Five Strategies to Help Your Kids Declutter

In Expat Life, Learning, Mindful Living, Parenting by Ris Phillips

help your kids declutterI love giving things away. It’s one reason I love to move: I love the opportunity to rearrange, go through every last bit of my belongings, and weed out the things I don’t need anymore.  I’m far from a minimalist (though I have aspirations!)—my parents were keepers, and I have to fight the urge to hang onto something ‘just in case’ I’ll need it in 10 years. I’ve discovered, however, that purging my belongings helps me feel less cluttered on the inside, also.

In less than three months, we’ll be moving from Belgium back to the United States.  Not only is this a good opportunity to purge, it’s also imperative that we do so! We’ll only have so much space in which to cram the contents of our household for the air and sea shipments.  We’ve already started paring back the things in our house in anticipation. It’s easy to sort and donate when I’m the one making the decisions; helping the boys sort through their things is a little more challenging.  I work with them though, and leverage purging as a learning opportunity also. These are the five strategies we use when we help the boys declutter their belongings:

Get them Involved

Some people assert that parents ought to make the first pass when sorting, in order to head off any emotional battles over obvious things that should be thrown or given away. I disagree. The process of sorting, donating, and throwing things away is about more than just the stuff we keep; it’s also about developing good habits, self-reflection, and intentional living—and I want the kids to learn these things too. I tend to reserve parent veto power, but I try to only use it for things they want to get rid of that I want to keep.  In other words, I rarely force them to get rid of something they really want to keep.

Set Guidelines Ahead of Time

declutterBefore diving in, review basic guidelines with your kids. These may differ from family to family, but these are the guidelines we use:

  • Broken Items: If something is broken, we talk about whether or not it can be fixed. If not, then the general rule is to throw it away. This goes for puzzles with missing pieces, also.
  • Throw-away vs. Give-away vs. Sell: Some things, like used underwear, gets thrown away automatically. Most other things can be given away or sold instead. This is a great opportunity to also talk about recycling and reducing our impact on the earth. When we are sorting things, we have bags designated for each category (I find that we have fewer instances of changed-minds if I put a give-away item into a bag immediately where it can’t be seen anymore).
  • Agreement on Co-owned Items: Family toys can only be designated once there is agreement. If one child wants to give away a toy and the other wants to keep it, then the default is to keep it.
  • Everything in its Place: If we don’t have a place for something, then we talk about whether we need to reorganize the toys, or if maybe we don’t actually need it.
 Encouraging Ownership

We encourage them to take ownership of their toys in several ways:

  • Personal Box: Each kid has a medium-size box where they can stash their own toys if they don’t want to put them away, or if the particular toy doesn’t have a specific storage spot. I love Really Useful Boxes for this (and for storing art supplies, and lego bricks, etc.). Our rule is that if it doesn’t fit in the box, it needs to be actually put away, or they need to put sometdeclutter moneyhing else in the box away. This is especially important because our boys share a room and most of their toys. Having a designated individual space helps them feel ownership over certain toys.
  • Keeping Money from Sales: If a toy belongs to them, then the money from a sale belongs to them, too. Not only does this reinforce the concept of ownership, it also helps motivate them to get rid of things they may otherwise keep. If a toy is jointly-owned, then the money is split evenly between the boys.
  • Final Decisions: In most cases, they get the final say on whether or not we are keeping something that belongs to them. It’s important to us to respect their autonomy in this regard.
Purge Regularly and Maintain Give-away and Hand-Me-Down Bags

Involving the kids works best when you regularly sort through things, because it gives them a chance to develop the related skills and habits. If you tackle everything at once, it can feel overwhelming. Instead, try to separate categories and do them at different times. We go through their books and toys at least twice a year, and we go through clothes a little more often than that. We keep give-away and hand-me-down bags on hand at all times (they live under my bed) so that if we notice that a shirt is too small, we can just toss it right into the bag. You can use garbage bags for this, but large cloth drawstring bags work really well for this also, especially since you can just empty them at the donation site and reuse them.

Be Prepared to Tackle Specific Categories

Different categories of items sometimes require different approaches. There are easy things you can do to integrate sorting into everyday life in order to minimize the big purges:

  • Art Projects: Keep an art project box, and every time it gets full, sort things into three piles: Recycle (goes immediately in the recycle or trash), Keep (goes back in the box), and Scan (gets scanned  [or photographed] and then recycled/tossed). Read more about how we sort, store, and display art projects here.
  • Clothes: Take mental notes when you see your kids wearing clothes that are getting too small or ragged. The next time you fold laundry, pull the item out immediately for your child to try on again. If it’s too small (or too worn), ask them to put it in the give-away (or hand-me-down) bag (or garbage if appropriate).
  • Toys: We tend to tackle reorganization and toy sorting at the same time. This allows us to also adjust our storage solutions if necessary. We use Ikea shelves with fold-able cubes for most of their toys. The shelves double as bookshelves, so we can combine and re-organize easily.
  • Mementos: I know that our things are sometimes more than just things. Sometimes they are filled with memories and emotion. For those items that have outgrown their usefulness, but we just can’t quite toss, we maintain Memento Boxes. Really Useful Boxes are great for this too, especially since they come in different sizes, close tightly, and stack neatly.declutter
  • Books: We are a reading family. We have started buying many of our books digitally—each boy has a Kindle Fire on which they can access any of the books (there are great parental controls that allow you to set time limits for apps and games while leaving book access unlimited). Though this helps cut down on the number of physical books we keep in the house, we also love hard copies of books. When we go through those, we weed out the books that the boys have outgrown. There are a few of our bedtime favorites that fall into the memento category, and we keep those.


Our boys’ personalities also affect our process. My oldest likes to hoard art supplies (he currently has 30-40 paper towel tubes in his “art project corner” in his room). My youngest likes to hold onto random half-functional toys. By setting up guidelines and sorting through their things regularly, we help them develop healthy habits. Putting them in the driver’s seat also supports their autonomy and helps them develop organizing and decision-making skills. As with most aspects of everyday life, decluttering presents a myriad of opportunities to help our children learn and grow.


Today’s Amazon Recommendations: