Conquer kid clutter

Having a 20-month old is a bit like taking care of a drunk friend. They don’t really know what they are doing, but they are having fun while they do it. My daughter is getting into the “terrible twos” a bit early, so hopefully they’ll end early.

One thing that seems to get worse as she gets older is the toy accumulation. I’ve mentioned this problem in some prior posts and I must say that my wife and I continue to struggle with it. I’m always on the lookout for new ways of curbing clutter that is kid specific. Years ago I read an article in the Detroit News that had a long list of kid specific clutter tips such as:

  • Divide and conquer:
    Big toy boxes make it too easy for toys to get jumbled together. Better: a bin for Lego, another for action figures, another for dollhouse furniture, etc.
  • Toss the flimsy crayon boxes:
    Same goes for the marker and colored-pencil boxes. Instead, put drawing tools into lidded boxes or bins. And don’t bother saving every free crayon you’ve collected from restaurant visits. Teachers say most younger kids just grab the top two or three anyway.
  • Craft supplies:
    Keep a vinyl tablecloth with the art supplies. It’ll be on hand to protect the table or rug (skip disposable ones: not sturdy enough).

These tips aren’t earth shattering, but they are helpful. The accumulation of toys is the hardest thing to get under control, in my opinion. Forces beyond our control are at work. These forces, often grandparents, are unrelenting. Be vigilant in your removal of old and unused toys, and your toy clutter will stay manageable.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Ask Unclutterer: Where can I donate stuffed animals?

Reader Darlene recently asked the following question in the comment section of the post What to do with those old toys:

I have bags of slightly used stuffed animals. I’ve found most places like hospitals and day care center don’t want them because of germ contamination. Where can I find a site that would welcome them? How about for the flood victims in Texas or hurricane victims in Florida or even … victims in California? Give me some ideas please.

Darlene, this is a common concern, so I’m very glad you asked the question. The following are a few suggestions that may help anyone with gently used stuffed animals looking for new homes.

Give them away directly to people who want them

I’ve successfully used my local freecycle group to give away stuffed animals. It doesn’t always work, but it sometimes does. Other similar possibilities are Facebook, Nextdoor, and the free section of Craigslist.

Give them to Goodwill or other thrift stores

While many thrift stores don’t accept donations of stuffed animals, a number of them do!

Each Goodwill chapter has its own policies regarding what it accepts — and some specify that they take stuffed animals, such as Goodwill of the Heartland in Iowa and Goodwill of San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo Counties in California.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County in Oregon is another example of a charity that takes stuffed animals for its thrift stores. Again, each local organization will have its own policies, but you might find that yours will welcome your donation.

Note: These policies can change over time, so be sure to check before each donation.

Donate via SAFE: Stuffed Animals for Emergencies

SAFE is a 20-year-old non-profit organization that helps get gently used stuffed animals (as well as blankets, children’s clothes, and other items) to those who need them. You can donate through one of the chapters in Florida or South Carolina. Or you can send them to one of the urgent needs locations that SAFE has identified. Here’s just one of the places currently listed:

Edmund D. Edelman’s Children’s Court is the court that handles all the juvenile dependency cases in all of Los Angeles County. These cases usually deal with abuse and neglect issues. Annually they handle about 30,000 cases, and some of these cases require the children to speak. The courthouse has asked us if we could donate stuffed animals to help ease these children’s fears during a very stressful time in their lives.

SAFE also has good instructions for cleaning stuffed animals (PDF) before donating them.

Donate to police or fire departments

An 8-year-old girl in Colorado who had been in an auto accident donated her stuffed animal collection to the Denver police department to give to other children like herself. You could certainly ask if your local police or fire department would like your stuffed animals to hand out to children in similar traumatic circumstances.

Give them to animal shelters

As reader Monique mentioned in the comments, this is always an alternative to consider. And it will work for toys that have stains (even after washing) that would make them unsuitable for giving to children. Please check with the shelter you have in mind, as not all of them will want such donations. But some, such as Four Peaks Animal Rescue in Arizona, do include stuffed animals on their wish lists.

How to store hats, gloves, and boots

Unsure of how to store hats, gloves, scarves, and boots for a clutter-free winter? It’s challenging to find the perfect solution as it needs to accommodates wet and muddy items, and items in the process of drying out. It also has to be accessible and preferably not an eyesore. Jackets and boots are bulky, while loose hats, mittens, and scarves are always getting lost. My kids typically lose a mitten or a glove, which magically returns only after I’ve purchased a replacement pair. If you’re struggling with storage of winter outerwear, check out this handy three-step solution.

Sort and purge

The sort stage features several steps. First, separate items by owner. Last week I opened up the bench that serves as our off-season, out-of-sight storage for these items, and sorted everything into four piles: one per person. With that done, everyone examined their pile and identified what they wanted to keep. What didn’t fit was donated and items that were worn out were turned into rags or tossed.

It’s helpful to keep a running list of what’s needed. I like to have two of everything so if, for example, one hat is too wet to wear, there is a dry one waiting. Make a list of who needs new gear while you sort.

Next, sort by type. That is, gloves together, hats together, etc. Now when I need my work gloves vs. my snow-shoveling gloves, I can get right to them. The same applies to all family members.

Find a storage area

Once the keepers have been sorted, the unwanted has been trashed or donated, and any outstanding purchases have been made, it’s time to find a place for it all to live. This isn’t as simple as buying a few labeled bins. Like I said, many of these items will spend time dirty and/or wet. So carefully consider your storage system.

First, find a spot as close to the door as possible. You don’t want snow-covered kids trotting halfway across the house before disrobing. This prevents a large, snowy mess as well as the likelihood that something will get lost.

Next, get a boot tray(s) to keep wet boots together and off of the floor. You can even use these for wet gloves/mittens and hats. Just lay them flat to dry. Here’s a trick: buy a pool noodle, cut it in half and place it inside tall boots to keep them upright.

If you’ve got floor space a mitten-boot dryer is a helpful addition to an entryway. An over-the-door towel bar can also provide a place for wet items to dry without taking up floor space. These hanger clips makes it easy to pin mittens and hats to the towel bar.

It’s also nice to have a place to sit, as that makes it easier to remove bulky items. A folding stool is handy as it can easily slide inside a closet when not being used.

Set rules and stick to them

It takes time to form a new habit. If your family is used to plopping winter outerwear wherever, don’t expect them to adhere to the new system right away. Instead, label storage areas for a gentle but persistent reminder, and have people get into the habit of removing those items in the designated spot.

It’s getting cold outside but winter hasn’t officially arrived yet. Take this weekend to get your winter storage strategy in place and by the time the snow starts to fall, you’ll be ready.

Organize that messy locker

Locker OrganizerBack in my school days, my locker was a complete disaster. Lockers just don’t lend themselves to becoming organized. There is just too much space that doesn’t get used and the pile at the bottom of the locker grows with each passing week. (At least that’s what happened with my locker.)

So what does a student do these days to organize his locker? Well, there are many options to remedy the messy locker and here a few that may do the trick:

Preparing for back to school

As August becomes September, it’s time to prepare for the upcoming school year. I know, there are plenty of beach days between now and then and I don’t want to detract from your summer. However, the earlier you get a jump on back-to-school preparations, the less stressful September will be.

Of course there’s a lot to buy from clothing to gadgets to the list of supplies your school provided. That’s important, but today I want to focus an aspect we think of less often, but is just as important — getting the kids back on a school year schedule.

You’ll be met with resistance if you try to move bedtime ahead by 90 minutes the first night. I recommend starting several weeks early. If you’ve got younger kids, get them into bed 5 or 10 minutes early each night for couple of weeks. They’ll barely notice the difference. If your children are older, start to remind them few weeks out: “It’s time to get back on a school schedule. Head to bed a few minutes early tonight.”

It’s also important to review what the morning routine will be. While my wife and I discuss it among ourselves, it’s important to bring the kids into that conversation too, and the sooner the better. Talk about when the day will start, any after-school activities, who can be expected to pick up/drop off (and where), carpool details if applicable, etc. People like predictability.

Next, create a landing area for their school stuff. Find the best spot for them to place bags, coats, important papers, etc. and encourage them to use it. Otherwise — if your kids are like mine — you’ll find a trail of hats, gloves, backpacks, and so on that leads from the door to wherever junior decided to plop himself as he entered the house.

Finally, get yourself a good calendar. I swear by the oversize wall calendar, much like this one. Perhaps you love a digital calendar. That’s cool too. The important thing here is to make your choice, and get it in place, before the school year begins.

There’s more to do to prepare for school, of course, but these tips should get you up and running. Good luck.

Public clutter: whose responsibility is it?

Two weeks ago my husband and I went out for dinner and a movie with friends, young friends, so we ended up going to Burger King. The place was full of teenagers and apart from the incredible amount of noise they produced, they also produced a horrifying amount of garbage. Half-eaten food on the floor stepped on and smeared across the tiles, drinks spilt across the table, and bags and wrappers strewn everywhere.

When they finished, they got up and walked away.

Then last week we went to Pamplona for its famous festival, and although it’s more known for running with the bulls, the festival itself is really an opportunity to drink obscene amounts of alcohol in public and let loose. The broken plastic cups, plastic bags and bottles of all sorts made walking a challenge and each morning the city’s garbage crews spent hours and hours sweeping up the plastics disaster.

Often, when people are asked why they care so little about public clutter like this, they answer “that’s why the city hires street sweepers” as if they have no responsibility in maintaining the streets litter-free.

I was reminded of a photo I saw once posted online by Canada’s environmental fighter David Suzuki. The photo showed the sea of plastic that was left in a public park after a fundraising concert for the environment. The anti-consumerist website Make Wealth History talks about this problem providing details about the garbage collected one year after the supposedly environmental-friendly Glastonbury Festival:

Glastonbury picked up 6,500 sleeping bags, 5,500 tents, 3,500 airbeds, 2,200 chairs, 950 rolled mats and 400 gazebos.

Fortunately, most of that material could be donated to refugee sites, but what about the rest of the garbage? If attendees left all this behind, how much plastic did they not bother taking away with them?

All of this got me thinking. Whose responsibility is public clutter? Those of you who are parents, what do you do to ensure that your children clutter the world as little as possible?

Bound to clutter and time

A recent study from UCLA-affiliated social scientists paints a bleak picture of modern parents: beholden to clutter, technology, and stuff. Likewise, they found, many (if not most) rarely step foot outdoors and claim that a perceived lack of time drives a lot of daily decisions. It’s a study I can relate to, and that’s really depressing.

The study

The longitudinal study entitled, “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors,” (currently available at Amazon as a book) observed middle-class families in Los Angeles over four years. The results, according to the authors, are “disheartening,” and include:

  1. Many families rely heavily on prepared and frozen foods even though they only save an average of 11 minutes per meal. “They give me the illusion of saving time and energy,” said one participant, “and that’s almost as important.”
  2. Most families in the study rarely go outdoors, even those who recently spent money on outdoor improvements like a new deck. “That’s the backyard,” one mom said. “I never go out there.”
  3. Leisure time is spent in front of the TV or the computer.

One interesting revelation I found has to do with a family’s refrigerator door. Those that are cluttered with notices, magnets, papers and the like, often indicate a home that is in a similar state. (Read our article on dealing with refrigerator door clutter here).

That’s rough, but the most depressing and relatable bit for me was about 2-year-old Anjellisa Redfern. According to researchers, she has a great many toys. However, “…she doesn’t want to play with them,” said her mother. “She wants to be on the couch watching TV.”

Second screen? Try first.

In 2014, Jeff Bercovici wrote an article for Forbes entitled, “Using A Second Screen While Watching TV Is The New Normal.” He went on to describe the growing habit of glancing at a smartphone or tablet while watching television:

Watching TV while simultaneously using a smartphone, laptop, or tablet is on the verge of becoming a majority behavior worldwide.

Later that year, the New York Times noted the emerging “second screen marketing” efforts that were just beginning to happen, targeted at those who use a smartphone or tablet as the titular “second screen” while watching TV. It is interesting, but that’s not the behavior in 2017. The TV is the second screen, the smartphone is the first.

Every night in my home, a depressing scene plays out. We have dinner, almost never together, almost always within 15 minutes, almost always silently and almost certainly with each in his or her own chair, doing his or her own thing. When this non-family time is complete, everyone retreats to his or her room of choice with his or her preferred screen, not to be seen again until morning.

It’s killing me and I hate it.

I’m partly to blame as I’ve let it go on this long. Extinguishing this pattern will not be easy. There will be loud complaining. There will be rolling of eyes and harsh words. But it must be done.

Childhood is a window that closes at 18 years of age. That’s all you get, those 18 precious years. Then they’re off to work, off to school, off to adulthood, and whatever comes next. There is no time machine. You can’t go back. My kids are 12 and 14 years old. The window is almost closed. I absolutely will not sit with regret years from now because I did not make the most of being their dad. Because I lost out to apps and YouTube stars. Because Snapchat was more appealing.

If the modern American family is succumbing to clutter and technology, it’s time to revisit our priorities. The window on childhood is closing. Be there – really be there – before it does.

More thoughts on managing kids’ screen time

I’m not a parent, so I’m always interested in how those who are parents deal with child-related organizing issues: handling school papers, assigning chores, etc. Dave’s recent take on managing screen time gave me one more bit of real-life insight.

It’s an interesting topic, partly because not everyone agrees about what’s best — and sometimes the recommendations change. The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend zero screen time for those under the age of 2, and that recommendation became widely known. Less widely known, perhaps, is that the group revised its recommendations a bit last October, so it now suggests the following:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.

Some of this makes intuitive sense to me. For example, letting young children Skype or FaceTime with distant grandparents or travelling parents seems like a good thing. And making sure screen time doesn’t take over a child’s life seems like an obvious goal.

But I feel as though some of the limits are overly restrictive. No matter how much a parent might wish things were different, there are times when using a tablet or smartphone as a babysitter for a child age 5 or younger can be a lifesaver to a parent’s sanity and ability to get essential tasks done. Suzanne Janesse described on how this works in her family. I’m sure many parents have their own similar tales.

As Athena Tsavliris wrote in Today’s Parent, “Reality sometimes calls for the iNanny.” This doesn’t mean that these parents let their children use electronic devices for hours on end, with no controls on the content. But insisting that all screen time with young children should involve co-viewing seems unrealistic in many family situations.

It’s also worth noting that our scientific knowledge regarding the effects of using apps with young children is still evolving. For example, Greg Toppo reported the following in USA Today in 2014:

A recent small-scale trial by New York University researcher Susan B. Neuman, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, found that giving a group of preschoolers the chance to play for just 15 minutes a day on a popular app called Learn with Homer improved their reading skills 74% in a six-week summer period — without the help of a teacher.

So, as with almost anything related to organizing, there are no absolutes that work for everyone. Just make thoughtful decisions about your family’s use of screen time, based on your individual family members’ needs, and adjust those decisions if they don’t seem to be working.

An April opportunity to recycle old, broken toys

Many parents face the issue of toy clutter. Their children have more toys than they could ever need or want, often gifted by well-meaning friends and relatives. Or they just have toys their children have outgrown.

If the toys are in good condition, they can often be passed along to other families. But what do you do with the toys that are broken or missing parts? Sending them to landfill often seems like the only answer.

However, through April 30, those in the U.S. have a cool alternative. Tom’s of Maine and TerraCycle have joined forces to provide free recycling of these toys. Just go to the Tom’s of Maine website and click to get a free shipping label. Then fill a box with up to 10 pounds of toys and ship it off at any UPS location.

TerraCycle has a number of ongoing free recycling programs for Clif Bar wrappers, Brita items, Solo cups, Wellness pet food packets, and more — including Tom’s of Maine toothbrushes and much of the company’s product packaging. Tom’s worked with TerraCycle on a toy recycling program in April 2015, but that one was limited to 500 of TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes. The boxes were all claimed within four days, so this year’s program was designed to allow more people to participate.

What happens to the items sent in through the Tom’s of Maine Toy Recycling Program? Lauren Taylor of TerraCycle gave me the answer in an email:

The collected waste is mechanically and/or manually separated into fabrics, metals, fibers, and plastics. Fabrics are reused, upcycled or recycled as appropriate. Metals are smelted so they may be recycled. The fibers (such as paper or wood based products) are recycled or composted. The plastics undergo extrusion and pelletization to be molded into new recycled plastic products.

So if you cringe at sending things to landfill, here’s your opportunity to gather up those dilapidated stuffed animals, the puzzles with missing pieces, the mystery toy pieces, the torn playing cards — and any other broken, worn-out, or incomplete toys — and ship them off for recycling.

Managing kids’ screen time

When I was a kid in the 1980s, “screen time” wasn’t really a thing. Personal computers were rare, expensive things that few people had and were mainly for business. Telephones were “dumb” and tethered to the wall, and television offered 13 channels, many of which were snow.

What a difference 40 years makes!

Today, my kids have a staggering amount of media and entertainment available to them at all times. As a parent, I struggle with raising the first generation of kids to never know a day without the internet, pocket-sized computers, and on-demand entertainment. It’s not easy to manage but oh, so important to do so.

Research has demonstrated the dangers of unbridled screen time. A study recently conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that “…children [between the ages of] 8 to 18 spend, on average, close to 45 hours per week watching TV, playing video games, instant messaging, and listening to music online.” That’s more time — far more — than they spend in a classroom.

What’s the result of all this time spent staring at a glowing rectangle? As of this writing, it’s hard to say. Since this issue is so new, there haven’t been a lot of longitudinal studies conducted. But research is being done. A study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior suggests that sixth graders who abstained from screen time for a period of time were better able to read human emotions than those who did not.

So how can we stay on top of it? Organize a healthy “media diet” with the kids. Here are a few ideas.

First, be aware of what’s age-appropriate. Know what they’re watching, playing, and listening to. I know it sounds obvious, but new entertainment comes out so often, we as parents must actively stay up to date.

This doesn’t just go for content. While digital entertainment is being made for two-year-olds, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV or computer screens (including phones and tablets) for that age group at all.

Next, set family rules and stick to them. Our rule is this: two hours of screen time after dinner and that’s it. Of course, this is considering that all homework is done, lunches and snacks are prepared, and bags are packed up for the next morning. Both parents must be consistent with rule enforcement here. This leads me to the next tip.

No media in bedrooms. You can’t monitor your children when they’re in bed. If a phone or tablet is at hand, the temptation may be too great to pass up.

So far I’ve put all of the focus on the kids. That’s important, but phone-addicted parents need a reminder to put their devices down, too. A recent study noted that kids can feel unimportant when their parents spend so-called “quality time” looking at a phone . Face-to-face interaction is the way children learn.

I guess we could all do with a little less screen time. Manage the amount of time your kids — and you yourself — spend looking at a phone, tablet or computer screen.

Getting rid of someone else’s stuff

Last week an article by Nicole Hong in the Wall Street Journal focused on cargo shorts: their fans and their detractors. I don’t have any strong opinions about cargo shorts, but I did have an opinion about the following anecdote:

Dane Hansen, who operates a small steel business in Pleasant Grove, Utah, says that throughout his 11-year marriage, 15 pairs of cargo shorts have slowly disappeared from his closet. On the occasions when he has confronted his wife about the missing shorts, she will either admit to throwing them away or deflect confrontation by saying things like, “Honey, you just need a little help.”

Mr. Hansen, 35 years old, is now down to one pair of cargo shorts, and he guards them closely. He has hidden them in small closet nooks where his wife can’t find them. …

Mr. Hansen’s wife, Ashleigh Hansen, said she sneaks her husband’s cargo shorts off to Goodwill when he’s not around. Mrs. Hansen, 30, no longer throws them out at home because her husband has found them in the trash and fished them out.

I have no problem with someone discretely disposing of anything that is theirs, including gifts from a spouse or partner. But getting rid of another person’s items? That’s generally a horrible idea.

There are some specific circumstances when it’s okay to toss or donate another person’s possessions, including the following:

  • When that other person has given you explicit permission to do so. For example, sometimes one spouse will accept, or even appreciate, having the other manage his or her wardrobe. Or an elderly parent might appreciate some help with uncluttering — perhaps giving you general guidelines but otherwise allowing you to decide what stays and what goes.
  • When the other person is a child who is too young to make such decisions. But even children as young as three can be involved in an uncluttering effort, and parents are sometimes surprised at how much their children are willing to discard.
  • When you have the legal authority to make decisions for someone who can no longer make decisions for himself or herself.

But in general, it’s disrespectful to get rid of another person’s belongings, and it can build up resentment and distrust that have a wide range of negative repercussions. What can you do instead? The following are some suggestions:

  • Have a discussion about the items in question, where each party listens respectfully to the other person’s position. There’s always a chance that if you calmly explain why you’d like something to be discarded you can convince the other person to go along with you. Or maybe, when you fully understand why someone wants to keep something that you want to discard, you’ll change your mind and decide it’s fine to have it stay.
  • Reach a compromise. Maybe he keeps the cargo shorts but agrees not to wear them when the two of you go out together. If there’s a disputed item of décor, maybe it can be displayed in a spot in the home where you rarely go.
  • Agree on boundaries, where anything can be kept as long as it fits within a designated space: a dresser drawer, a storage box, a shelf in the garage, a basket for stuffed animals, etc.
  • Bring in a professional organizer. An impartial third party with recognized expertise can ask questions and make suggestions while avoiding the emotional landmines that can be triggered when a spouse or partner makes suggestions.

Apps for your student

Technology is routine for the modern student. And that technology can help your favorite student to stay organized and productive this school year.

Tinycards from Duolingo helps young students learn a language with engaging, fun, and effective lessons. My daughter’s Spanish class started using it when she was in 7th grade. Now, the company has released Tinycards, a flashcards app (free, iPhone only) that’s as handy as it is beautiful. There are thousands of pre-made decks to choose from, or you can make custom sets to support specific course material.

By late elementary school, students take on the extra responsibility of managing their time and duties. myHomework Student Planner is an app that will help them do just that. Available for iOS devices, Android, and Windows, this comprehensive solution lets tech-savvy students toss out the paper planner and go digital with a nearly ubiquitous access to all of their assignments that’s synchronized across devices for them. Students can get reminders of what’s due, browse their class schedules, and check in on assignments. Plus, it looks great.

Speaking of college students, EasyBib quickly creates bibliography citations for use in an academic paper. There are hundreds of styles available, from APA to who-knows-what. You can even use it to scan a book’s bar code to create the citation. EasyBib is available for both iPhone and Android devices. As someone who wrote a lot of papers in APA format, I can say it’s quite nice to have an organized and portable style guide like this.

My last pick has a bit of environmentalism built into it. Forest (available for iPhone and Android), lets you set aside time for concentration and study. Simply pick your work time and get started. As you work, a small on-screen seedling grows into a beautiful tree. What’s very cool is that a real tree results as well. As you use the app, your earn in-game currency that you can spend to plant real trees. Forest’s developers have partnered with Trees for the Future, a non-profit organization that will plant a real tree for every 2500 currency you “spend” in the app. Neat.

The new school year is upon here and finding the right app for you or your kid can help make the year more productive, organized, and educational.