I’ll begin by saying, no, I don’t have children, but I used to be one (albeit a freakishly organized one) and (a little known fact) I used to teach preschool, so I know this: kids make messes! It’ their job, and if they were getting paid for it, we would have a bunch of tiny millionaires running around! We can’t fault them for not being born organized, especially if their role models (ehem) aren’t all that organized. So if we want to teach them to put things away, we have to teach them how to do it. And, in order for it to stick with them, it has to be at least a little fun and most definitely rewarding (and not just in the ‘the-result-is-the-reward’ sort of way. They don’t get that and neither do a lot of adults, for that matter).
If your kids are of a ‘walking’ age, then they are of a ‘creating messes’ age and therefore also of a ‘learning’ age, which works out well for teaching them a bit about organizing. The first thing you need to do is show them where things go because if you just ask them to clean up, you will end up with a clean room in a miraculously short amount of time, but there’s no telling what you’ll find shoved under the bed and into the closet (actually, there is telling…it’s all that stuff that used to be on the floor in the room). Since this is probably not the desired outcome, some important steps need to be taken.
1. Go through the purging process with your kids.
a. Start with all the broken toys. Those should be easy to get rid of and will get your kids warmed up to the idea of letting go of things.
b. Next, ask them to pick out the toys they don’t like or play with anymore. You can start with the things that are no longer age-appropriate for them.
c. You can talk with your kids about where the toys will be going. Explain to them that some kids have moms and dads that don’t have very much money and can’t buy toys, so the toys that you don’t play with anymore can make some other kids happy. You’d be surprised how many kids will get on board with the idea and even pick out toys to offer up for the ‘other kids’.
2. Spend time with your kids creating ‘homes’ for their toys. If everything has its own place, and if they know where that place is, the items will be more likely to end up there. Some examples:
a. A bin for the Legos, with a label and a picture, if your kids are too young to read.
b. A case for the Barbies and their accessories.
c. Bookshelf for the books. They don’t have to be alphabetized or anything, but piling them on the floor is not an advised organizing solution.
3. Make clean-up time into a game (Mary Poppins style; minus the spoon full of sugar…it will rot their teeth).
a. Set a timer for 15 minutes and tell them that whoever puts away more things before the timer goes off gets a special prize. This works well if you have more than one child. If you have only one, they can race the clock (or their imaginary friend, but if the imaginary friend wins, you’re in trouble!).
b. Reward each child with something small (not a pony) for putting in effort, and reward the winner of the challenge with a bigger prize (still, not a pony). To avoid their rewards becoming part of a new mess that needs to be cleaned up, reward them with things like an extra half hour of staying up past their bed time or a special play date with friends.
c. If all else fails, and your kids refuse to help clean up no matter what you try (bribery), simply tell them that they only need to put away the things they want to keep! This is a sure-fire way to get them to help. However, in case they have a lapse in little kid judgment and want to call your bluff, be ready with a big bag that says GOODWILL on it.
4. Finally, before you or anyone else buys your kids more things that they won’t play with and will end up on the floor, consider having gift-givers contribute towards a few large items or even enrichment activities or classes. So, for birthdays and holidays, make a list (sort of like a registry) to give to everyone who usually buys gifts for your kids, so you get what you want instead of more things to clutter their rooms.
Basically, when it comes to organizing your kids spaces, getting them involved in the process at an early age will help them be more organized adults and will make keeping up with the home more manageable. However, someone needs to take the lead and show them what to do. If that someone is not you, then get help!