You don't have to be a perfectionist to teach a child how to be organized. Like reading or riding a bike, organizing is a skill that can be taught. Even preschoolers can be guided to make careful, efficient plans and manage their supplies and spaces for work or play. Good organizational systems have a way of making time fall into place: Kids find more time for fun and families find time to be together.
The easiest way to motivate your children to get organized is to use their style, their personality, even their mistakes. "For younger children, try to get on their wavelength, see how they process information, and create a plan from there," advises Ann W. Saunders, a licensed clinical social worker turned professional organizer from Baltimore. Your tweens will probably need a different approach, however. "They need to see their disorganized style as a problem," says professional organizer Marcia Allen, of Washington, D.C. For them, take advantage of a lost homework assignment or a poor test grade to collaborate on new organizing systems. Once you have a strategy, start organizing your child wherever there's stress or a mess or both.
Making PlansWeekly family meetings help children make planning a habit. "It teaches kids to think ahead of time," says Saunders. First, decide when you will meet -- Sunday nights? Or Fridays, in the car on the way to Grandma's for dinner? During the week, toss reminders in a basket that can be carried to your planning sessions. Then start filling in your calendar.
"Plan what nourishes you and your family first," Saunders advises. Fun activities are often the first to be cut out of busy schedules, so instead of planning them last, make them a priority. What nights will you have dinner together or go to the movies? Plan time for your daughter to practice soccer or for your son to make computer greeting cards. Don't overfill the schedule -- planning downtime teaches kids to balance work and play.
Then plan the work. Consider time and supplies needed to complete tasks, appointments, schoolwork. What does your child need for raking leaves tomorrow? What supplies does he need for his math project that's due Friday? Have your child make a "hand map" to plot his plans. Hand maps help reinforce logical thinking about projects, activities, and written assignments. To make one, have your child trace his hand on a piece of paper. Next, he writes the title of the project, event, or activity in the space made by the palm. Using the finger spaces, he writes five things that must be done to complete his project. Encourage him to erase and rearrange things, putting them in order from left to right. Map two hands for big projects.
Of course, you need to be ready for scheduling emergencies. "Have your back-up people lined up before school starts," advises Marilyn Ridzon, president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers (for a referral in your area call 512-206-0151). Who fills in during bad weather or car troubles? Decide how long kids should wait for you (30 minutes?) before they call someone on the list. Write those names and phone numbers on an index card, cover it with clear tape, and pin it inside your child's bag for easy access in an emergency.
Putting Things at Your FingertipsUsing unique places and favorite colors to help children organize their supplies has unexpected benefits. "If you organize space well, children will gravitate toward it," says Susan Brown, creator of the Homework Helpmate. Brown invented the Helpmate when the hunt for school supplies became frustrating for her two sons. The brightly colored, toolbox-style container organizes school supplies. "Think how your creative juices flow when you see an artist's case with pastels, paints, and markers. It makes someone who can't draw want to sit down and try it," says Brown.
Simply put, the right tools can make organizing easy and fun for a child of any age. If bright colors make your child's eyes dance, help her arrange her school supplies by color. For example, if your child picks the color purple for math, use the same color for home file boxes to hold math assignments and tests, for the math divider in her notebook, and for the cover of her math book. This will create a visual link between home and school.
Sorting and PrioritizingAs your child starts a new school year, you need to make sure she has cleared out last year's clutter -- old papers, projects, toys, even school clothes. Sorting through all that stuff will also help your child sort out her thoughts. Try the "Four Boxes and a List" method, developed by Career Track, a management and personal-training company in Shawnee Mission, KS. Label four cardboard boxes: "Give It Away," "Toss It," "Keep It," and "Store It for Later."
On paper, list the same categories and make notes about where your child puts each item. Have your child ask questions that will help her work through the emotions of letting things go, like: "Could someone else use this more than I can?" "How valuable is it to me if I forgot all about it?" "If it's important, why is it buried?"
When you've sorted everything into its appropriate box, tape each list to the corresponding box. Your child can take one last look at the lists on the "Give It Away" and "Toss It" boxes before they head to the Salvation Army or the trash.
Location, Location, LocationTeach children how to creatively engineer the space around them. Developed by educator Maria Montessori, this method arranges spaces so kids can't make mistakes, says school discipline expert, Charles H. Wolfgang, Ph.D., of Florida State University in Tallahassee.
For example, to help your son remember the safest place for his bike, hang a tennis ball on a string from the ceiling so that when it bounces against the handlebars it signals the perfect landing spot. Make silhouettes on Peg-Board for scissors or other tools. Well-engineered spaces not only minimize children's mistakes, they remind them to treasure their possessions and treat things with respect, says Wolfgang.
Learning organizing skills not only saves your children from legendary messiness, it changes the way they think. Color coding and silhouette marking aren't only organizing elements, they are also silent reminders that order makes life more efficient. Though being organized starts on the outside, it moves inside. It creates sensitivity for time, place, possessions, and even other people that can become a natural way of thinking. Best of all, it teaches children that organizing can make the fun times fall into place.