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Spring cleaning and dealing with kid clutter

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It starts with the baby showers and usually builds from there. Parenthood comes with a whole lot of “stuff.” At first it brings you joy—that stuff is the first physical manifestation of your child and all the dreams and hopes that accompany the birth of a child. There comes a point, though, usually very soon after stepping on a particularly sharp Lego in the middle of the night, when the stuff and the mess that accompanies our bundles of joy can feel overwhelming.

In the spirit of spring cleaning, some thoughts on conquering the detritus of parenthood:

1. Think twice before you buy: Perhaps this is obvious, but too often shopping for children does not trigger the same editing process that buying something for ourselves does. As parents, we naturally want to provide our children with every developmental and fun opportunity. This can make us less discriminating shoppers. And, let’s face it, the fact that children’s clothes, toys, books are so dang cute doesn’t help. Before you buy, make it a point to ask yourself a few tough questions. Do we really need this? Is it well made enough to last? Will my child actually play with it? How many times is my child actually going to wear it before he/she grows out of it? Where will we put it?

2. Make a few rules regarding toy containment and cleanup times. This will be different for every home and family. I made a “toys away by dinner” rule that we worked hard to stick to. This meant that every evening, even if it was just for a short period of time, there was a moment when the house did not look like Romper Room. It also helped in the process of having my kids wind down their days and start preparing for dinner, baths, and bed.

3. A designated place for ongoing projects—your family’s own maker space. A friend of mine cleared a space in her garage for a table, art supplies, and recycled items. Her children knew they had this space to make a mess and do all kinds of projects, many of these projects spanning several days. This free, creative space was a huge hit not only with my friend’s own children, but with her children’s friends as well.

4. Invest in some storage containers to help contain and organize the mess and clutter. Wicker toy chests, charming crates, large tote bags, baskets, boxes… If you can find storage containers that are visually pleasing to you and practical in that they will hold a lot of kid stuff, you have made a huge improvement in your life. When I had young children, I became a big fan or large storage bins and also of floor length table skirts. A table skirt can disguise storage containers full of an assortment of kid related items. Even better, my children would often push the containers out from under the tables and climb under the tables themselves—often with pillows, blankets, books, or a few select toys in hand—and create a private fort and nest in which to play.

5. Purge and edit on a somewhat regular basis. Spring is, of course, a great time to roll up your sleeves and do a little bit of spring cleaning. Another great time is the fall. Doing some editing during the fall months can free up space for new toys and items that arrive as gifts during the holidays. If you need more incentive, for several years I volunteered at a large rummage sale to raise money for several non-profits in my town. Every year, the section of the rummage sale that had people running as soon as the doors were opened was the children’s toys and clothes section. The sale always occurred in the fall and it was clear that many of the used children’s items were going to be repurposed as holiday gifts. It felt good to watch toys and clothes that children had grown out of get a second life.

As my children got older, I involved them in the process of editing out their toys. To be honest, this was not always easy. Emotions seemed to flare up suddenly over toys that had not been touched in months. To deal with this highly charged issue in a rational way, we created a system of four piles: a keep, get rid of, maybe, and “hospital” pile. The hospital pile had toys that needed new batteries, a glue gun, some stitching, or some other form of TLC to be played with again. The maybe pile required a second visit and then I did not push the issue further. I believe that my children learned a lot through the process of editing and taking care of their toys from time to time, especially when I then took them with me to donate the toys afterward.

6. Not everything needs to come into the house. Although I am a big believer in the importance of recognizing and honoring children’s work in all forms, one of the best solutions I have seen to the deluge of school craft projects is a garage gallery and drying station. Any mother who has had to clean the remnants of an art project still dripping with Elmer’s glue and glitter off her business suit… or the couch… or the dog…. can understand the brilliance of this solution. The most important projects can still be honored in the house or different projects can get the coveted display spot on the refrigerator on a rotating basis. I have to say, a large bulletin board full of joyful, colorful children’s art is a wonderful welcome home after a long day at work.

7. Reward good work. Once you have organized or edited toys, it is fun to reward both yourself and your little one with something you have looked forward to. One year, we painted a wall with chalkboard paint as a reward for a big cleanup. Another year, we got a couple of new bed pillows to spruce up my daughter’s bedroom. These “carrots” helped my children focus on what they might be gaining and not so much on what they were losing in editing down the volume of stuff in their rooms.

Dealing with kids’ mess can definitely have its overwhelming moments. It’s important to remember that the kid stuff deluge is not a stage that will last forever and that a few tricks can make it a lot better in the short term.

May 1, 2015

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