Manage the Mess

Is your child’s room a disaster zone? Check out these nine simple ways to get her organized.

Uh-oh, close call. That crumpled piece of paper you almost threw away was actually a handmade cootie catcher that your child acquired in a complex swap of valuables over the school lunch table. Rescued from its untimely demise (phew!), it now joins all the other semi junk that has been piling up in your kid’s room, alongside the dust-gathering stuffed animals and toys and games she’s not yet ready to say goodbye to. But it’s a new decade! And as tempting as it may be to make the fast and easy resolution to keep her door closed at all times, deep in your heart you’ll always know the clutter is there.

The truth of the matter is that out of sight isn’t out of mind - and physical disarray can lead to mental chaos. “If there is too much going on around her, your kid may have a hard time focusing,” says Bruce Henderson, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Western Carolina University, in Cullowhee, North Carolina. And then there’s all that time and energy wasted looking for lost items or battling with her over cleanup chores. The good news? By ages 6 to 8, not only is your child ready to help manage her own stuff - she’ll feel good about doing it. Our tips will help straighten things up.

Manage the Mess

Go First

Set the stage by asking your child to help you. “Appoint her your advisor and coach,” suggests Rita Emmett, author of The Clutter-Busting Handbook. Make a big, silly production of saying goodbye to your ratty tennis shoes as you parade them to the trash. Talk about how much you like those strappy sandals you bought for spring break back in ’01 but haven’t ever worn since. When it’s her turn, she’ll be prepped to let go.

Start a System

You need to do the up-front work of making a place for everything: Use smaller bins for small toys, bigger bins for large toys, and at least one catchall container for the stuff you can’t anticipate. “Keep categories broad, such as action figures, animals, autos, and miscellaneous,” says Sarah Buckwalter, professional organizer and founder of “If you want kids to be involved in the process of getting their stuff put away, the system needs to make sense to them.”

Label It

Help your child keep things going by putting signs on bins, drawers, and shelves so that he can see at a glance where everything belongs. “The more invested he is in the process, the more

Manage the Mess

Is your child’s room a disaster zone? Check out these nine simple ways to get her organized likely he’ll be to put the socks where the socks go,” says Emmett. He can write or draw the labels, or you can take snapshots while he hams it up with, say, a dinosaur from the animal bin or a pile of T-shirts from his dresser. Print the photos and stick them on the appropriate container.

Schedule a Periodic Purge

Instead of waiting until the clutter is out of control, designate a “Shed Stuff Day” on your family’s calendar when the seasons change, for instance, and before birthdays or other occasions when gifts are given. A kid who’s anticipating getting new presents may be more inclined to give up some old ones. But you should also try to have a quick-fire session once a week: Set a timer for 15 minutes and see who can throw out the most or make their space tidiest. If you join in the competition, all your stuff will get more organized too.

Give It Away Together

“Kids naturally like the idea that their things are going to another child who needs them,” says Buckwalter. Help your child connect with a local charity, such as a foster-care program, and make an event out of cleaning and sorting t he items s he’s decided t o donate. Take her with you for the delivery, and discuss t he joy t hat her nice, clean toys will bring to another child who may have very little.


If y our child s till h as more toys than places to put them, try stashing a batch in the garage or the basement. Exchange the stored toys for another set a few weeks later, and everything will seem new and exciting again. Novelty aside, when kids aren’t overwhelmed with objects, they appreciate their possessions much more and take better care of them,” says Dr. Henderson.

Prevent Pileups

Instead of promising your child new things as an incentive for good behavior or grades, offer him something like a special one-on-one outing with you or your spouse instead. While you’re at it, you might even want to promote the “birthdays are about the fun, not the presents” message. Throw a party with a fun activity (think soccer match, bike parade, or cookie decorating), and ask guests to bring a toy to donate instead. While a present-free party can be a tough sell for a 7-year-old, he’ll still get stuff from family members and he’ll feel good about collecting donations for a cause like saving endangered tigers or the rain forest.

Say When

“Kids need messy time, but they also need structure for when it’s time to clean up,” says Dr. Henderson. If you feel as though you’re nagging, create house rules with your child. Avoid power struggles by getting out the art supplies and making a sign t o b e displayed in a central location. For example, you might have a law that playroom toys have to be in bins before bath time and backpacks should be packed before bed. (Bonus: Going through your child’s book bag together once a week will not only keep it from becoming a junk trunk, it’ll keep you in the loop about her school life). Before long, your child will be a clutter-control pro.