Tidying Up Kids' Stuff: 2 Easy Takeaways from Marie Kondo

Organizing with the kids was less scary than I thought.
Organizing with the kids was less scary than I thought.
1/24/19 - By Michelle Vames

While the world binge-watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and my social media feeds filled up with photos of freshly organized sock drawers, I didn't bother tuning in. After all, I'm already a Very Organized Person—the kind of mom who sorts her kids' toys according to category, and who may have an addiction to The Container Store. What could I possibly have to learn?

Then an image sprang to mind of me, huffily sorting papers on the kitchen counter while a hundred other urgent matters vie for my attention. When things get hectic, the piles of mail, magazines, kids' artwork, school forms, and other random papers crowding our countertops suddenly seem like a five-alarm fire. My husband calls it "angry organizing."


So I sat down to watch the first episode—"Tidying with Toddlers"—and I immediately empathized with the anxious mom. After a day spent caring for her toddlers, the piles of dishes, laundry, and toys were threatening to send her over the edge. One exhaustive (and exhausting) tidying-up later, it wasn't only the house that was transformed. Whether or not it was a trick of editing—or just the effect of Kondo's sprightly yet supremely chill presence—the mom appeared to be calmer and happier.

And then I realized: this isn't a show about cool organizing tips (though that is an added bonus); it's about making yourself feel better and sparking joy throughout the household. It's about making changes that might help you be a happier, calmer parent rather than one who stomps around angrily sorting papers.

I looked around my house and started plotting. I did not go all-in and try to tidy my whole house at once; I am not up for that (is any parent, really??). In the end, I made a couple of small changes that have helped certain kid rooms and areas run more smoothly, and I figured out a few things along the way.

Challenge: Arts & Crafts Supplies

When it comes to children, it can quickly feel like their belongings are overtaking the house. One tip I share is how having designated spaces for children's belongings makes parents more aware of how much they need to buy of a certain item. After all, your home is a finite space! —Marie Kondo, Instagram

Taking a look at everything you own, including kids' art supplies, is just one step in the KonMari process.

Our dining room is our de facto art studio. On a typical day, the table is buried beneath piles of crayons, paper, scissors, glue sticks, paints, Play-Doh, pompoms, and endless other arts and crafts supplies. On one hand, I love that my kids love creating, and whenever I get annoyed with the mess, I remind myself that a mess can be good! It's constructive! Don't they say that people with messy desks are more creative? 

Packed drawers and cabinets made it hard to find the toys and art supplies that we wanted to use.

But it's still our dining room—and we needed an easier way to transform it back into one after the artists were finished with their work. Our solution for many years had been to shove all the supplies into a kitchen drawer and two cabinets in the buffet. But eventually it got to a point where the kids would have to pull everything out just to get to the things they needed; the kitchen drawer was so stuffed that they could hardly open it on their own; and they never, ever put things away ("It's too hard!").

I began by emptying the drawer and cabinets, and, like the people on the show, I was amazed by how much stuff had been crammed into these relatively small spaces. Broken crayons, dried-out markers and paints, and crusty Play-Doh all got tossed. I collected a stack of untouched coloring books and put them in a "donate" pile. 

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New storage solutions, such as this art caddy made cleaning up easier.

I set aside many of the smaller containers and carrying cases, which had themselves become clutter, and instead, moved all of the supplies into two large caddies, including this brightly colored Learning Resources Create-A-Space Storage Center that allowed us to organize markers with markers, crayons with crayons, and so on. That way, when the kids are done, they can (theoretically) put the supplies back into the caddies, which both fit neatly in one of our newly cleared-out cabinets. In the other cabinet, three magazine storage boxes now offer easy access to construction paper, sketch pads, and activity books.

Clearing out the clutter transformed the cabinets and our ability to find the stuff we really wanted to use!

I also set aside a stack of my kids' artwork, heeding Kondo's advice to deal with sentimental items last. I tossed as much as my heart could bear and kept only the things they were particularly proud of. (Stained-glass sticker kit the kids made two years ago: TOSS. Homemade "book" about sharks: KEEP.) I displayed a few things, and I filed the rest in each kid's memory box.

Challenge: Basement Playroom

When children go through the sadness of letting things go, that can be a good experience for them. I wouldn’t want to eliminate such emotions. —Marie Kondo, from an interview with The Wall Street Journal

It seemed impossible to keep the kids' playroom tidy, because of the volume of "stuff."

Our basement is a designated kid zone, and more out of sight due to its location, so I don't give it as much thought as the rest of the house. But it's winter, so we're all spending more time down there, and I realized it could use a little more attention.  

The main trouble was the recent influx of Christmas gifts. Some things had to go. In the past, my m.o. had been to secretly clear out the kids' stuff while they were at school, and, if they ever noticed a certain item was missing—which was rare—I would feign ignorance. This time, taking Kondo's advice, I let my 4- and 6-year-olds in on the process. With their help, we said goodbye to several toys and games, thanking them and wishing them luck bringing joy to other kids. (I know, it feels kind of goofy, but it did help.)

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Getting rid of old toys provided room to store new favorites from the holidays.

We also ended up getting rid of several toys that I would have assumed they'd want to keep. In the end, we made room for current favorites and new gifts, including a large set of Matchbox tracks that had been taking up floor space. 

With the old stuff out of the way, we could once again set up our teepee, which had been folded up in the corner for months, and air out some favorite toys that had been hidden away in hard-to-get-to places.

Will we be able to keep it this tidy?

Challenge: Maintaining Order

Now, the million-dollar question: How do you keep a house full of young children neat once you've KonMari'd it? The short answer is, you don't—not all the time, at least.

The way I see it, the KonMari method of "Tidying Up" and regular old "picking up" are two different things. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet that will save parents from having to pick up their kids' toys, clothes, papers, and other stuff ever again. Rather, the goal is to: 

1. Have fewer things, and to...

2. Create designated, easy-to-access homes for all those things.

Following these two tips makes it much easier to get your space back into shape once kids are done playing.

Which leaves us with the other million-dollar question, "How do I get my kids to help??" In part, it'll take leading by example, according to Kondo, who has said that her young daughter is already trying to mimic her unique style of folding clothes

And although she doesn't believe in forcing kids to organize, Kondo does say that if they are old enough to walk, they're old enough to tidy. Kondo, who has two small kids herself, admits that "the process may not be as complete as it can be with adults or older children." 

"Incomplete" tidying? I'll take it! It's better than what we have now, which is "virtually nonexistent."

My plan is to have the kids work on it... while I'm upstairs attacking those piles of paper. 

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All photos by the author