Conquering clutter

Experts weigh in on the best ways to organize kid chaos

By Heather Laura Clarke

Many Nova Scotians went declutter-crazy after reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo: holding items to see if they “sparked joy” and discarding anything that didn’t into donation bins. (Thrift shoppers still speak fondly of the KonMari method era when the shelves of secondhand stores overflowed with wonderful cast-offs.)

But although Kondo tried to follow up with some tips for sorting children’s items (board games, toys, books, and general clutter) she never quite hit the mark. Parents struggled to apply her calm, less-is-more wisdom to their children’s bedrooms and playrooms.

A single teddy bear next to a lone toy car on an immaculate white shelf? While that might be practical in a tiny urban apartment, it’s not exactly helpful when you’re staring down at a three-storey minefield of Barbie shoes, Pokémon cards, Peppa Pig figurines, gnawed plastic blocks, and Happy Meal toys.

Jane Veldhoven, a Certified Professional Organizer and owner of Get Organized by Design in Halifax, says children’s clutter makes many parents regularly feel overwhelmed. “The needs of children change rapidly over time, which means there can be a lot of accumulation,” she explains. “The type of toys that children play with changes over time, which means they must be edited on a regular basis.”

But it’s the “editing” process that can daunt, with cabinets, drawers and shelving units overflowing with toys, books and games. Parents are exhausted at the thought of going through the mess, so it can feel easier to just buy another bin and ignore it for a while longer.

There are emotional attachments, too. Even if they know their kids have outgrown their train table or set of Calico Critters, Veldhoven says sometimes parents hesitate to get rid of the items because they may have been a gift from a friend or family member or a toy that was once their child’s favourite.

Kids preferences are constantly evolving, so if you sort regularly, you’ll help keep clutter from accumulating.

The reality is, however, that most of our houses have too many unused toys. Just as adults tend to wear just 20 per cent of their wardrobe 80 per cent of the time, Veldhoven says children tend to only play with about 20 per cent of their toys, and “they can survive with much less than we think.”

Laura Churchill Duke agrees it’s important to start by paring down what you have because the first rule of organization is that “you can’t organize clutter.”

“If you have too much stuff, it will be really difficult to organize and as soon as you do, it will just get messy again,” explains Duke, who owns Your Last Resort Home Organization and Staging along with Jennifer Saklofske and Raina Noel. The business is based in the Annapolis Valley, its organizers working with clients across the province.

While it might be easier for parents to sneak into the toy room with a black garbage bag and just start tossing, Duke says it’s better to include your children.

“We strongly believe kids must be part of the process to learn these skills and that parents should do the decluttering process with the kids, not behind their backs,” says Duke.

She says it’s usually “too overwhelming” to tackle an entire room because most kids (and adults) lack the skills to know how to begin. She says it’s most helpful to start with a specific category like stuffed animals or books.

“I remember asking my son to clean out his desk drawer and he literally started having a meltdown and freaking out. It was so overwhelming for him,” recalls Duke. “This is when I discovered category by category. I had him start with just the pencils, then the erasers, and we were finished in no time.”

When she’s working with a family, Duke will patiently put out a pile of five to 10 items and encourage the kids to push each toy under a “Keep” sign or a “Get rid of” sign.

“I try to do this without judgement, but sometimes I will guide them by asking ‘Do you still play with it?’ or ‘Isn’t it broken?’ or ‘Would your little cousin play with it more?’” says Duke.

If they insist on keeping a toy that really should be tossed or donated, Duke lets them. She says she knows if they repeat the process in a month, the kids will be able to let go of even more items.

“You can also try packing up items you think you can let go of, labeling them with the date and storing them away for a six-month period,” adds Veldhoven. “If no one misses them, they can probably go to someone who will actually put them to use.”

If you’ve tried paring down your kids’ toys and find you’re still drowning in excess LOL Dolls and Hot Wheels, you may want to consider hiring a professional organizer to help.

“Bringing in someone who is not attached to the stuff can help with the editing process,” says Veldhoven. “Also, because we have seen so many play areas, we can certainly provide excellent advice on storage options that are affordable and attractive.”

Duke agrees that working with a professional can be especially helpful in situations where clean-outs usually lead to family squabbles.

“Children often respond to other adults better, and there is less tension or emotional attachment,” says Duke. “Many wives have hired us to work with their husbands for the same reason!”

Veldhoven says it’s important for parents to model the behaviour of tidying up and putting their own things away.

“If your children see you doing it, they will learn to do it as well,” she says. “If your children have attended daycare or have started school, they know the meaning of putting things away.”

Kids need to know where to put items away, and that’s another challenge. Kids outgrow toys and books, but they also outgrow organizational systems. Veldhoven says one of the biggest reasons tidying kids’ spaces can be hard for families is because what works for one stage of life might no longer work for the next.

An organized basket system may have been perfect for baby toys, since it was the parents picking them up anyway. But once that baby grows into a toddler, baskets are too easily dumped out, mixing wooden puzzle pieces and plastic farm animals together into a “toy soup” all over the floor.

Veldhoven says there needs to be an obvious, well-labelled space for each item in order for this to work. She suggests using adjustable shelving that can grow with your children. Clear bins make it easier for kids to see what’s inside, which makes it less likely they’ll dump the whole thing onto the floor.

“If the system is easy, the kids are more likely to use it,” says Veldhoven.
Duke says proper storage is key, but the solutions should be customized to your child’s personality and habits. Some kids, she says, love to have things “micro-organized.” Instead of one bin for “doll clothes,” they’ll do best with separate bins for Barbie clothes, American Girl clothes and Build-a-Bear clothes.

“But some kids will just combine all the clothes together and don’t want it micro-sorted like this,” adds Duke. “In that case, a larger bin or trunk might work better, but you can still keep cars in one, Lego in another, etc. Kids feel so much pride when their rooms are organized.”

If storage is accessible and well organized, kids are more likely to use it.

Label bins so the kids (or parents, friends, and babysitters) know where everything goes when tidying. If your child can’t read yet, Duke suggests labelling the bins with photos or even gluing a sample item to the front of the bin.

Bins are only one storage solution. Stuffed animal nets and tall shelving units take advantage of vertical space. Armoires, ottomans, and under-bed drawers provide hidden storage. Hooks and clothing racks are perfect for organizing dress-up clothes and costumes. Board games stack easily on deep bookcases. Peg boards are handy for everything from Nerf guns to containers of art supplies.

Jennifer Saklofske with Your Last Resort Home Organization and Staging uses a hanging shoe organizer to corral her daughter’s tiny Shopkins. It’s hung at her height, and she can easily see her toys through the clear pockets.

No matter how you choose to store the items you’re keeping, Veldhoven says the key is to teach your children they don’t need piles and piles of toys to be happy. Studies show that children play longer and more deeply when they have fewer toys.

So while owning fewer toys may be beneficial for your children, Veldhoven says it’s also likely to set them up for an adulthood where they’re comfortable sorting, discarding and organizing their possessions as needed.

“The less you own, the easier it is to keep your home organized,” says Veldhoven. “Teaching your children to hold onto less ‘stuff’ will serve them well later in life.”


  • Start with three bags, boxes or signs labeled with “Keep,” “Donate,” and “Toss” so everyone understands your sorting system.
  • Instead of tackling the whole mess all at once, work category by category (i.e. stuffed animals, books, Barbies, art supplies).
  • Guide your child through the sorting process by asking when they last played with an item, if they think someone else might enjoy it more, if it’s broken, etc.
  • If your child insists on keeping items you don’t think they’ll really use, consider boxing them up separately and packing them away for six months to see if they notice.
  • Don’t feel guilted into keeping toys just because they were an expensive gift. If your child isn’t going to use them, they’d be better off in the hands of a child who will love them.
  • Store the remaining items in a way that’s accessible for your child, where everything has its own place. Talk to your child about the best way to organize specific items because they might have great ideas. Clear bins are helpful, and everything should be labeled for easy clean-up.
  • Repeat the process every six months or so, because kids’ interests change quickly. Toys they love now might be “too babyish” next time.

Read more from our Summer 2020 edition of Our Children.

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