When Farai Harreld got pregnant with her first child, she looked around and realized she needed to rethink her consumption habits. “I was flabbergasted that we had accumulated so much stuff - and at the time we were only 25,” says Harreld, a writer and birth worker who co-founded Black Minimalists. She and her husband had recently bought their first house, which was smaller than their previous place. “It really just made me look at my footprint in my home and in the world and [consider] what kind of life I wanted to live with my child.”
At her baby shower, she requested only what she considered essential, such as gender-neutral clothing, diapers, and feeding accessories like bottles and breast pumps. Today, Harreld, her husband and two children - a 6-year-old girl and 7-month-old boy - maintain their relatively uncluttered existence in Topeka, Kan. They do it in part, she says, by taking a selective approach to which toys and kid stuff is allowed into their space.
“Most of the time, children who have a hard time cleaning their rooms are overwhelmed by the things they have,” says Harreld. “One of the tenets of minimalism for me was that I don’t want to be overwhelmed by the things in my home. And so it’s the same for my daughter.”
Even if you don’t consider yourself a minimalist - or want to keep your kids from enjoying the latest games and toys - there are fairly simple ways to be more intentional about the items that cycle through your home and how you organize them. Here’s what Harreld and other experts recommend.
1. Choose toys wisely
Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist in El Segundo, Calif., encourages imaginative and unstructured play that allows “opportunities for kids to engage in critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, empathy skills and creativity while having fun.” For example, she suggests saving items like cereal boxes. “You don’t need a ‘play kitchen’ in your home for kids to enjoy kitchen play,” says Hurley. “They can build their own kitchens and stock the shelves with empty packages.”
Harreld has similarly found that “open-ended” toys allow her daughter to use her imagination. Her daughter’s play silk, for instance, has morphed into a cape, headscarf, doll blanket and kite over the years. She used her kinder board for balance as a toddler, then later as a rocking chair for her doll and a place to sit and read for herself. These kinds of items last longer not only because they’re multipurpose, says Harreld, but because they’re not as flimsy as plastic toys.
2. Rotate toys
If you’ve already accumulated a mountain of toys, decide on a few to keep out and store the rest, advises Dalys Macon, owner of D’Vine Order and founder of Black Girls Who Organize. “Then make a decision every two weeks or monthly to switch them out.” Rotating toys can be fun for some kids because it “offers fresh perspectives and new ideas,” adds Hurley.
But you don’t want to limit them too much, says Adam Tinsley, an educator and board-certified behavior analyst. His daughter favors certain toys on a whim, he says, and having some variety allows her to “self-stimulate as opposed to always relying on mommy and daddy to facilitate activities. It gives her an opportunity to exercise her independence in a way that she might not lean on if she only had five to seven toys.”
3. Teach organizational skills early
Many kids benefit from structure, “or understanding that things in life have a sequence and order,” says Tinsley. But instead of being “a drill sergeant” in the home, he suggests coupling organizing skills with reasoning. “[Help] them understand that it’s easier to remember where things are if you put them in the same place every time,” he says, or if they’re doing a puzzle, take the pieces back apart when they’re done “so you and others can experience it in the same way” next time. The skill of returning things to their previous state can also foster “executive functioning” skills down the road, he says.
Teaching organizational skills early can help kids develop problem-solving and reasoning, too. “It’s asking that question of ‘what doesn’t belong?’ - that’s something they can figure out even if they can’t [speak yet],” says Tiffany Williams Blassingame, a professional organizer in Atlanta. Using directional phrases like “put this on top of the table” or “place that under the couch” helps introduce new words and advance their verbal communication skills, adds Blassingame, who has a son.
4. Create a plan for organizing
Most kids aren’t going to naturally clean up when they’re done playing. As parents, you have to schedule cleaning time “so you’re not pulling your hair out” when there’s a big mess before bedtime, says Blassingame.
To make it more playful, “turn on some music and get the job done together,” says Hurley, who suggests not being quick to clean up if kids are midway through a project. When they work to complete something over time, it can teach delayed gratification, she says.
For items that can be put away, develop organizing systems and sections in their play space so kids aren’t “just grabbing and shoving stuff in one large toy chest or in a corner,” says Macon. For readers, “create a little small bookcase with certain books that are trending for them and maybe have a large floor pillow or specific rug that identifies that area as your reading section,” she says. If your child has stationary toys like a play kitchen or train set, put smaller, corresponding items in nearby bins. Portable toys such as dolls, cars and Legos can also be categorized into their own containers.
“Clear bins are usually helpful for young children because they can actually see what goes in that bin,” says Blassingame, adding that containers can be labeled with photos instead of words for preschoolers.
5. Incentivize cleaning
Incentives and rewards are also helpful in getting kids to clean up, says Macon. A visible rewards chart can track how many days they’ve cleaned up in a row, and if they rack up enough points, they can get a prize. “People think rewarding always has to be going and purchasing something but your child may want an extra 10 or 15 minutes of watching a show or going beyond their bedtime,” she says.
Eventually, says Tinsley, the need for such incentives should wane over time. Choosing a reward that’s specific to your child’s interests or current motivation can “help them do a less preferred activity so they can get to a more preferred activity,” she says, but ultimately, after deploying those tactics routinely, you’ll be able to ask “without offering any form of incentive, ‘Hey, can you clean this up?’ Then they’re following directions naturally as opposed to needing an extra booster because they’ve linked the experience of doing something now with cashing in later.”