Stay On Top of the Mess, Part 1

January inspires many of us to create a happier, healthier, more peaceful life. One of the ways towards achieving that peace is through home organization. Jeanne Arnold Ochs, a cultural anthropologist from UCLA has found that this excess of possessions “elicits substantial stress.” Home organization sales and the hiring of professional organizers soared during the pandemic, as more and more people worked from home and were face to face with the clutter 24/7. It’s even more of a challenge with little ones underfoot.

So, how do you stay on top of the mess and stay organized with kids?

Declutter the Toys


At the University of Toledo (Ohio), researchers studied 36 toddlers, ages 18 to 30 months, as they explored a playroom lab on two separate occasions.  On the first visit, the room had only four toys, and on the second visit, the room had sixteen toys.  Which visit left the children more engaged?  The room with four toys.  There, they played twice as long with each toy, and played with them in more ways, tapping into their creativity and imagination.  Nikki Martyn (program head of early childhood studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto) says that young children are not capable of making choices between 20 or even 10 different things.  Having too many choices can overwhelm and paralyze children. 

It also frustrates the child when they cannot find what they need when they need it, or when they are working with a toy only to find that it is broken or there are missing pieces.  They may default to playing with the same items over and over again because that becomes the easiest choice.  Fewer toys benefit your child in the long-term, as it encourages creativity and imagination.

So, how to tackle the excess of toys?

  • Empty the toy room shelves and storage bins. Throw away everything that is broken or missing pieces.

  • Select 3-4 items that your child enjoys playing with. Add another 1-2 items that are not so frequently touched.  Set these out on the shelves.

  • Select another set of items to put into storage (preferably in clear plastic containers so you can identify what is inside) – these can be rotated with your displayed toys as needed. In the Montessori classroom, you will not usually find toys with batteries, or toys with a single, pre-determined use, and we suggest that you keep toys that encourage creativity and imagination and open-ended play. (These are usually what children use the most!)  For example: Duplos, Legos, Magnatiles, blocks, Lincoln logs, etc.  These items have endless possibilities and can be used over and over again, yet differently each time.

  • Those toys that haven’t been played with in over a year? It’s time to donate or resell.  If you’re not sure about it, set out one item at a time observe how much your child plays with it.  If they quickly lose interest, then it’s time to let it go.

  • Decide on a quantity that each child can have of toys that tend to take over, and let your child know what that quantity is. For example, 3 stuffed animals, 2 dolls. If a new doll or stuffed animal comes in, your child can select which item goes out.  “Which one would you like to give to another child who needs a stuffed animal to love?”

  • Teach your children the joy of sharing with others when it’s time to say “goodbye” to a toy. Invite them to be a part of the process of choosing what they think would give happiness to another little boy or girl.


Now that we’ve addressed the toy problem, let’s be honest.  We adults are part of the clutter problem! Start going through wardrobes, storage closets, craft bins, drawers, cupboards and bookshelves.  Do you have things that have been untouched for years?  That rainy day you’ve been keeping it for will likely never come, so consider donating or reselling.  Start small – work on one designated area per month, if that is all that you can manage.  It doesn’t have to be a whole room – start with just a drawer or a shelf per week, if that is what it takes!

What About Gifts?


Decluttering and organizing is all good, but what do you do when it comes to bringing more things into the house?

  • When appropriate, request family members to give “experience” gifts. (Zoo membership, ballet classes, water park season passes, etc.)
  • When hosting a birthday party, ask each child to bring a book for a book exchange in lieu of gifts.
  • When hosting a birthday party, ask attendees to consider donating to a favorite charity in lieu of a gift. Or, you can also ask guests to consider giving you monetary gifts towards a charity project.  “For his birthday, my son has chosen to purchase school supplies for children benefiting from a charitable organization.  Please consider giving a monetary gift towards this project in lieu of a gift.”

Wrapping Up

That’s it for Part 1 of “Staying On Top of the Mess”.  We will leave you with one final thought from Joshua Becker, Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own, who says: “Life would be better lived if there was less stuff to manage and organize and clean. Not only were my possessions not bringing me joy. They were actually distracting me from the very things that did.”

Here’s to a little less mess and a little more joy in 2022!


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