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.

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11 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Teaching children organizing skills”

  1. posted by Xarcady on

    One other thing–make sure it is as easy as possible to put things away. (I have to do this for myself, so I know it helps.)

    For board games, frequently putting all the little pieces back in the box means fitting things in small spaces in a specific way. The dice go here, the tokens go there, but in a certain order or they won’t fit, etc.

    It might help if you got rid of the box the game came in and just kept all the small pieces in a baggie or a small plastic container, labeled with the name of the game. All the baggies could go in one bin, and the game boards in a neat stack on a shelf. It would take a minute or two more to get the game out–you’d have to hunt for the board and then the baggie, but cleanup would be much faster.

    That’s just a suggestion. But take a look at what the kids are supposed to be putting away, and where, and what they have to do to achieve that, and see if it can’t be streamlined or simplified in some way.

    I’m 53, and I spend more time than I’d like to admit making it easier to put stuff away. But once I’ve made it simple, I find I put stuff away without thinking about it.

  2. posted by Kate on

    Young House Love just had a great post on this the other day. They made a closet into a “toy library” for their 3-year-old. Her few favorite toys are always out, but for lesser-used toys and ones that require supervision, they put everything in the “library” and she can only check out one at a time. It helps keep her toys more interesting to her and cuts down on the mess.

  3. posted by Dorothy on

    Erin and the other commentors have given great responses. Let me weigh in.

    In my family the rule was, if a child can take a toy out to play with, she can, and will, put it away.

    Ines, your post concerns me. You say you’ve modeled the behavior you want over 100 times. I’m thinking something else is going on here. Do you have discipline issues with your children in other areas? Have you ASKED them what would make it easier to put away their toys, or WHY they don’t put their toys away when playtime is over?

    Are you communicating that only you can do this job “right”?

    I’d talk to the kids, make improvements on your process if necessary and, if needed, consider punishment such as taking away toys the child is unable to care for properly

  4. posted by Mark on

    I used to think it was impossible to train kids to put away their stuff simply because – they are kids. Not until my 3 year old niece visited came for a visit and I saw how OC she was at always putting away whatever it was she was playing with.

    I strongly believe it is the type of discipline you instill in them and they are never too young to learn. Also, as parents, we need to show them a very good example.

  5. posted by Shadlyn on

    My concern is that you’ve made the board game process to involved. I’ve never “counted the pieces” in my life, but I’ve known to put them all in organizers since I was fairly young. (Doing in consistently…well..)

    You don’t say how old your kids are, or how complex the board games in question. So…I don’t know what’s reasonable, but the checklist I use to keep my games super organized as an adult is basically:

    1: This type of piece goes in this spot/container. (repeat til done)
    2. Check area where game was played for stray pieces.
    3. Put game on shelf.

    Board games can be super complex (cards, dice, player pieces, sometimes tokens), and if you expect the kid to check every single thing before they put it away, of course they’re going to get overwhelmed. I love organizing, and I’d rebel!

    As to punishment, my punishment when I forget to put a game away properly is that the next time I want to play it, I have to sort it out first. That might be a good way to show the child both WHY you want it done right and provide an “punishment” (delayed fun, because you don’t do it for them) that doesn’t seem arbitrary.

    Punishment has a place, but if the games are being put away, but not as neatly as you’d like, then maybe you’re setting expecations high?

  6. posted by writing all the time on

    Erin, nice round-up of kids/toys/processes. I’d like to add a few general principles.

    1)Define the task. If any task is unwieldy for the doer, break it down into smaller pieces and define the pieces, including the sequence.

    2)Supply appropriate tools: the right sized containers, labels, timer, music, etc., for the task of organizing.

    3)Supply consistent and appropriate supervision while the task is learned. When working with tasks broken down into steps, only go onto the next step when the current step is done correctly and fluently.

    4)Supply appropriate accountability, encouragement, and reinforcement at every step.

    5)Continue to encourage and reinforce the behaviors intermittently once fluent. Karen Pryor tells a wonderful story about a business owner/CEO of a good-sized company. A few times a year, he’d walk through the building and tell everyone to finish up what they were doing and then come to the employee cafeteria. What awaited them there was a surprise party of some sort – a tropical luau, a 50s dance party – something fun and out of the ordinary. Productivity, which was generally high, always got a little better the week or so after a party.

    I love learning more about learning!

  7. posted by AinOakPark on

    Great job Erin!

    I agree with Xarcady as a good method. I think it is good to work with your child’s personality type or ability level. Easing parental frustration and getting things DONE are high on my list.

    Shadlyn, I prefer the term consequence to punishment, but I may be putting too fine a point on that.

    What worked for me was to keep the clean-up minimal and the interest fresh by dividing ALL the toys into four boxes, marked 1-4. Each box had at least one of every type of toy: soft/cuddle type, game, puzzle, imagination, dress up, building (etc.). All the toys were divided, so if the child liked one type of toy more, of course that child’s interests were satisfied. I rotated them every week. Fresh interest in the toys plus a limited amount of mess to clean up even if “all” the toys were out.

  8. posted by Tuppenz Lee on

    The most important directive is “have a place for each thing.” Never require the child to figure this out for him/herself. The process becomes automatic after this is done.

  9. posted by Sasha on

    Oh gosh, I’m an adult and I lost interest in the commentor’s question before it was even done… “count the pieces, make sure they are all in the right spot…”. Yawn!! Everyone is different, don’t expect adults let alone kids to do things the same way. If you micromanage, the kids will rebel and will never do things how you want.

    The key to “training” is positive reinforcement…one piece in the right place? Great job! Let’s try another one! It’s never all or nothing, one step at a time is better than nothing.

  10. posted by Kara on

    I have to agree with all of those who were kind of stunned at the “count all the pieces, put them all in the right spot”, etc. Especially when you say “micro manage”.

    I’m 45 and *I* don’t do that when I put board games away. In fact the first thing I do when I get a board game is to get rid of the fiddly cardboard holding areas and replace them with snack sized (or sandwich sized) baggies to hold all the fiddly bits. Then all the pieces/cards/dice go into a baggie and the board and the baggie go into the box. The end.

    I think you might be expecting too much perfection from your children. Just based on what you’ve written.

  11. posted by Laetitia on

    I’m with AinOakPark in going for a consequence rather than punishment. Ideally, you want the consequence to be natural rather than enforced. Punishment is an enforced consequence.

    An example of a natural consequence is, “You can’t play that game anymore because you lost the pieces by not putting the game away in its place when you finished playing with it” (and no, I’m not going to buy you another one).

    An enforced consequence is, “If you leave the game here in the lounge-room / on the kitchen table such that it makes living awkward for other family members and I have to pick it up, I’ll leave it in your bed so it makes sleeping awkward for you.”

    Both methods may work but the first has a better chance of encouraging the child to develop into a tidy adult as they internalize the /advantages/ of being tidy (I can find what I’m looking for if I put stuff away when I’m done). The second method internalizes, “Having others in the house is a problem if I want my stuff in the open” or “The state of the house isn’t a problem because I don’t live with anyone / my housemates are as slobby as I am”.

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