In the time it takes to cut the crust off a PB & J sandwich, kids are able to completely wreck a clean space. A child psychologist could probably tell you the "why" behind it, but that doesn't make it any less of a bummer to turn around and find all the clean laundry unfolded and sprinkled throughout the room. While no parent would place an orderly space above their children's need for play and expression, there are tricks to creating a kid's room that promotes both.
If you implement one or two of these tricks when you dive in and straighten up the kids' rooms, over time you'll have a space that's so easy and fun to tidy the kiddos can do it themselves.
1. Create a toy rotation bin
The simple truth behind organizing anything is that the more stuff you own, the more time you need to maintain that stuff. That's why limiting the number of toys and clothes your child owns will make a dramatic difference in how much time you spend asking them to "clean up." To ease into a more minimalist kids room, start with a toy rotation. Grab two or three plastic bins and start filling them with groups of toys that go together that your child is not "into" at the moment. Take the bins and store them up in a linen cupboard or in your family storage unit—the important thing is to keep them out of sight. You'll find that when you bring those toys back, it will be just as exciting as bringing in brand new toys since they haven't seen them in a while.
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2. Make the closet kid-proof
You can make clean-ups easier on your kiddos and yourself by designing a closet that is difficult to undo. Keep folded clothes on shelves out of reach, so your littles can't pull all the clean laundry onto the floor while attempting to dress themselves. Or maybe add another curtain rod at kiddo height in the closet and put just a few outfits for them to choose from. Use plastic baskets or kitchen utensil drawer dividers to keep socks, underpants and T-shirts from getting jumbled up.
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3. Use picture labels on toy bins
Young children have a natural desire to help, which can be encouraged with age appropriate organizing. It's much easier for young kids to match things visually, and when the image is bright and appealing, putting away toys can turn into a captivating game. You can pull and print images of the toys from a quick Google image search, or you can even use photos of your kids' actual toys. For instance, take a photo of their latest Lego creation and use that as the label for the Lego container.
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4. Paint "shadows" for over-sized toys
Little kids don't always get why the yoga ball is "put away" when it's next to the closet rather than in the middle of the room. Get a can of house paint in your child's favorite color, and paint a "shadow" on the wall behind odd-shaped and over-sized toys to show your kids where in the room they're considered put away. First, put all the toys in their place, then trace an outline of each toy (scooter, rocking horse, full-size dolly, etc.) with a pencil on the wall, then paint inside the outline. Then, when it's time to tidy up, putting away those bigger toys feels more like completing a puzzle.
5. Get a shovel
No, really! When the kids' rooms have turned into total pigsties, the quickest way to manage the mess is to scoop all the toys into a pile in the middle of the room to sort. A square, plastic beach spade or a kid-sized snow shovel make it really easy to gather up puzzle pieces, crayons, Legos, and all the little bits that belong to different playsets. Once all the toys are in a pile, you can pull up a chair and all the relevant toy bins and have your kiddos help sort and put away the pile. Add some flair to the shovel, and the kids will really get into using the "bedroom scooper" to clean up their latest toy explosion.
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6. Use wall space for book storage
You can save floor space by installing narrow book ledges that store books with the covers facing out, instead of the spines facing out. They're easier for kids to find the book they want, which means they don't need to pull every book off the shelf. As a precaution, use wall anchors, and mount the ledge so it's a little lower than shoulder height for your kiddo.
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7. Change the way you ask your kids to clean up
Everyone feels overwhelmed when faced with a big project with no clear starting point, and young kids are no different. Rather than repeating "clean your room" until the words lose their meaning, try focusing on concrete doable steps. Instead, look at the mess and give them directions that pertain to one kind of item. Such as "put all the crayons in the bucket" or "find all the socks and put them in the hamper." Start with a task that you can tell will make the biggest visual impact, that way your kids will experience cleaning momentum as they follow your directions. If your children are putting up a lot of resistance, have them step out of the room and stand next to you so that both of you are looking into the room. This will help them feel like you're both on the same team and sharing in the work.
Emma Gordon is a Los Angeles-based organizing and storing expert at Clutter.com with a weakness for DIY projects and kitchen gadgets. She has worked with celebrities, including Neil Patrick Harris, Bryce Dallas Howard, Whitney Port, and Jamie Lynn Sigler.