a designated table where toy soldiers, train layouts, Lego sculptures, etc, can be left out.

  58. posted by Allison on

    I challenge the author to try and get a child to “choose which toys to give away.” Have you ever told a child that they have to get rid of something? Even if they haven’t played with it in years, possessive instinct takes over and it becomes a “MINE!” tear-fest. They don’t understand why having so much is bad, and they certainly won’t be any help in getting rid of it.

    The responsibility lies with the parents not to buy their children so many toys they’re swimming in them in the first place. Buying a child toys and then expecting them to calmly, or even happily, give them away is unrealistic.

  59. posted by Eternal*Voyageur on

    Kids toys can be unitaskers or multitaskers.
    If parents would buy toys that can provide entertainment for hours, and can be used in many ways (say, Lego) rather than a huge thing that just has a few buttons that make lights and noises, they wouldn’t have to buy so much stuff !

    Also, take a book out of the Montessori pedagogic, and keep kids entertained with learning real skills such as pouring water, cutting veggies, sweeping the floor.

  60. posted by Kimberly on

    I am so glad to hear this! I do not have children yet, but I have hope that routines, simple storage systems and acknowledging the amount of stuff that will fit in our space will help us train our kids at an early age to pick up after themselves.

  61. posted by Joan on

    Really liked this post. Our daughter is 9, and while we’re not nearly as organized household-wide as we should be, we are pretty strict that everyone’s “stuff” has to go in its place, hers included.

    We’re also BIG on purging. We (with her) go through every piece of every toy bin about twice each year – before Christmas and birthday – and it’s well worth the effort. She’s a great “giver-awayer!”

  62. posted by Hippolyta on

    Sue’s comment really resonates with me. I was raised in an incredibly cluttered home with zero discipline about cleaning up. As an adult I am still struggling every day to form my own tidiness habits, which makes it even more difficult to teach such habits to my son! But we are working on it, and each year is a bit more organized. And what a breath of fresh air it is to have an uncluttered space! @Karen, thanks for sharing your memories of the other end of the spectrum: absolute obsessive spotlessness doesn’t lead to happiness either. May we all find our ideal happy medium.

  63. posted by caro on

    I’m trying to use the same theory with the dog! She is very good at emptying her toybox, but, we still need to do a little work on her fetching things back!

  64. posted by Jodie on

    I have a 6 year-old and a 2 year-old and they pick up their toys (sometimes with help and usually with some grumbling/but they do it). While playing there is usually a mess – all the toys seem to come out at the same time. But my husband and I made an effort when the kids were little (around a year) to have them learn to pick up all their toys. Now at age 2 my daughter knows that she has to clean-up (or the toys go “away” to the basement) and she knows exaclty where things belong.

    We don’t have a playroom and all the toys live in our family room. This limits the amount we can store. We also purge 2x a year – right before birthdays to make room for new toys and right before Christmas & Hanukkah.

  65. posted by Claire - Matching Pegs on

    I think the lively debate is very interesting.

    I try to only buy multi-use toys, and purge every once in a while, (with my kids help).

    The kids are not allowed to have toys from Fast food places that we occasionally eat from – we have talked a lot about junky toys that only end up in land fill.

    I have found that my 7 and 9 year old really need a place of their own where they can display their “treasures”.

    They both have amazing imaginations, and make lots of little crafty things that can look like junky clutter, but are precious to them. They each have a shelf to display this stuff on, in their room – every so often I say, “are you ready to let this go?” and they are usually happy to get rid of something to make more room on the shelf for something else.

    I think there is a happy balance when it comes to kids “clutter” – you have to make spaces in your home that they have some say over (in our house this is in their room).

  66. posted by Mrs. C on

    I know that this is late–I’m a little behind on my Reader updates–and that in the face of the number of readers this blog has this comment probably doesn’t matter. I am officially taking Unclutterer out of my rss feed reader. I’ve thought about it before but the first writer response to a commenter on this post sealed the deal for me. While I do like some of the tips, I really just end up feeling sad when I see the writer(s) almost exclusively responding only when there’s criticism and with an attitude that is often unfair, defensive, or otherwise inappropriate for a lifestyle blog whose tone generally isn’t so…snarky/sarcastic/elite. Since my response to blog readers who get up in arms about the way a blog is run is to not read it, I’m going to take my own advice and unsubscribe today.

  67. posted by Lee on

    Well, I found this through the “last year on unclutter” post, so this may never be seen.

    I can’t try this, as my children are grown, but in hindsight, I would have purchased DOORS with LOCKS for the toy shelves that held my perfectly labeled toy bins. Want another bin? Put one away first. Maybe the locks could have eventually gone away (they seem so “ugly’) when they were more trustworthy, but they could have pulled out 10 more bins in 10 seconds.

    My kids loved to dump the bin and combine all kinds of toys. Very creative (as adults they still are), but a horrible job for them/me to clean up. With doors and a lock, i could have at least limited how much came out. Locking up toys is really not my style, but having fewer things out would have been calmer for me and them. I think that asking them to choose 1-2 bins each would have let them feel like they were getting what they wanted to play with and we all would have seen me as less of a warden.

    It was even worse when guests would come and then be called to come home immediately and didn’t help clean up. One of my neighbors had cleanup at 5:00 pm (guests usually left after that time) and then they read or played quietly with one toy. There wasn’t a big mess when a guest had to leave and the house was neat(er) when her husband came home.

    If I’m ever a grandmother, I’ll try this.

  68. posted by JulieR on

    I also just found this post, so am very late commenting. This is an interesting topic.

    My mom had five kids. In order to maintain a certain level of order, she had a neat trick. We could use whatever we wanted in the living room during the day, but anything left in the living room after we went to bed was confiscated by my mom. Whatever it was — toy, game, book, jacket, homework — was put up high in her closet and we had to earn it back if we really wanted or needed it. Let me tell you: one time of having to explain to your teacher why you didn’t have your homework, or being quite chilly while waiting for the bus, and you learned very quickly to pick up everything in the living room!

  69. posted by Isaiah on

    I’ve been on the fence for a while with this site. It seems to have gone from realistic methods of living less cluttered, to a bauhaus idealism that is not very useful to actual humans.

    This post is a case-in-point. Ask your children to help pick which toys to give away? You are (a) insane, (b) mommy dearest, or (c) not a parent. In any case, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

    If you’ve bought too many toys for your kids, why make them suffer the consequences. How does that help them? Does it really make anyone’s life better? Yours? Theirs? Is there a lesson to be learned in having to give away things you enjoy? If there is, it’s eluding me.

    Children are a product of our parenting, their environment, and of course, their own nature. Even the most zen parent has to fight a tide of western culture telling our children that acquisition and accumulation are good. Challenging that culture is a lifelong battle that cannot be won in a single skirmish of sorting in the living room. Parents that practice that sort of rigor on their children are setting themselves up for some expensive psychiatric bills in the near future.

    Some children take naturally to simplicity and order, others do not. Go ask a long time Montessori teacher if they’ve had any students that “didn’t fit.” My bet is any school that’s been around a few years knows that some people just don’t easily fit the uncluttering mold. If your children do, awesome. If they don’t, don’t force it. It will only drive them from the path.

    Instead of waging war with your children over things. Perhaps borrow this book from the library:

    I have three pieces of advice for parents:
    1. Be flexible. Things will rarely be how you expect them to be.
    2. Swim with the current. Even difficult goals can be achieved with persistence.

    And lastly, 3) If you’re just about to have kids, go out and give other parents a lot of parenting advice right now. Get it out of your system before you realize how much of an ass you’re being.


  70. posted by Helen on

    Isaiah, I’m still laughing at Advice #3. It’s great advice! I enjoy this site very much, but I do think there is nothing quite so distasteful or arrogant as a non-parent giving concrete parenting advice. (Or, similarly, when a parent gives advice about a stage of parenting which they have not yet experienced. I once supervised a volunteer who was the parent of toddlers, and she loved nothing more than to tell parents of all stages how they should raise their children.) However, it is sometimes very difficult for a non-parent to understand that they don’t understand. We’ve all met them. “My child will not throw tantrums. My child will not eat junk food. My child will not talk back. My child will not be messy.” I admit, the concrete advice and “this is how you should raise your child” attitude from non-parents still bugs me…a lot. But I try to remember that many of them don’t know that they don’t understand, and won’t know that until they DO understand, and if it makes them feel superior to give irrelevant advice, fine. I don’t have to feel inferior because of it. After all, there are many occasions where I would like to tell someone else how to do their job (politicians come to mind), even though I have no experience in the field. It’s always easy to think that we could do a better job of running someone else’s life than they are doing themselves.

    On the other hand, I think we critics would all have been much more receptive to this advice if it had been given by someone whom we considered to be an experienced parent. We’re being hard on the author because we feel that she is telling us what to do without having walked a mile in our shoes. Certainly there are ways of keeping an organized home with children. Her method won’t work for everyone (I can’t imagine lining up my child’s toys and telling her to pick which ones to get rid of…but we’re pretty choosy about what makes it through the door in the first place), but it will work for some. I don’t think that she meant to say that this is the one and only system that every family should use; there is not a single system that will work for everyone. (And what a boring world it would be if there was!) I think a lot of us parents are tired of advice, tired of more information and instruction; we need encouragement. We’re in the trenches, and a word of encouragement goes a LOT farther than a word of advice. But that’s not what Unclutterer is here for. It’s an informational, instructional site, not an encouragement site. I can’t really fault an advice site for giving advice.

  71. posted by Cathy on

    When I was growing up, anything that was left out was rounded up and sent to Goodwill. Didn’t take us long to learn to put things away.

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