3 Steps to Less Clutter in the Kids’ Rooms


Moving day went great. There weren’t too many casualties, and most of all we still like each other! While I finish unpacking today, Renee Tougas of FIMBY (Fun in My Back Yard) shares her wisdom about how she teaches her three school-aged children to keep their rooms free of clutter.

Spring’s here! Time to dig, time to plant, and hang the laundry outdoors. And to finally de-clutter the kid’s room. You know, the project you meant to start after the Christmas deluge of new toys but put off because really, who likes going through all those toy cars, Barbies, Polly’s, plastic lizards and bunnies of the dust variety under the bed.

When your kids are old enough to know when a neglected toy (“but that was my favorite!”) has been donated or have an opinion about how their rooms are organized, you have an added challenge.

Our family takes a three-step method to tackle that challenge, but let me first explain why we even bother. There are 5 of us living in a small house on a compact city lot. (Hence I love Small Notebook.)

Having less living space necessitates keeping stuff tidy because most of the space is shared and does double duty. The master bedroom is also the tv (dvd’s only) room, sewing and craft storage. The living room is the children’s play area and space to host visiting friends. The learning room (we homeschool) is also mom’s computer area and extra dining for large gatherings. Our son’s bedroom serves as the guestroom, and the girls share a bedroom.

To keep peace in shared space we’ve decided to have a tidy home.

Want to make peace in your shared spaces and kid rooms? Here are steps you might try.

1. Rally the Troops

Have a family reason for de-cluttering your house, beyond “it makes mommy happy”. Teach your children the value of less.

Our family places a high value on spending lots of time together outdoors in nature. We also value regular hospitality and time with friends and family in our home. Both of these goals require our home to be easily de-cluttered and kept clean because a) we’d rather be hiking than putting away our toys and b) we like having people over and want our home to be comfortable and tidy for friends and family.

Our children understand these goals because we communicate them often. “I’m so glad we have less stuff to take care of because I’d rather be in the woods on a Saturday than cleaning house.” — Yes, I actually say this.

Photos by Renee Tougas

2. Peace & Tidy

We have serious de-cluttering sessions once or twice a year in the children’s rooms. We spend 15 minutes a day for a couple weeks to get the job done. To not overwhelm the troops and keep them on your side, it’s important to stick to the time limit.

We sort through their creations and collections using the popular keep, give and throw away system. We also have a 6 month bin for items the kids can’t quite part with but probably will after not seeing it for 6 months. I also never get rid of something belonging to my children without asking their permission.

When each remaining toy and object of affection has a place where it belongs, in our case baskets under beds and on shelves, the kids know exactly where to put away their stuff.

3. Maintain the Peace

Daily clean up takes 10-15 minutes when every car, piece of paper, book, ribbon and dolly has a place it belongs. But it’s no good to get rid of a bunch of old toys only to be back in the same place in 2 months. So, we have household rules for the acquisition of stuff:

- Only keep what you have room to store. If you have a dolly basket, you can’t have more dollies than fit in that container, no overflowing storage.

- Something in, something out. For each new toy our children acquire as a gift, personal purchase or hand-me-downs from friends, another toy needs to leave the house — really. The only way to not acquire more is to… not acquire more. The only exception is maybe Lego, since one bin can store a lot of blocks.

Our family system of teaching values, de-cluttering in discreet periods of time, easy daily pick up, and not accumulating help to keep our small home a place of peace & tidy — just the way we like it.

fimby-125Renee Tougas is a city-dwelling gal with earthy sensibilities. She writes about her natural urban family with a bit of homeschooling, photography and the Maine outdoors at FIMBY.

I like how Renee sets the guidelines, and her kids share the responsibility. How do you de-clutter with your older (school-aged) children? Any tips to share?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. I love the idea of this. Since my boy will be having a birthday next month I really need to go through his existing toys and cull what he has outgrown. I will be implementing the idea of bringing in a new item means an old one is out. I can’t wait until he is old enough to partake in the process. What do you do with the “clutter”? I have been wanting to get rid of a few things but don’t want to have a yard sale. Any ideas?

    Liz´s last blog post..And so little time

    • Liz, when we de-clutter we separate stuff into a keep pile, a giveaway pile, a throw away pile, and a recycle pile (which I forgot to mention in the post), ie: papers and cardboard creations can be recycled. The stuff we decide to giveaway we usually take to goodwill or I will pass it on to other friends if they need/want it. One of my friends collects gently used toys through the year to give to her little ones for Christmas. So I will pass on our quality stuff to her.

      Some other ideas of where to get rid of gently used toys:
      – We have a toy library in town that lends toys, maybe you have something similar
      – shelters for moms & children
      – non-profit daycares and preschool programs

      renee @ FIMBY´s last blog post..Maine Maple Sunday

  2. I am facing this EXACT situation with my daughter – time to declutter, and it will be easier for her to keep her stuff clean! :) Thanks for this post!

    tracy´s last blog post..Tune in April 1st {this is not a joke}

  3. Something in something out is GREAT rule. I donate everything that isn’t totally ghetto. Most important is to bring very very little in to begin with. Also, my kids play with the coffee bags they made into puppets more than the $100 American Girl Doll and $75 monster dump truck. Now that they are 4 and 6, I think I have FINALLY, REALLY, TOTALLY learned this lesson : )This is a topic near and dear to my heart, thanks to FIMBY for the post!

    Juliet´s last blog post..Diversity Myth

    • “bring very very little in to begin with” – I couldn’t agree more.

      I had more to say on this matter but I didn’t want to make the post too long. Getting family & friends on board with this is really where it’s at so that each holiday and birthday isn’t all about getting stuff.

      renee @ FIMBY´s last blog post..missing the creative me

  4. I like the idea of saying that I would rather be doing something else than cleaning and de-cluttering.

    We usually go through my son’s things about once every six months. The first thing to go is anything broken or torn, even it is only a “little broken” it has to go.

    He is 5 years old, so then I let him choose any “baby toys” that he is too old for now. Currently that seems to work pretty well, because he definitely doesn’t want to be labeled a baby anymore.

    Amanda @ Mommy’s Idea Book´s last blog post..How to Easily Keep Track of Your Monthly Bills

  5. this is definitely something we struggle with – my little guy is 2.5 and we have a 2 mo old daughter as well…he doesn’t seem to be happy unless everything is strewn to and fro and oftentimes picking it all up during the day just seems like a fruitless battle. Definitely need to work more on that, as the stuff everywhere drives both my husband and me crazy!

    jodi @ bpr´s last blog post..Please Pray for the MckFamily

  6. Sandra Gonzales says:

    These are great articles. I love the decluttering suggestions but on top of that I’m glad I’m not the only one going through this. I sometimes feels an overwhelming frustation that I can never keep my home and daughter’s room tidy enough. I now see that decluttering is an ongoing practice.

    I’ve also done my part by not giving in to my daughter’s every whim. Target is such a weakness for me so I haven’t been there in the longest time.

  7. I love this post! It hits home in so many areas.

    First off, we have lego-enough for everyone. I’m torn, because it’s such a creative tool, but it’s like shrapnel (spelling?) when you step on it. Ugh. My kids are 5 and almost-3. It’s the 5-year old who has a difficult time parting with things. He will say, “But it’s my favorite…” (present tense) Even if he hasn’t played with it in ages, he holds firm that it still is his favorite. (This is why I can’t stand stuffed animals–they never get played with, but they take up so much room.)

    I could go on and on, but I won’t. This post has inspired me to set a date, and we will go through their stuff. WE will.

    Kirwin´s last blog post..Random Acts of Kindness (with children)

    • Good! Maybe you can try a 6 month bin idea. When my children have a hard time parting with something that they haven’t played with for months they put it in the 6 month bin. I then store that bin in the dark recesses of a closet so no one sees it. If no one asks for that item in the next 6 months it goes. After doing this for a while my kiddos are able to part with stuff this way. They realize if they haven’t missed it they really don’t need it.

      You might need to “bribe” your son with other rewards for parting with stuff – like an outdoor activity he really enjoys or a trip out for ice cream

      renee @ FIMBY´s last blog post..missing the creative me

      • I’ve always been a *really* sensitive person, and I remember when I was a kid thinking that giving something away was hurtful—either to the object itself (a doll I’d personified to some level, for example) or to the person who had first given me the item. I also think I have general packrat tendencies. One thing that’s helped me enormously, as an adult, is donating stuff to shelters and places like that, where I know my stuff will get used and maybe even treasured. It warms my heart to think of someone else enjoying something like I once did, and I think if I had understood that as a child—that the stuff wasn’t just going *away*, but was going to people who’d love it—it would have shifted the emotions around it for me. I feel sure there must be sensitive kids out there for whom the feelings would be the same!

        Sally Parrott Ashbrook´s last blog post..The strawberries are coming! The strawberries are coming!

  8. Great ideas! I let my 4 year old son take a picture on the digital camera (he’s a budding photographer, so this is incenntive enough!) to show his accomplishment to grandma and grandpa. He’s so proud of himself that he can’t wait to do it again!

    alexis´s last blog post..alexis vega added a blog post

  9. It seems we de-clutter toys all the time. (The never ending battle) My husband and I don’t ever buy the kids toys, but family seems to think it is a necessity. So, we like the toy-in-toy-out rule. (Although, sometimes it gets away from us!) Our big toy-toss is before Christmas. I tell the kids that they need to get rid of a toy for every gift they want back. It still pains my 7 year old daughter to part with stuff, but my 4 year old son pretty much empties his room! LOL!! There is a big consignment sale here twice a year. I go through toys a couple months before and put some in a box to store in the basement. If the kids don’t ask about the toys by the time the sale comes, the toys go in the sale!

    Marci´s last blog post..Don’t get too busy for your husband

  10. Re: KIRWIN, I learned from watching my mom (mother of 12) to spread a blanket down first and then let (younger) kids play lego on top. Then for cleanup just grab corners of blanket, lift and slide lego back into bin. My son is almost 13 and still has tons of lego but now it usually stays built in various lego ships, etc. Still such a great educational resource. We got him shelves to keep all his creations displayed on.

  11. This is such a problem around here that I’ve been trying to resolve for a while. While my husband and I rarely buy stuff for our kids, our families DO and they seem to feel that the more they buy, the better. I’ve explained as best I can our “stuff” philosophy, but not all of them seem to get it. And to further perpetuate the problem, they remember what they’ve given and notice if it’s not around anymore! So, how do you cull the clutter, keep it from accumulating again, and keep families happy? That’s what I’m trying to figure out! There’s so much junk I just want to throw out and never see again! :)

    I’m starting to accumulate lists of non-stuff gifts that the grandparents would be happy to give and the kids would be happy to receive. But that’s harder than it seems, especially when you’re dealing with people who think gift-giving simply means going to a store, grabbing the coolest and gadget-iest toy you can find, and expecting the kid to be crazy about it. Since when did gift-giving get reduced to nothing more than what we give, as opposed to finding something meaningful for the person to whom we’re giving? I don’t get it! Any suggestions for non-clutter gifts?

    Anyways, all this to say, I’m right there with you, and I’m trying to get better at it so we can have much more time for what really matters…like being outside. :)

    • Julia,

      I don’t think you can regulate gifts. Everyone needs to be allowed to do what they feel is right and you need to feel free to do what YOU think is right. I say this over and over and over and over and over… and no one listens. So I say ‘thank you’ and I give it away 3 months later. If someone gets their feelings hurt, well, such is life!

      Juliet´s last blog post..Diversity Myth

      • Julia,
        I understand how you feel. My kids are the only grandkids on both sides. This year we had 3 Christmas celebrations and so many toys I’ve only recently found sanity again. Since then I’ve learned to be a little sneaky. Whenever the kids get a gift while they are at the home of one of the grandparents or relatives I tell them we can leave it there for when we visit next. That way we don’t have to transport toys when we travel and the giver gets to keep the clutter. As ong as we’re there for a few days for them to play with it the kids are ok.

        • Beginning this year, when the grandparents (3 sets) ask what the girls want/need, I am going to suggest gifts such as :

          –membership to our Children’s museum
          –music CDs (easy to store)
          –tickets to the movies, events, etc.
          –personalized scrapbooks (we vacationed with my mother this year & she is an avid scrapbooker. I’m going to ask that she make a small scrapbook for each of the girls to document the trip – they LOVE stuff like this!)
          –books accompanied by CD of the granparent reading it to them. You could even do a library book and put it on video – page by page as it’s read!)
          –stationery and stamps
          –gift certificates for camps, classes, etc.

          They will still get gifts for sure, but I’m hoping these ideas will cut down on the enormity of it all. Our girls are the only grandchildren on both sides and then add to it that they have November and December birthdays and then Christmas and ARGH!! They typically get more close to 100 gifts each at Christmas alone. It’s generous, but FAR TOO MUCH!

  12. I teach a class on organizing kids and what’s interesting is that most of the moms who attend find the philosophical approach I use more helpful than the practical tips – and I thought it would be the other way around. Just having the permission to do what you need to do, and understanding that you need to take the kids perspective in mind.
    To address Julia’s question about non-clutter gift items – I’ve been doing this for years and it’s a hit – most of my friends know we do NOT want more stuff so here’s my ideas:
    1. movie tickets (you can even order them on fandango and they’ll email them right to the recipient!)
    2. tickets to a local children’s theatre (we have the Nashville Children’s Theatre around here) – one of our friends recently gave my daughter tickets to Junie B. Jones that was being put on there.
    3. a trip to the zoo, science center, etc. with the gift giver
    4. gift certificate to a make your own pottery place, kids hair salon for a “kids spa day” (we have a place around here called Sweet ‘N Sassy that does this”), a class at a local place that does something cool like cooking, rock climbing or something like that.
    5. a donation to a local animal shelter or food bank or other good cause in their name

    I’ve done several blog posts on kids – and I have some handouts I use if anyone is interested – I’d be happy to send them along via email. One has tips for organizing clothes, toys and papers, one is tips for helping kids get rid of stuff and one is resources for kids organizing stuff.

  13. Great post, Renee! I like the 15-minute time limit. I don’t have any kids, but I’m sure it will work for my fiance and me.

    I’d love any tips you have about getting family members on board with the idea of bringing very little in to begin with. My family is so against that philosophy when it comes to presents — and not just for kids.

  14. I invested in great storage containers from IKEA. Everything has a place. And when those places get to crowded we do a keep or donate day. I let my 5 year old decide on what to donate. We give all the toys to a friend. The friend has a yard sale that benefits senior basset hounds. Knowing that she is helping buy food, pay vet bills etc for older dogs is a great incentive for my daughter to let go of some of the clutter.

    SoBella Creations´s last blog post..Art Festival & Creative Art Storage

    • SoBella, which Ikea storage containers are you using? I’m re-designing the playroom and would love to know what worked for you. Thanks!

  15. Hi Rachel. My post is on something completely different. :D

    Just read an article on Yahoo about No Spend Month. You lead off the story. They mention you and Doug, your successes and tips. Fantastic!! You are getting to be quite famous. Keep up the excellent work. Have fun making your new space all your very own.


    don_mae´s last blog post..“Knowing” It’s Oscar Time

    • Thanks for letting me know about it, Don Mae. That was an interview I did a while ago, and I hadn’t seen it.

  16. Great tips, Renee!
    We also do the one thing in one thing out, rule. We have one large basket that gets filled with toys and if they don’t fit in there…out they go! It works really well for us (and it is easy to put all the stuff away at the end of the day!)

    Kirsten´s last blog post..Geyer Family Photos!

  17. This post was wonderful and so timely for my family. I got some great tips from this post, but I need some more advice! We will be moving from a very large 4 bedroom old farm-house (the owner is selling it) to a much smaller three bedroom town house. I know we are going to have to get rid of TONS of stuff, but I am still having a hard time trying to figure out how to use the space for maximum potential. We have a daughter who will be 6 soon after we move, and a son who will be 2.5 soon after the move, and we will have a third child (also soon after the move). So, not only are we moving into a place with about half the living area, we are adding a person! Anyone have any tips on kids sharing rooms? I don’t even know which combo of kids should share rooms!

    • tips on sharing rooms… at one point all three of my children were sharing a room & that was when they were 4, 2 & 1. When we moved here the girls got a room to share and our son has a room of his own. I personally think parental attitude has a lot to do with it and family expectation. Around the world families share a lot smaller spaces than we do here in this country & they simply accept it as the norm. I don’t think they agonize (I’m not saying you’re doing this) over kids sharing rooms & such – they just do it.

      You’ll want to divide your space for what works for your family but each child should have their own personal space, even if it’s just their bed or a corner of a room.

      renee @ FIMBY´s last blog post..small notebook, small world

  18. I think all of these suggestions are great. I especially like the ones about never throwing stuff out without your children’s permission, and including them in the decluttering process. After all, one day you will not be there in their apartment or home to declutter for them, so teaching them how to now is a valuable lesson.

    Taylor at Household Management 101´s last blog post..Mar 23, How To Clean A Toilet

  19. These are all great suggestions! If we declutter for our kids, then we never give them the gift of learning to declutter themselves. By involving them in the decisions, we help teach them to let go.

    I put boxes out marked Keep, Toss, Give Away, and Undecided and encouraged my kids to sort their toys into those boxes. The Undecided was reserved for things they agonized over, not for every single toy, lol!

    momstheword´s last blog post..MAKING YOUR HOME SING MONDAY: MANAGING OUR HOMES

  20. I found you from “Remodeling This Life” blog.

    These are very good tips and a great lesson on how to live more simply, too.

    Bella Casa´s last blog post..My Spanish Painted Brick House – Virtual After Pictures

  21. so nice to see you here, too, renee! great tips! our two share a room. pre-challenge (of not buying new), we benefited from IKEA. oh my, can they help organize a kids’ room!

    nicola´s last blog post..more on food

  22. This is a great idea and such a simple one,how silly of me not to think of it. I will certainly try this one out. 15 minutes a week is much better than spending hours a month truing to put things in a pile of ‘What to throw away’ and ‘What to keep’ piles.

  23. All great ideas. And the sooner you get them (the kiddos) started, the better!

    TheRoosterChick´s last post…Organizing Kids Rooms: 3 Simple Steps To Conquering The Clutter – Pt. 2

  24. Great advice. I’m so glad I read this because I had plans to spend ALL DAY decluttering. I think you’re right about the time limit. And I especially like your advice not to get rid of anything without their permission. I often find myself fighting the urge to do this. Like all the time.

    Wendy´s last post…Joyce and Rich’s Home

  25. My son was staying with his grandparents and asked me to find a pair of shoes in his room. Thinking this task would not take long, I ambitiously set out on my mission. The wardrobe was the first port of call, what I was confronted with was a disaster of a small area, everything jammed in there from skateboards, school folders, pencil cases and a very interesting pattern started to occur….socks and underwear started to appear.
    I had previously pondered how someone could lose socks and underwear, he would never be able to produce the partner to this solitary sock, lost forever in the crevices of his room, (did I mention he is 11, very soon 12).
    Well, I stayed on my quest for the elusive pair of shoes, next place was the dreaded dark space under his bed, imagine the music to “Jaws” and then you might conjure up images coming up through the blackness, dirty tissues, parts of a telescope, books, cars and guess what…socks and underwear.
    I was getting slightly annoyed with this task and no results.
    The last place was beside the wardrobe, his attempts to tidy his room was here, things were jammed and wedged together, sleeping bag, a box of magic tricks and bags of stuff and to my surprise in one of those bags was the shoes. Thank goodness.
    A blessing in disguise was a lost library book that my son had to pay for losing it. I rang the library and told them of the found item and if in still excellent condition would refund my son’s money, which it was considering it was stuck in that bag for 7 months.
    So, when returning from his grandparents my son was met with what looked like a tornado had ripped through his room.
    Guess what job you need to do today?
    Many positives came out of that simple request..there are many hidden treasures that are stored away and sometimes we find them and treasure them again.
    My son recycled, reused, washed and got rid of things from younger years that he no longer needed.
    Next time we will not make it so long between cleans.