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I would have posted this yesterday afternoon, but as I sat down to work, I just couldn’t take it. The mess, that is. Mess everywhere. Toys, sports equipment, sun hats and winter coats discarded as the weather seems to change by whim. I’m in the heart of my home, the kitchen. In the midst of the mess is my desk, where my computer rests not quite easily within a mountain of papers and crayons. If you are a parent who works from home you probably recognize the scene. My desk definitely does not set a good example for the kids, with whom I seem to be locked in a never ending struggle to keep their clutter from consuming us completely.

After tackling the desk*, my conscience and my work space were clear enough to continue. I know I could use a little help putting some of my organizational good intentions into action, so I decided to do a little research. Here are some tips from the experts on keeping the clutter under control with young children. I’m going to try putting these into practice, especially when I’m home all day with the toddler. Maybe if I can help him to develop good organizational habits now, at the beginning, they will become second nature as he grows up.

Set a Good Example | Do your own cleanup cheerfully, so children don’t think it is a terrible chore to be avoided.
Routine | Set the rule that a toy or game has to be put away completely before moving on to something new. Stick to it.
A Place for Everything and Everything In It’s Place | Have enough space to put everything away. Color coded bins are a great way to give kids visual clues about where things should go. For example, blocks in the green bin, train set in the red. Label the bins with the names or pictures of the items contained inside.
Have fun | Sing songs, make it a race, count and name as you put away.
Be firm, but gentle | Avoid statements like “I need you to put the toys away, okay?” This conveys that it is somehow a choice that the child can opt out of, or that they are doing you a favor instead of taking personal responsibility for their things. Instead, say, “It’s time to put the toys away.”
Set time limits | Try incorporating a timer into your cleanup routine. It can become part of the game to see how quickly it can get done.
Chunk the junk | Occasionally sort through all of the toys, reuniting pieces from different sets. Donate, hand down to younger friends ad relatives, toss broken stuff.
Use consequence if necessary | If your child is resistant to the idea of cleaning up his toys, you may find that a consequence has to be established for failure to cooperate. For example, “We can’t go to the playground til we finish…” might work.

It takes time to build good habits. Be patient. Set clear guidelines for your kids and help them to get it done.

*Among other treasures and amidst a bunch of junk, I found:
– A brand new battery for my smartphone, still in the packaging
– Four boxes of thank you notes
– A really lovely picture of me and my husband that I don’t remember ever seeing before
– Our “lost” digital camera
– My student visa from when I was an exchange student back in the 90s


Sarah Conrad is the editor of the RCFS blog. She has worked with organizations involved in early care and education since 2000. She is also the mother of a 23-month-old boy and a 9-year-old girl.

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