Teaching Your Kids to Organize

Last week I wrote a post about my love of purging.  Afterwards I got a sweet email from a reader that I’d like to share with you.

When I was a child (now I’m 58), we didn’t have many toys but my mom was always giving away what we did have to my cousins who had way less than we had.  Clothing, furniture, and toys.  She gave away my Mickey Mouse Farris Wheel.  If you price those today on antique toy sites, they go extremely high prices.  But that’s not really why I wrote.  Both my sister and I have had, over the years, very hard times giving away or getting rid of things as a result of Mom’s wanting to purge our things.  I would caution you or anyone else who makes their children get rid of things.  Sometimes, it causes the opposite result, as those children become adults.  I’m not a hoarder, but I do think I struggle letting go more than if I had been allowed to make more decisions on my own as a child.

It is because of letters like these that I’m such a huge advocate for teaching your children how to organize rather than wait until they are out of the house to do it for them.  Sure you satisfy your need for a cleaner tidier house doing it that way but unfortunately your children are missing out on a very valuable lesson in the process.  I honestly believe that organizing isn’t some magical gene that only a few of us get but rather it’s a skill that anyone can learn.  There are specific steps to the organizing PROCESS that when learned make all the difference to how you view clutter and the power it holds over your life.  Guess what?  The process works for kids too!  Someone just needs to teach them.

Now I get a lot of resistance when I talk crazy like this.  Things like “are you nutso lady my kid won’t part with anything, she’ll want to keep everything” and “I couldn’t possibly let her decide what to keep and what to get rid of because she doesn’t know what’s special and what’s not”.

And so on and son. But the truth is sometimes WE can be our child’s biggest hang up.  Sometimes the roadblock is US.  Oy.

Tell me, are you ready to just grab a garbage bag and head on in to their rooms while their at school to go a little purge crazy?. Not quite so fast. My experience has taught me that the only thing that teaches your children is not to trust you. Let me assure you that the more you involve your children in the process of organizing (and purging!) the more they’ll acquire the necessary skills to make it an ongoing habit that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

I’m currently writing an ebook on this topic because it’s something I’m so passionate about, but in the meantime set aside a couple of hours one day to work with your children armed with the following tips in hand and watch what happens.

First thing you need to do is collect all toys along with all the bits and pieces that belong to the those toys from around the house into one area. Sort everything into piles so that all like toys are together in one pile. Kids love sorting so this step in the process typically goes pretty quickly. The next step which involves letting some of those prize possessions go is a little trickier especially when you are first starting out.

stuffie bin

Organizing is about making decisions and the younger children learn to flex this “decision making muscle” the easier it will be for them to execute it on a regular basis. Presenting them with choices is an excellent way to do this.

Here are a few questions to help them decide:

When did you play with this last?

Why is this so important to you?

Rather than this toy sitting here neglected do you think another child might like to play with it now?

Give them a choice between two things and ask them which one is their most favorite? I see you have two stuffed horses, would you like to keep this one or this one?


Your Lego container is full and you don’t have any room to add more. We need to make room in case you get some more for Christmas. Let’s go through the box and decide which ones we can part with so the box isn’t so full.

When you first start out with this process and having them make their own tough choices, you will more than likely be met with resistance. Expect it but stay firm. I promise you this step gets easier and easier with practice. You might not always agree with what they want to keep but remember your favorites don’t need to be their favorites.

You empower them to make these decisions themselves alleviating potential power struggles. It’s your boundaries and limits but their choice what stays and what goes within those boundaries.

Do you struggle with getting your kids to part with their toys? How have you handled it in your house?

Filed under: Kid Stuff, Organizing Basics


33 Responses to Teaching Your Kids to Organize

  1. 1
    dorothy says

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I have been trying more and more to just include my children in the sorting/cleaning/purging business here at home and I’m continually surprised when they say, “get rid of it, mom.” They feel better about cleaning out the toy closet when they have some control over it.

    I have found, however, that when the playroom becomes a total nightmare, that it is easier for me to clean the bulk of it & let the kids finish it up. When it’s too trashed, they get frustrated & don’t know where to start (even with direction.) When I clean it up a bit, they are more willing to go in and finish b/c it’s no longer a huge project.

  2. 2
    Christine says

    Thanks so much for this. I have (in the past) gone in while she’s at school and don’t the sneaky toss. However, last week I finally decided that she should be involved. It was tricky getting her to consider tossing crumpled creations and sending some stuffed toys out of the room so she could fit in her bed.

    However, now that the final cleanup has been done and containers have been labelled and she can see where things go….SHE wants to keep her room tidy!! I am thrilled 🙂

    Thanks again for teaching me

    • 2.1
      Laura says

      Christine, your second point is also such an important part of the process as well. Creating storage solutions that are easy for the kids to follow and that don’t set them up for failure. I’ll be going into this more in my ebook for sure.

  3. 3
    Diane Balch says

    You are so right that organizing can be taught. It is definitely more difficult to teach depending on the temperament of the child. I have one minimalist by nature, so he doesn’t make big messes, the other is a clutter bug explosion. My 10 yr old is my challenge. Even though she has a room and craft area labeled with were everything should go she resists. Do you have any advice?

  4. 4
    MemeGRL says

    Such great points…I have tried to involve my kids but some of these are new questions, and they are the “OH I LOVE THIS TOY I HAVEN’T SEEN IT FOREVER BUT NOW THAT I SEE IT I LOVE IT MORE THAN ANYTHING.” So I usually let it go but I will try some of the other strategies. One that works well for us: the “rotation” idea. The ones that they go in the attic looking for? Those are the keepers. The ones they happen to see along the way? Back to oblivion for a while at least.

  5. 5
    Dee says

    This is definitely something I need to work on with my daughter. She doesn’t like to part with her toys even though she has tons and doesn’t even play with half of them. I probably wouldn’t mind as much if they weren’t everywhere. Of course, that’s partially my fault since it’s taken me a while to realize the need for organization and start implementing a system. I’m hoping that once she sees me weeding down my stuff, she’ll follow my lead. Then we can work on a solution for storing what she keeps.

      • crb says

        I couldn’t agree more regarding leading by example! I don’t see another way to make it work if you are not modeling what you are trying to teach the child.

  6. 6
    Jasmine says

    Thanks for the tips! I have a 15 month old and I’ve already started staring at her toys and wanting to pull my hair out! I plan to store them away and rotate them so that she’ll have ‘new’ old toys to play with every month, but also I do hope to teach her good organizing skills and this post helps me get a jump start. Thanks!

  7. 7
    Lisa says

    I have 3 children, the oldest 17 and the youngest 10. Until 3 years ago, we lived in a tiny 2 floor townhouse. You can imagine the amount of toys for 3 kids! They’re toys were stored in our living room/family room as it was the only place they could be kept. I was forced to figure out “systems” that worked for children so that they could put their own toys away quickly and easily, everything had it’s place. I had the Ikea Expidit bookcase with all but 1 row filled with baskets. Each basket was sorted by category (play food, barbies, art supplies, etc). As soon as the baskets were too full to close or add anything, we had no choice but to pare down. My kids all have different personalities from organized to a tornado and none of them had an issue with donating their toys to less fortunate kids. Wanting to hold onto toys was never an issue for any of them. Once they’re old enough to understand that some children don’t have any nice toys to play with(learning compassion), they easily choose what they are ready to pass along. We also used this as a way of teaching them to care for their toys. Stuff is just stuff, but it’s important that we take care of what God has blessed us with. We gently discuss mistreatment of clothing as well as toys as we have been on the receiving end as well as the giving. It’s not about hoarding or purging, it’s about maintaining a healthy balance emotionally as well as physically to the stuff in our lives. It’s about being grateful for what we have and taking care of it so that one day we can pass on toys that look nearly new to less fortunate children. After all, what kind of toys would we like to receive?

    If you have so many toys that you can’t imagine reenforcing this kind of positive behavior, you might need to evaluate how much is too much? What are we teaching kids about life when they have so many toys, they can’t even play with them all? If your playroom can’t be cleaned up JUST by the children that made the mess, you need to consider some things. As difficult as it was living in that tiny apartment-sized house with 3 kids, it was the best thing for us. We learned many lessons about life. The more you have, the more enslaved you can become. There is a burden to having a house that’s too big or too many things. Let’s not put that burden on our children.

    Organization is important, but also important is discipline-which Mom and Dad will have to teach. 15 minutes of cleaning is all it should take for a complete cleanup. (Make sure your storage is simple enough for this! Don’t make your kids display things on an open bookshelf.) Kids can’t handle much longer than 15 minutes. If not, break it up into age-appropriate cleaning 5-10-15 minute frenzies. Play music, run around crazily putting things away. I nearly always helped my kids clean up, but I didn’t HAVE to. As they are playing, monitor their activity, teach them to not move on to a new activity without putting away the old. At that point it takes only 3-5 minutes. We used dinnertime as our final cleanup of the day where everything had to be put away, everyday. We are helping them to keep things manageable. Wow, maybe I should write an ebook, or maybe I just did? Sorry it was so long, I just really like sharing what I’ve learned.

    • 7.1
      Laura says

      Such great tips, thank you for sharing!

  8. 8
    Lisa says

    OK, two more thoughts. We also took the time several times a year to dump all bins and get the misplaced toys into the right box. Any toys that had “parts” were completely rejoined. If missing parts were critical, we decided whether to toss the toy. (I realize lego type toys can’t fall into this category)

    Mcdonalds toys-we had two small rubbermaid containers and they were only allowed to keep what would fit in them with the lids on, we called them our junk boxes. For 17 years we have been cycling toys in and out of those same 2 containers. Believe it or not, they kept some for up to 10 years! Inspector Gadget was a huge hit.

  9. 9
    Firesparx says

    When I was a child, I didn’t have a ton of toys but I did have a lot of cherished My Little Ponies and a few favourite stuffed animals. When I was of a certain age where I had grown out of playing with the Ponies, my mom asked if it was OK to give them away to a family we knew with younger kids who didn’t have a lot of money. I agreed, but kept two of my favourite ponies as keepsakes. It felt like a very responsible and grown-up thing to give away the ponies and I appreciated my mother asking me first. However, my mother broke that trust years later when she purged my bedroom while I was gone one day and my last 2 Ponies went “missing”. When I left for University I purged my stuffed animal collection and put a few highly prized (and in good shape) ones in a bag and explicitly asked my mom to keep these as I wanted to pass them on to my children one day. Guess what? The bag is now gone and I can’t help feeling resentful. I know it’s just stuff and it was taking up space in my mother’s house, but if she was tired of storing them I would have found SOME way to keep them with me. I didn’t realize they were bothering her until it was too late.

    So I guess what I am saying is that I totally agree with the statement about not purging your kids’ (or gronw adult’s!) stuff without their knowledge or consent, it breaks the trust.

    • 9.1
      Laura says

      Oh I’m so sad to read this, especially when you were so responsible about narrowing your collection down. Thank you for sharing your story, more parents need to hear this.

    • 9.1
      Mindy says

      Laura – I have 2 girls that are 7 and 5 and share a room. It isn’t a huge room. So our motto here is that “everything has to have a place and should be returned to it’s proper place.” That makes mommy very happy. I have a hard time with stuffed animals (that somehow multiply) and plastic jewelry, sillybands, small trinkets that I find all over the place. My question for you is “What are your wise thoughts on putting items in a storage bin (usually without the kids help) and then seeing if they miss them” approach??? I have done this a few times with their stuffed animals and they never mention they miss them? Am I scarring my kids for life? Thanks!

      • Laura says

        Hi Mindy, no I don’t think you’ll scar them for life but I do think you might be missing out on a prime teaching opportunity especially since they don’t seem too attached to them. Trust me I know it’s way easier to do it ourselves for sure but 7 and 5 are such great ages to really get the conversation going about organization and the why behind the need to get rid of things as new things come in. I would suggest finding a container of some kind for the stuffies and tell them they can only keep what fits inside it but it’s totally up to them to pick their favorites. It really gives them the opportunity to think it through and the bonus is you don’t look like the bad guy 🙂

  10. 10
    More Than A Mom says

    My children are 4 and 5 years old. I also have a home daycare. So far I have only re-organized the toys like by like and gotten rid of broken items that could become a potential choking hazard for the little ones in my care. My children are told to keep their “special” toys that are not for sharing with the daycare in their rooms. Then there are the daycare toys on the main floor and in the play room. My question is, do I need to get them to consent to what we get rid of for the daycare toys or is this something I can do as part of my general house decluttering? I definitely love your points about teaching them how to organize and purge and not cross their trust lines but because of the general toys (many are donated to us and often they get to be an overwhelming amount) I am unclear of the right thing to do here. Thanks!

    • 10.1
      Laura says

      No I would think that daycare toys are separate as I’m sure you must need to constantly rotate them. Don’t worry about it too much but every once and awhile check in with your kids and casually ask them what their favorite toys are. I’m always surprised by the answers I get because it’s usually not what I thought it would be 🙂

  11. 11
    crb says

    I used to just throw out what my first son didn’t play with anymore, broken toys etc. Until the first time he asked for a toy that I threw out and was visibly irritated that it was gone…woops! Since then I’ve had another child and now I just ask them. For example: OK boys we got all these new toys for Christmas, we don’t have enough room for everything so what would you like to “give to a child in need” (that’s what we say anyway in our house). They have never had any problems giving away toys that they decide they don’t want anymore, ever. Personally, I think that is a “learned” behavior that they learn from their parents, at least sometimes. Now, there are times when I have to step in for example my older son doesn’t want the trains anymore but the younger son does. And, occasionally I think my son may change his mind about a certain toy so I just put it up for a certain period of time and see. Also, I am a fan of toy rotation (putting certain toys up and bringing them out again so they are “new” again. So it’s a case by case basis. I think people would be shocked what their kids DON’T need or want. Thanks!

  12. 12
    Tati says

    Reading just made me feel so good about myself! I like to think of myself as organized but I often feel like I’m not, even though every friend of mine would beg to differ. I have always had my kids’ playroom organized which makes it so much easier at clean up time to put things away where they belong, but this hasn’t helped in the least to get my kids to not make the playroom look like a tornado came through it on a daily basis. That has often made me wonder why I even bother with my anal organization. I used to clean the playroom every evening at the kids’ bedtime because I can’t stand to look at the mess, but then we moved their playroom upstairs to the loft area which is at the end of a hallway and you don’t really see it unless you specifically are going to the play room. I have learned to let go a bit and usually insist that my girls clean it up every 4-5 days or so. It would be a mess even when cleaned up without a home for each thing and that gives me a sense that I’m not so crazy. Barbies have their own drawer, there are baskets for conveyances (cars, trucks, boats, scooters), Littlest Pet Shop, foam blocks, and doll clothes, and behind closed doors there are containers for wild animals, dogs & cats, little people, stawberry shortcake, play food, barbie clothes, and much more – it’s a nice large storage unit from Pootery Barn that we got from a friend for a steal.

    I’m going on and on unneccesarily here when what I was feeling and wanting to say is that I am relieved that I seem to be doing it right. I often don’t feel like I am because my obsessiveness about neatness and organziation has not yet (hopeful?) seemed to have rubbed off on them. I often say, about my 5 year old, that I don’t know how she can possibly have my genetics because she is the messiest person I’ve ever known. We’ll spend several minutes cleaning up her room and within 4 minutes it’s a disaster again – and the worst part is that she doesn’t care! I guess I just have to hope and pray that it will eventually rub off on them (the other daughter is 6) and will be to their benefit when they get older, and not backfire and make them rebel by being messy grown-ups!

    Thanks for writing this and allowing me to blabber on! =)

    • 12.1
      Tati says

      Ummm…Pottery, not Pootery! I’m not the greatest typist =)

  13. 13
    MomofTwoPreciousGirls says

    What age do you recommend the children should be involved. Mine are two girls 4 and 2.5. We usually go through all their toys before the little one’s bday (summer) and Christmas (winter…oldest is January 7th bday) to clear everything out and make room for what’s coming. RIght now we do it a few weeks before and hide the stuff in the garage. If they get particularly distraught over something we have a chance to save it.

    The difference for us is we donate the toys to THEIR daycare. So, they get to keep playing with the toys, just in a different place. This will change in a couple of years, but it helps us with the blow! They are pretty consistent about which toys they play with. Honestly, a lot of their toys are in an armoire, so they only want them when they see them! So we could probabl pare down some more!

    • 13.1
      Laura says

      Of course it depends on each individual child but 4 is a wonderful age to start working these techniques with them.

  14. 14
    Jen says

    I have absolutely had success with this method. My son is almost 6 and for the past couple of years, I’ve gone through his toys before his birthday and the holiday season, and I’ll round up a pile of stuff I think we should give away. Then I’ll ask him to come help me look through that pile and see if there’s anything in there that he really wants to keep, reminding him that this is all stuff he really doesn’t play with and that most of it is “baby toys” that we could give to another baby (like his cousin) or is broken and can be thrown away. I also remind him that he has lots of other toys and is about to get a whole bunch of new stuff. He’s really very liberal with getting rid of stuff. He’s so good about it that when he does want to hold on to a couple of things for seemingly no reason, I just let him keep them – it’s usually only 2 or 3 little things.

    He went through his stuffed animals recently and was so ruthless in getting rid of them that I actually had to step in and rescue a few, including a zebra that I’ve had since I was 4 and my grandmother gave it to me for my birthday…not actually his to give away!

    Kids can really do this stuff if you just give them a little direction. They just need a push from you, and a little bit of leeway to make some decisions on their own.

  15. 15
    Lauren says

    I just read your blog and several comments. My son (age 9) has a 9 bin organizer from Target, 4 fabric bins, a red “trashcan” for his toys. He will clean his room with help but sometimes he just gets distracted and starts playing in the “war zone” instead. What I did one day was dump EVERY SINGLE THING that was out of place and have him go through it with a trash bag. He realized he had a lot of toys that he didn’t like or play with and they went into the “donate” box. The obvious trash AND what HE thought was trash went into the bag. There were a few tears (he cried when he saw the pile) but he knew that I WOULD do it if he didn’t. Since then, I do that with him quarterly. He has gotten really good about really putting things away (lots of practice) AND parting with old toys. Normally I tell him he has till the end of the day to get it done (a Saturday) and if need be, I’ll finish it on Sunday. I’ve been really impressed with what he got rid of. He told me he was getting rid of it because he was tired of having SO MUCH JUNK to clean up every time I dumped his room. LOL, I replied,”If its junk, it needs to go away anyhow”. He rolled his eyes and kept on purging…BTW, I give him 3 days warning about “dump day” so he can work on it before IT happens. He hates the entire process but LOVES his room after.

    • 15.1
      Laura says

      That’s awesome, thanks for sharing your story!

  16. 16
    Susie says

    I have learned over the years that teaching your children how to be organized can be learned at a very early age. It is all about communication. As parents we commonly do tasks around the house in front of our children, but never think to talk to them while we are working. Even to a toddler. They may not understand you at the time, but if they grow accustomed to hearing you narrate why you are doing what you are doing such as “I just love these neatly folded drawers, it just makes me feel happy,” “It’ sure is easy to clean up after ourselves when we know where everything goes isn’t it?” As silly as it sounds, this makes an imprint on their tiny brains. Communication and praise are they keys to teaching a child to organize. So don’t send your child to clean their room, if you have not bothered to teach them the benefits of organization and caring for their personal belongings.

  17. 17
    Sharon says

    As long as I participate with my kids, cleaning isn’t too bad. I have found some great stuff to have on hand that helps too. I would love for all of you to come to my online organizing party 🙂

  18. 18
    Alana says

    I completely agree. When purging with my 4 year old, she opted to get rid of the majority of Barbie shoes, crowns, tiny accessories. She realized that it was much faster to clean up Barbies without all the little pieces that don’t stay on anyway.

    There are a few things that she sometimes says she wants to get rid of, which are handmade and I’m sure she’d want them later (like her superhero cape). I simply put those in a bin in the closet, in case she asks for them later.


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