No two ways about it: If you have kids, you have clutter. Rainbow drawings and preschool papers arrive home daily. Life is a whirl of crayons, books, and toys. Teethers and shape-sorter parts seem to procreate between the sofa cushions. But you don't have to live with chaos until your kids head to college.
"There are ways to maintain order, encourage good habits in your children, and keep yourself sane," says Toni Ahlgren, the author of Organize Your Stuff the Lazy Way. Downsizing, using clever stuff holders, and creating simple organizing systems that everyone in the family can grasp will help you regain control over kid-clutter hot spots: the family room, the entryway, the kitchen, and the kids' bedrooms.
A Functional Family Room
"This is an excellent place to use a room-within-a-room arrangement -- much as preschools organize the room into activity centers," says professional organizer Pauline Hatch, coauthor of It's Here...Somewhere.
Make a hobby or game center with an inexpensive pint-size TABLE AND CHAIRS, or for toddlers, a plastic mat to protect the floor, and pillows to lounge on. Make the area inviting with a whimsical rug.
Get all those little trucks and dinosaurs off the floor while allowing kids access, with CLEAR PLASTIC BOXES with easy-to-open lids; they let children see what's inside, but also stack and take up less space. Other good choices: bins, dishpans, buckets, and boxes, all of which act as slide-out trays, making shelved items easy to reach. OPEN-FRONT STACKABLE BINS can hold toddlers' larger toys.
Stow toys that don't get daily use in LARGE PLASTIC BOXES, then stash them on a high shelf or under the sofa. Because kids can always keep an eye on the contents, they probably won't protest.
Toss out broken game boxes and put game parts in ZIP-CLOSE PLASTIC BAGS, then into a larger master container. Tape instructions to the back of each board and file next to the game-parts box on a shelf.
Save a roomy basket or toy chest -- where smaller toys just get lost -- for large toys and bulky stuffed animals, says Nellie O'Brien, a consumer reporter and professional organizer in White Plains, NY. It's also a neat place to pile pillows, or hide blankets and sleeping bags.
Create a pint-size reading corner for your child by positioning kid-size BEANBAGS or large pillows around bookshelves. Or make a portable library by standing books (titles facing out) inside a colorful PLASTIC TUB. A small child can easily flip through to find her favorite Dr. Seuss book without dumping them on the floor. (But if she does, they're easy to put away.) Joe Strasser, a father of two in San Diego, made bookshelves out of bright plastic crates from a discount store. He stacked four 1-gallon crates atop two 4-gallon crates and secured them with nylon ties.
Set up a kiddie entertainment center. File kids' CDs, videocassettes, and tapes in RECTANGULAR WICKER BASKETS that can be placed on a shelf or on the floor, near the TV and the stereo.
A Happy Homecoming
When you're dashing through the door with your child, backpack, papers, diaper bag, mail, and dog in tow, how can you not leave rubble in your wake? To keep her entryway from resembling an obstacle course, Jan Yager, Ph.D., author of Creative Time Management for the New Millennium and a mother of two in Stamford, CT, instituted a rule: "I make sure that backpacks and jackets are hung up the minute we walk in the door," she says. A basic approach can really make a difference. Likewise, make your coming-home station simple -- it should be functional, not fancy.
Try shaker-style wall pegs or a simple COATRACK for quick, organized unloading. (You may also want to hang coat hooks at kids' eye level.)
Take off shoes at the door; they'll be easy to find the next morning, and your floors will stay cleaner. Stash them in a LARGE BASKET, open bin, or a cedar or laminate shoe rack. Or hang a SHOE BAG inside a hall closet, for hats, scarves, and mittens, as well as shoes.
Mount a rack to corral often-misplaced house and car keys in one easily visible spot.
Set out a large basket or two near the door for sorting mail, newspapers, and school papers and art projects. At day's end, empty the baskets: Sign permission slips or report cards, and pop these, along with anything your children have to bring to school, directly into their backpacks. Jot down dates to remember in your appointment book, or on a KITCHEN WALL CALENDAR or a message board; toss extraneous papers.
A Calm Bedroom
A pristine kid's room may be an impossible dream, but one that's presentable -- even neat -- is achievable. The key is making it easy for your little one to help pick up. And that means streamlining the room's contents, says Pauline Hatch. Start with the obvious: Shelves and drawers will turn into dumping grounds unless you divide and conquer the stuff.
Group similar items, such as hair bows, in SMALL BINS OR BASKETS to be placed inside a dresser or a desk drawer. Egg cartons and oblong pencil holders are also handy for little things. Chris Kerridge, of Lone Tree, CO, says cleanup has gotten faster and treasures have stayed safer -- and dust-free -- since she began using the zippered clear plastic bags that bedding is sold in to contain 6-year-old Cody's Pokemon cards and Matchbox cars.
Have your child turn shoe boxes into catchalls with markers, construction paper, and glue. (To make it easy for little ones to remember what goes inside, tape a picture of the contents on the side of the box.) These containers can find a home under a bed or on a shelf.
If there's room, put a low BOOKSHELF inside your child's closet, or try an assortment of the bright plastic STACKING BOXES found at home stores.
As in the family room, put larger toys in plastic bins and books in tubs. A toy net hung in the corner of the room can keep stuffed animals off the floor. Put outgrown toys in a lidded bin or an old PACKING BOX and store it on a high shelf, until they're ready for a younger child or the charity pile.
Install decorative wall shelving. Kids love to see their treasures displayed; it's the perfect, out-of-the-way spot for that ceramic music box, porcelain baby cup, and other fragile toys.
Try a hanging shelf unit for clothes. And for bulky items like a bathrobe, tutu, or firefighter's hat and coat, install kid-height PEGS.
Set out an easy-access hamper to encourage kids to deposit their dirty duds; also try a corner-shaped WICKER BASKET or plastic laundry basket.
A Collected Kitchen
The kitchen is the heart of the home -- and all too often the arteries get clogged with kids' stuff. Here's how to pare down:
Consolidate kids' ware and utensils. Make "stackability" a priority. If you can't nest a cup, bowl, or plate, get rid of it. Place sippy-cup lids in one container, and stack matching cups nearby. House toddler spoons and forks in a SHALLOW, NARROW BIN in your utensil drawer.
Put bottle nipples, caps, and rings in a SMALL LIDDED CONTAINER; pop it into a larger one that holds bottles.
Set aside a kid-safe zone in a low, empty drawer or shelf away from the range. Along with kids' cups, plates, and toys, add pots and pans, spatulas, and plastic containers for playing. Joe Strasser safety-latched all but one cupboard door so 2-year-old Alexander can open it, grab things, and play while Dad cooks.
Create a self-service breakfast station on a low shelf or in a drawer for school-age kids. Choose foods they can prepare themselves: Pop bagel halves or mini-muffins in zippered SANDWICH BAGS; transfer cereal to a clear PLASTIC CONTAINER WITH A POUR SPOUT; include plastic dishes, napkins, and utensils. A low shelf in the refridgerator can hold milk or juice.
Tara Aronson, a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle and the mother of three, is the author of Simplify Your Household.