Being An Example: Helping Our Kids Get Organized By Modeling It For Them

The following is a guest post by Mandi Ehman of Organizing Your Way and the soon to be launched Life … Your Way network. This originally ran in April 2010, but I felt the topic of helping kids get organized is timely after some of your comments on my post earlier in the week on kids and practical life skills.

Ithink we’d all agree that teaching our children to organize their belongings and the space around them is a valuable life skill. Unfortunately, it’s not a skill that always comes naturally for us, even as parents. As with any value or habit we want to pass on to our children, however, it’s important to not just teach our children the what, why and how of organizing but also to model it for them in our own lives.

As much as we’d like to teach them to “do as I say and not as I do,” children are much more likely to replicate the behaviors they see than the instructions we give them.

Today I’m sharing three behaviors we can model and teach our children to give them the tools they need to be organized:


For parents:

  • Make a conscious decision to declutter. While there is a wide gray area between minimalism and hoarding, being able to sort through our stuff and only keep those things that we truly need or truly love is an important part of getting organized. Even the most organized person will fall under the weight of too much stuff.
  • Clear out the storage. I’m not saying you have to get rid of all the sentimental or seasonal items you’re currently storing in your basement or attic, but it is important to ask yourself how much something really means to you if it’s hidden away in storage.

For kids:

  • Teach kids the one toy in, one toy out rule. Whenever they receive gifts for their birthday, holidays or just because, have them choose something to give away. Alternatively, clean out toys before the occasions when you expect gifts to make room for the new things.
  • Set physical limits and let your children make their own decisions. Rather than cleaning out their toys for them, use bins, toy boxes and small containers to contain sets of toys and let kids make the decision on what to keep and what to give away based on what fits in the defined space.

A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place

For parents:

  • Follow the “touch it once” rule. Whenever I pick something up, I do my best to put it in its final resting place right away rather than just moving the clutter around my home. It ultimately saves me time and helps our home stay uncluttered.
  • Have a place for everything. However, the other side of this strategy is you have to have places for things to go in the first place. Look at the piles around your home and brainstorm strategies for dealing with them. It may mean setting up a bill center for incoming mail or creating a drop zone for backpacks and jackets by the front door.

For kids:

  • Teach kids to take out toys in sets and put each set away before they get the next out. There will be times when they’ll want to keep out an elaborate lego village they’re building or play with more than one set of toys at the same time, but it’s easier and less overwhelming to clean up one set of toys at a time than a large mess of toys that has to be sorted and put away.
  • Label kids toys with pictures or use clear bins to make it easy for them to put away toys on their own. Don’t freak out over a doll diaper in the car bin, but encourage kids to put things away where they belong so that the sets are ready the next time they want to play with them.

Photo by hcplebranch

Look for Ways to Improve

For parents:

  • Set goals for yourself. Even as a very organized person, I still have areas where I’d like to improve. For example, I want to do better at putting my dishes in the dishwasher right away rather than stacking them in the sink so that my girls will learn to do that as well.
  • Remember that organizing isn’t a one-time activity. As your needs and habits change and you acquire different things, you’ll need to reorganized to find a system that works best for you. Involve children in the process of reorganizing.

For kids:

  • Help kids come up with their own organizational systems. For example, if your daughter has hair bows and barrettes that just end up mixed up in a drawer, and she’s frustrated by not being able to find the ones she wants, help her think through different ideas for organizing them and then help her actually make those changes.
  • Don’t do it for them. Even though it can be easier to tackle the process of organizing and decluttering without little ones underfoot, it’s important that you involve them early and often so that they learn how to do it. My two-year-old is fairly good at cleaning up as long as the mess isn’t overwhelming, and we encourage her to sort toys and help us, even though it usually takes longer that way. Toddlers and preschoolers are so eager to help, so we use that as an opportunity to build good habits right from the start.

I don’t expect my children to be perfect little organizing machines by any stretch of the imagination, but I do want to help them build good habits and give them opportunities to see the benefits of keeping things organized and neat.

It took me several years to create organizational systems in my own home because my mom did most of our organizing and cleaning for us while I was growing up, and while my children would probably prefer that approach, my goal is to give them a head start so they’ll be better prepared to run their own homes one day.

How do you involve your children in cleaning and organizing?

Online Knitting Class
Delightful kids' crafts delivered to your door!  See sample crates>>


  1. Thanks for this advice, Mandi! I can always tell when it is time to declutter the playroom when I notice the kids are taking toys from there to other parts of the house to play with – almost like there is too much chaos and clutter in their for them to enjoy the space.

    I really like your “one toy in, one toy out” rule and we try to do as you suggest and have a toy/book/clothing clean out before birthdays and the holidays to make room for the new things they will be getting.

    As I mentioned on Wednesday, it is tempting for me sometimes to do the work for them, but it is SO important for them to learn these skills. I don’t want my kids to grow up not knowing how to do some of these things (I think we’ve all had or heard about the college roommate who doesn’t know how to do laundry LOL) You’re right about the head start it will give them to run their own households in the future.

  2. We’re definitely working on improving this all the time! We try to make room before gift-giving times for new things, but it can be so overwhelming.

    I wanted to add something to these recommendations, also. Along the lines of helping kids figure out their own organization systems-I think it’s important to let them make the final decisions about containment and organization whenever possible.

    My 2 year old likes to reorganize his own toys sometimes. So, he’ll see a new basket sitting somewhere and decides that it’s his *new* lego basket and give me the old one. Or, he’ll keep both (‘both’ being one of his favorite words) and sort the blocks/legos/dolls/whatever in some system that is incomprehensible to me. The other day he decided his tin lunch box was for his markers and the old marker bag was for stuffing paper into. I try very hard to let him decide these things and not correct him. It’s so great to see him learning to organize things the way he wants them 🙂

  3. Great information. Organizing really is a journey but putting in the effort does pay off. I thought my daughter would never come around, but now that she is a teen, she really loves to keep things in an organized way.
    Paula´s latest post: Thanks- Little Buddy!

  4. We try and tackle one organizing issue at a time with the kids. Right now it’s the: clean it up as soon as you’re done with it issue. So far so good!
    One issue at a time seems to help them and us not get overwhelmed and they seem to grasp it more deeply and longer lasting.
    Joseph Nally´s latest post: When to Apply the Emergency Brake!

  5. Wow- what a helpful post….I just need to DO what it says….sometimes it is hard being a mom- we know that our kids are watching our every move and learning from those actions. What a huge responsibility!

  6. I like (and follow) a lot of the rules on this list. One thing I don’t follow though is the “touch it once” rule. I would be running up and down the stairs all day long if I did this, so we frequently place stuff at the top of bottom of the stairs and the rule is you can’t go up or down (unless there’s nothing there!) without taking something with you to immediately put away. These are great ideas, though, and I can use many of them!! 🙂

    • We actually do this exact same thing. I think it’s okay if you set it somewhere on purpose, like the steps. The touch-it-0nce rule has more to do with just moving something because you don’t know where it goes or you just don’t feel like putting it away at the moment!
      Mandi @ Organizing Your Way´s latest post: Back-to-School Routines

  7. I grew up in a very disorganized house, with my mom constantly getting frustrated because I wouldn’t “clean my room”. I didn’t have the words (or courage) to tell her “I don’t know how to clean my room. Do you clean your room(s)?” until I was a teenager.

    My not-quite-2-year-old knows how to clean up her toys and place like with like. She will even put her dirty clothes in the hamper (after we help her take them off) and put her shoes away in a basket in her room. I plan on installing a lower set of pegs by our door so she can hang up her own coat this winter.

    I think one of the biggest things I struggle with now is having places for transitory items – like where to collect things to give away, or where to put items that constantly go in and out like my purse, the diaper bag, etc. We also tend to have some part of our house be under construction at all times, which usually eliminates some storage for months on end. Frustrating!


  1. […] from Organizing Your Way gave tips for teaching children to organize at Simple […]