Organizing Your Kid's Room

by Ramona Creel

Kid-Friendly Organizing

Most kid-sized organizing fails because it is aiming for the wrong result. It's natural for parents to want to be able to walk through the house without stepping on Barbie shoes and toy soldiers — but the larger goal should be to help your children to get and stay organized into adulthood. Simply telling a kid to clean his room isn't teaching him any useful life skills (well-intentioned though the concept might be) — he's just doing it because you said so and doesn't really understand “why.”

The hardest part for parents is recognizing the difference between “neat” and “organized.” So much of the kid-related advice out there focuses solely on eliminating the piles (15-minute clean-ups before bed and baskets for collecting loose toys) — but clutter is just a symptom of disorganization. You know the saying, “Give a man a fish, you have fed him for today.  Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.” I've got a new saying for the moms and dads out there — “Tell your kid to clean his room, he will have a clean room today. Teach your kid to be organized, and the house will automatically be neater every day.”

The trick to helping your kids get organized is to involve them in theprocess — organizing with them rather than for them. This meansworking together, explaining the logic behind the systems you set up,and letting your kids have a hand in deciding where things should bestored. Parents must look at kids' rooms in a new way — one that matches their schedules, activities, and lifestyles. One size does not fit all when it comes to organizing children (especially children of different ages and ability levels). Kids have more “stuff” than ever before, they play inside more than out, most have their own rooms, few have a stay-at-home parent, and they all live very fast-paced lives. It's important that you take these societal factors into account when designing the right systems for your kid's room.

Developing A Profile

The first step to creating an organized environment for your child is understanding his or her needs. If you think that reading a book or watching a TV show (then setting up that exact system in your own home)  is going to solve your clutter woes — think again! Organizing is a very personal activity — and if any system is going to work for a child it must be customized. Your child can learn to be organized, with the right methods and supplies. You  have to choose  those techniques and tools that best suit that kids personalities and preferences — and the way to do that is to ask the following questions about your kid's habits before beginning:

  • What are your child's interests? (what activities does he currently enjoy? what is he losing interest in?)
  • How are your child's behavior patterns changing? (starting/finishing a school year? moving away from toys? toward adult activities?)
  • What kind of personality does your child have? (introverted? extroverted? laid-back? tense? easy-to-please? difficult?)
  • What does your child's schedule look like? (lots of structured functions? not much free-time? school? extra-curricular activities?)
  • What is your child's ability level? (can he open drawers? reach the closet rod? read? understand categorizing?)
  • What are your child's social habits? (lots of friends over to visit? more time visiting friends? socially active? loner?)
  • What habits has your child developed? (throwing clothes on the floor? picking up before bed? collecting Beanie Babies?)
  • What are your child's priorities? (spend less time cleaning? have a big space to play? be able to reach everything?)
Once you identify your kid's behaviors, attitudes, habits, and way of maneuvering through the world, you are more likely to create systems that “synch” with these behaviors — and more likely to make lasting organizational changes with your child.

Creating Centers

One constant in organizing kids' rooms is the need for centers — distinct areas within a child's living space, each set up for a different kind of daily activity. If you've ever sent your little one to preschool (especially a Montessori facility), you will recognize this concept — a section of the room for finger painting, another for playing with blocks, a third for nap time, and a separate area for lunch. It's a great way to teach kids how to categorize objects and supplies, as well as how to store things closest to the point where they are used. Setting up centers makes clean-up easier — and a change in geography smooths the transition from one activity to the next. These are the building blocks for developing good organizing skills later in life.

Children naturally crave order. But when kids get home to find their books thrown in with puzzles, art supplies stored in the same drawer as socks, everything mixed together — it's no wonder they don't know how to keep it all organized! To help develop good organizing habits at home, try breaking your child's room into four basic areas:

  • grooming area (centered near the closet and contains the dresser, a hamper, and any additional grooming supplies — hairbrush, accessories, etc.)
  • play area (contains games, active toys, and a large floor space or table space to spread out)
  • rest area (should be free from “stimulating” activities like busy or noisy games, the TV, etc. — put bedtime story books on the nightstand and a soft light nearby — whatever your child associates with relaxing and winding down for the night)
  • work area (includes a desk or table, office and art supplies, a good light, and perhaps a bookshelf or computer, as you see fit)
You might also decide to set up other more specialized centers for your child as you see fit — a “reading” center (with a lamp, bookshelf, and a comfy chair), a “dress-up” center (with costumes and props and a big mirror), or an “art” center (with crayons, paper, paint, clay, and a big drop-cloth for making a mess!)  

Different Age Groups

The final step in helping your child develop good organizing skills comes when you recognize and acknowledge his or her current skill level. While it's important to challenge your kids and encourage them to expand their abilities, nothing frustrates a child more than being given a task or responsibility that is beyond what he or she can handle — intellectually, emotionally, or physically. You must design systems that take your child's size, strength, and mental faculties into account if you ever hope for your organizing efforts to succeed. The good news is that this is easy — if you make use of those organizing methods which have been proven appropriate for each age group.

For example, toddlers (age 1-3) operate according to the belief that out of sight equals out of mind — so use open containers and exposed shelving if you expect them to put things away where they belong.  And while littler kids may not be able to read yet, that doesn't mean you can't label — use a photo or drawing of the item as a label (picture of a car, picture of a doll, picture of Legos, etc.)

Preschool kids (age 3-5)  are ready to start dressing themselves, but have a hard time manipulating drawers and reaching high closet rods — so low rods and open crates are best. Adding lettering to your picture labels will allow your child to begin to associating the words with the object — a good way to encourage reading skills, as well. Just remember that, at this size, your kids may still need a little supervision whiletidying their rooms. Don't leave them to do it themselves then getirritated when the task wasn't completed to satisfaction — show your little oneshow until you know they've mastered putting their toys away.

School-age kids (6-11) know how to read — so labeling shelves and containers will help make sure their belongings end up back in the proper home. Older children will also have strong opinions about where they want things stored, so let them have a little independence. It's not unreasonable to expect children to school-aged kids to keep their rooms and homework areas neat without reminder, as part of their weekly household responsibilities — a chore chart and consistent rewards/consequences will make this easy.

Adolescents (age 11-17) can be made responsible for more complex organizing jobs — like cleaning out their closets and deciding which items to donate to charity. If you've trained them well, you will also see them applying the organizing techniques they learned at home in other places — at school, in their after-school jobs and extracurricular activities, etc. And be sure to give yourself a pat on the back as a parent — by customizing your organizing efforts to match your child's developmental level, you are one step closer to success each year!

© Ramona Creel, all rights reserved. Ramona Creel is a modern Renaissance woman and guru of simplicity -- traveling the country as a full-time RVer, sharing her story of radically downsizing, and inspiring others to regain control of their own lives. As a Professional Organizer and Accountability Coach, Ramona will help you create the time and space to focus on your true priorities -- clearing away the clutter other obstacles and standing in the way of that life you've always wanted to be living. As a Professional Photographer, Ramona captures powerful images of places and people as she travels. And as a travel writer, social commentator, and blogger, she shares her experiences and insights about the world as we know it. You can see all these sides of Ramona -- read her articles, browse through her photographs, and even hire her to help get your life in order -- at And be sure to follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.