Expert strategies for organizing kids' clutter

Cleanup time

Tiny people come with a lot of stuff. While they're still in utero, the equipment, gadgets, clothes and toys begin to accumulate. By the time they're in kindergarten, you have a full house.

It doesn't have to be that way. Begin spring cleaning with simple strategies and storage solutions to help corral your kids' belongings and make this the year your living room doesn't look like a picked-over rummage sale. An uncluttered house is calmer and less stressful, and having more physical space creates more space for creativity and togetherness. It's not about the stuff, but what happens when the stuff's not there.

Jill Annis of Simply Organized has nine years of professional organizing experience. She recommends starting small to avoid becoming overwhelmed. "Go through one bin or one shelf, and call it a day. Or keep going if you're on a roll." After her clients have completed an organization project, the shift in their attitude is obvious. People feel as if "a weight has been lifted," freeing them to live their lives more fully.

Keep a box or bin in every child's closet. As soon as something is outgrown or no longer needed, drop it in. "Only keep items that are in good shape, free of holes and major stains, and only keep them if you have younger children who will be the same size during the same season. Otherwise start donating now," Annis recommends.

Annis advises keeping only the current season accessible, which saves room and helps avoid a battle if your preschooler decides she wants to wear a swimsuit and sandals to school in January. Store extra clothing in clear bins, labeled with size, season and gender.

How many toys does a little one really need? Any parent who's watched a child mesmerized with a cardboard box, a measuring cup or a jar of dried beans knows that toys can be superfluous.

Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting, thinks that "No special toys, or quantity of toys, are necessary to develop a child's imagination. Children use and grow their imaginations quite naturally. They only need time to do so."

Payne advocates decreasing toy inventories by about three-quarters. Half can be given away, and the remaining quarter will be put into storage as a working "toy library." What is left are those toys that a child plays with most and longest, and are usually open-ended, allowing for different types of play.

If you're not ready to drastically reduce toys, there are still strategies to reduce overall clutter. Annis suggests parents regularly edit out toys kids are bored with or have outgrown, and of course, anything broken or missing a piece. And those hard-to-put-away items like kitchen sets and ride-on toys that seem to line the walls in every room? Keep them to a minimum. "Ask yourself before purchasing if you have room to store this," Annis suggests. She also avoids toy boxes where everything and anything is jumbled together.

Aleta McGee, mother of three boys under 4 (although you wouldn't know it from looking at her living room), says that after undertaking some serious simplification, not only is her house less cluttered, but she has seen positive changes in her children's behavior.

McGee completed a significant reduction effort after reading Simplicity Parenting. In the family room, an elaborate masking tape road held a few cars and block towers. A single bookshelf held four bins of wooden train accessories, a basket of books, a puzzle drawer and a dress-up drawer.

A single ExerSaucer and bouncy chair for the baby sat against one wall. A few books were in each bedroom, and a table with building blocks and a marble game was in the basement. That was it.

McGee manages the day-to-day by striving to have everything put away in its home at least once. She's vigilant about throwing things away or donating them, and she "discouraged the grandparents early on from going overboard," she says. She has some toys in storage that can be rotated in, and some put away in cupboards that are brought out upon request (like art supplies). McGee keeps closet floors open so that larger toys can be placed there when not in use.

She likes to keep smaller pieces together in bins or storage bags and store like items together, making it easier to find things. She saves large diaper and wipe boxes to store toys that are not currently in rotation, and reuses containers from bulk storage purchases, like large clear plastic jars for crafting materials and other small items.

McGee says simplifying has advantages beyond a neater home. She's seen more cooperation, more creative play and even improved eating habits and more relaxed bedtimes.

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