Teaching kids to declutter

Let’s face it, tidying up and making decisions about what to keep versus what to get rid of, are probably never going to be your child’s favourite activities (in fairness, which of us can honestly say that it is ours?), but teaching kids to declutter is nonetheless an important life skill (we’ve all seen the shows where stuff is piled so high that a path has to be made to move throughout the home).

Here are some tips to help make this process a little less painful for both you and your children.

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  • Typically, prior to a child’s birthday and Christmas are good times to have them go through their stuff to get rid of what they’re not playing with, and make room for any new things they may get (this is when they are the most motivated, as they know that items they give away are likely to be replaced with new ones).   This is also a good time to stress to them that many children do not have the toys that they do and to outline the importance of giving the toys they no longer want to charity so that others may enjoy them.  We go through a “culling” process with my daughter’s toys at least a couple of times a year.  We’ve been doing this since she was three or four, so she knows the drill and often even initiates the clean-up on her own.
  • Make it their idea.  Funny thing, but most kids really hate being told what to do.   Sometimes it’s necessary but, where possible, try to get them to come up with the idea on their own.  In the past, my daughter has been motivated by such things as having guests over, hearing that her best friend was cleaning her room and trying to find something that she ‘lost’.
  • Ask that children give away one existing item for each new item purchased/received.  An example of this is that my daughter loves ‘stuffies’ (i.e. stuffed animals) and still plays with them consistently, so I don’t mind her having an assortment of them.  However, there is a limited amount of ‘stuffie storage space’ in her room, so that needs to be taken into consideration.  Rather than tell her that she can’t get any more (often, she is wanting to buy them with her own money), I have asked that she give one away before she purchases a new one.  So far, this has worked out well (typically, there are some that she is not as fond of as others or that she doesn’t have an emotional attachment to, so those are the first to go).
  • Don’t try to tackle too much at once…look for manageable chunks of work that can be completed within a reasonable timeframe (taking your child’s personality into consideration).
  • Try to make tidying up as ‘fun’ as possible, by putting on some music or by making it into a game (“name 3 things that Sally no longer plays with”).
  • The idea of going through their stuff and tidying up, can seem overwhelming to a child (we’ve all been there!), but they may be more receptive if you “keep them company” and pleasantly guide them through the organizational process (e.g. “Can this be thrown out?” or “Where does this belong?”).  Let there be no mistake though, do not do it for them, or nothing will be learned.  Make sure that they make the decisions about what to keep or throw out, then have them organize what remains.
  • I love containers.  I don’t spend a lot of money for them (typically, I get them for a dollar or two at the Dollar Store) but I think it’s a great way to get kids to organize their stuff (e.g. this basket has all your hair elastics and this one holds your socks, etc.).  Work with your child to determine what items belong together and then make a trip to the Dollar Store and have them pick out the best containers for the job (it’s always good if they feel that they have a say in it).
  • Try not to be too critical.  Don’t insist on perfection or your child will feel like they can never live up to your expectations and should not even bother to try.   Your child may not keep their room as tidy as you would like it to be, but decide together what is “good enough” and know that there is value in simply teaching them the ongoing process of organizing their belongings (your child’s future roommates and spouse will thank you).


I’m not going to lie…there are times that I could certainly benefit from following my own advice (of course, it’s always easier to give advice than to follow it oneself), but it’s important that I practice what I preach, or I lose credibility in my daughter’s eyes.  My desk sometimes looks like a tornado touched down and I often feel overwhelmed by the amount of ‘stuff’ that people have deposited throughout the house.  When that happens, I have to remind myself to take a deep breath and tackle one thing at a time.

It’s an ongoing process and, like anything, the more you and your child work at it, the better you’ll become. Well, gotta go…it’s time to tidy up!