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Mess Makeover

A recent morning at our house: My first-grader can't find her sneakers and is wearing mismatched slip-ons. Her 9-year-old sister heaps jackets on the floor as she searches for the one she wants. My husband nurses his foot after stepping on a tiny but deadly action figure. And I'm hunting for the kids' backpacks.

"Why can't we get it together?" I wonder.

Pam Gibbard, a professional organizer in Chapel Hill, NC, has a reassuring response: "It's not just you  -- many homes have changed. Children used to spend more of their time playing outside, and bedrooms were mostly for sleeping and clothes. Now they often play indoors, and they have a lot more toys."

How can we get our kids' clutter under control? Some solutions from resourceful parents as well as professional home organizers:

Diane Baker is a freelance writer in Berkeley, CA, specializing in articles on parenting strategies.

Make A Plan

Start in the right frame of mind. If you decide to reorganize when you're frustrated and fed up with the mess, you probably won't last long or do a thorough job.

Be realistic. "Forget about perfection and set specific priorities," advises Jay Davidson, a professional organizer in San Francisco, who also teaches first grade. "The point of getting kids organized is so they can find things, use them, and more easily put them away."

Adopt a child's viewpoint. Do the kids have an uncluttered place to play? Are their toys nearby and easy to get to? Can they find the clothes they need? One priority Davidson suggests for younger kids: plenty of open floor space.

Get down to your kids' height to see if they can easily take things down and put them away. Can they reach the towel hook? Do they need a stool? What can go under their beds?

Consider where each item is used. Lorraine Hirsch, of Los Gatos, CA, mother of two kids, ages 2 and 5, has set up cubbyholes  -- improvised from oversize stacking bins  -- for each family member near the front door. She and her husband, Jon, drop off their keys, mail, and library books in the top bins. The kids dump their lunch boxes, mittens, art projects, and jackets in the lower bins.

Designate an "in" box near the front door or on your desk or your dresser for school notes and permission slips. Or use a bulletin board.

Do the Dirty Work

Break down the whole job of organizing an area into smaller tasks. "What stops most people from even starting is feeling that the job is overwhelming," says Donna Goldberg, an organizing consultant in New York City. Don't think about doing it all. Choose one task for starters  -- the toys, a desk  -- and see that one task all the way through. If you're doing toys, stop yourself from shelving books.

Weed out what you don't need. For clothes, you'll need four or five cardboard boxes, a trash bag, and a laundry basket. Label the boxes "Keep," "Hand-me-downs," "Donate," "Seasonal," and "Resell," if you patronize secondhand shops. Sort directly into the boxes, tossing discards into the trash bag. Return keepers to the closet or dresser. Clothes that need mending or are stained go in the laundry basket for later attention. After you're finished, put an empty discard box in the laundry room for clothes beyond repair, so they're not laundered and put back in drawers.

For toys and books, label the sorting boxes "Keep," "Rotate," "Donate," and "Resell." You'll save space by rotating toys and books every few months; store the box of off-duty items in a convenient spot, like a top shelf in the family room, and make a fresh selection when your children get bored with their regular toys.

Remember that many kids are sentimental about their possessions and anxious about change. Be sure to make a place for their cherished memorabilia and either display these items on a shelf in their bedroom or store in labeled boxes in their closet.

Now that I've put this advice into practice, mornings go much more smoothly. There's even time to spare before leaving for the day. A couple of days ago, this was the scene at our house: My husband and I share the paper. One daughter is finishing a puzzle she started last night in some newly cleared floor space. The other is slipping paper doll clothes into their new home, a big labeled envelope. At last, I think, we're getting it together.

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