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.
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