The life-changing magic of tidying up, for kids.

The life-changing magic of tidying up, for kids.

After I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up last fall, Will and I did a serious tidying up (read: massive decluttering). We got rid of dozens of bags of stuff, which is noteworthy because we’d just moved six months prior, and thought we’d already done a major purge.

Marie Kondo convinced us we hadn’t been taking this tidying thing seriously.

We are now: we were so happy with our own results that we turned our attention to tidying our four kids’ stuff.

It’s important to remember that according to Kondo, “tidy” doesn’t mean “magazine quality” or “Pinterest perfect.” It means that you have what you need, and not a bunch of extra stuff you don’t need (or even like) cluttering up your home and your life. It’s about having a home that works, not one that is company-ready.

kids bookshelves

Tidying up for kids has its special challenges, and this is the biggest: kids grow and change constantlyA core belief of the KonMari method is that tidying is not a daily chore: it’s a special event. But when kids are outgrowing clothes and shoes and toys and gear from one season to the next, that means a whole lot of decluttering, on a regular basis.

It’s not easy, but it’s possible, and it’s worth it. The alternative is having to deal with a bunch of stuff you don’t need and might not even like, and nobody wants that. Today I’m sharing tips on getting started and staying tidy: some straight from Marie Kondo, some from my own experience, some gleaned from friends who’ve successfully tidied up with kids. I’d love to hear your own tips in comments.

13 ways to tidy up KonMari-style with kids:

For kids under age 2 you’re the boss. It’s your job to organize their space and keep things tidy (even if they are able to “help” a bit as they near their second birthday).

Model good organization: show your kids what “tidy” looks like, and how to get there.

This will vary with your space and your household’s needs. Possible examples: no storage on the floor, no legos left out overnight, no piles left on the bed. Even preschoolers can put things away when everything has a place (although they’ll need reminders and encouragement until the habit is formed).

Most kids—no matter how well-intentioned—can’t follow the command “clean your room”—it’s too big a task. Whether it’s a huge tidying up or daily maintenance, break the job into baby steps: the younger the child, the more steps they need.

KonMari fold

Kondo’s advice for kids under 10: start with folding clothes. This is the best way for them to develop the habit of tidying their own space. (My kids love KonMari folding—even the 5-year-old, but it does take practice.) The basic KonMari fold is shown above.

Kondo recommends the following order: clothes, books, papers, miscellany, and then things with sentimental value.

However, for kids (and adults with ADHD) she recommends organizing by smaller categories: don’t sort all the clothes at once, begin with the shirts. Don’t sort all the books, begin with only board books.

IKEA Borgsjo puffin classics close up

This is Kondo’s key question. If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. But for kids it has an important corollary:

This question isn’t from Marie Kondo: I made it up, because it helps me decide whether it’s worth storing all the baby and kid stuff we “might” need down the road.

Do the boxes of hand-me-downs I’m storing in the basement spark joy? That wouldn’t be my first answer. But am I glad (happy, even) that as my kids grow we won’t have to buy them each new wardrobes? Absolutely.

Making decisions out of fear is a big no-no in Kondo’s book, so make sure you’re keeping things for the right reasons. Do you cherish the thought of a potential new addition to the family happily peddling the family tricycle down the sidewalk? It’s a keeper. Are you done with it but afraid that you might need it some day?  It would probably bring you more joy to give that trike to a family who can use it now.

I think Marie Kondo would say “comfort,” properly defined, is the same as “joy.” But this change in semantics helps me clarify what baby and kid stuff is worth keeping, and what should be given away. 

konmari drawers for kids

Abundant storage space isn’t necessarily a good thing: just because you can keep something doesn’t mean you should. Kids are easily overwhelmed by too much stuff: keep this in mind when you’re deciding what to hang onto and what to give away.

Whether you’re doing a big purge or everyday maintenance, make letting go of things a normal and natural habit from an early age.

After a tidying up, finish the job. Don’t let those Goodwill bags linger; if you have hand-me-downs packed up for a friend, drop them off immediately.

This is a simple but oft-neglected ground rule.

boys room

There’s no better motivation for keeping things tidy. This is a huge argument for occasionally doing a large-scale decluttering.

In the photo above, we moved everything (that weighed less than 100 pounds) off my boys’ floor and into the hallway so they could appreciate the difference. Then we carefully decided together what belonged in their room, what belonged elsewhere, and what should be given away.

There is no one-and-done tidying up for parents: kids grow and change quickly, and so do their belongings. Frame your expectations accordingly and you’ll be much happier.

What are your best tips for tidying up with kids? What are your pain points? 

P.S. The 7 basic of tidying up according to Marie Kondo, and The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, six months later.

The life-changing magic of tidying up, for kids. 13 tips for putting the #KonMari method to work for you and your family.

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  1. Kasey says:

    I tried to encourage my kids to think of the objects as sentient beings (odd as that may sound). My son had a whole bed full of stuffed animals and when I told him we were going to declutter them he said, “NOOO! BUT I LOVE THEM ALL!” Still, we picked them up one at a time and I asked him, “Does this spark joy? Do you really love this? If not, then it’s not fair for it to be here with you when it could be in a home with a child who really loves it. If you’re not going to love it and play with it, it’s time to let it go.” It really seemed to change the way he thought of the whole process. I encouraged him to hug each toy and tell it thank you and wish it luck in its new home. Definitely made the process easier, and by the time we were done we had a full kitchen-sized trash bag full!

  2. Shayne says:

    I read *somewhere* that ‘joy’ can also be interpreted as ‘gratitude’… joy isn’t about a burst of excitement (when I’m looking at my toothbrush, for example, I am not giddy with ‘joy’), but about a deeply felt sense of thankfulness (I am so thankful for the dental health my toothbrush brings me). Approaching with a sense of joyful gratitude has actually made it easier for that last push of purging!

    • Anne says:

      I’ve never heard it explicitly stated that joy=gratitude but that sounds perfect to me. Thanks for framing it for me.

  3. Tia says:

    Ive been searching for some feedback in regards to storing childrens belongings, backpacks, shoes, items that they bring in when they come back from school. Im just wondering your opinion on a mudroom. It seems like Marie Kondo suggests storing all like items together that means all childrens items in their bedroom and not using a mudroom catch all?

  4. Brandy says:

    I found this post on Pinterest. I am just starting to read the book, but I am very interested in figuring out how this would work with kids. Discarding and organizing my things seems do-able. I am hoping that seeing my things clean will inspire my husband. The kids on the other hand, I am not so sure about. I was doing a different cleaning method earlier this summer and I asked my girls to choose their 10 favorite stuffed animals to keep and that we would box away the rest and if they didn’t miss them we would give them to someone else after whatever time. I thought that 10 stuffed animals was very generous and my oldest daughter who is 10, doesn’t hardly even look at stuffed animals anymore, but when I told her about this she broke down crying frantically. When I looked at some of the stuffed animals with her she would clutch onto stuffed animals whose stitching was even coming apart. Nothing particularly sentimental about it I don’t think. When I asked her why she loved it so much, it was because it was “hers”. Mind you she has a huge mountain of stuffed animals and that is only one division of toys she has! The other two children had similar reactions. Did you have to conquer anything like that? Sorry for such a long comment.

    • Sassy says:

      I don’t have a solution to offer, just some sympathy. Sounds like you have quite a challenge on your hands. Maybe ask about packing away to rotate so they can really love their toys and have space to play — and just don’t mention the possible give away part? My sons were fanatic about a few things and they started to let go recently (when they got to college, which I realize is not the most hopeful you could hear). Let’s hope someone else has some good ideas!

    • Anne says:

      Kondo has a very specific order she recommends doing tidying in, and for some kids stuffed animals fall under “keepsakes”—which is the last category to tackle and the hardest to let go of. If I were feeling wise and balanced—instead of exasperated by my kids’ sudden intense attachment to stuffed animals I had been pretty sure they didn’t even like—I would skip the stuffed animals for now and come back to them after everything else has been tidied. Start with the easy stuff, and work your way to the hard stuff. And if the easy stuff turns out to be hard, or vice versa, reshuffle. 🙂

    • Ashleigh says:

      My daughter also has a huge mountain of stuffed animals. What has worked for us is keeping a certain number out and available, and the rest boxed up. If she thinks of an animal she wants out, she has to trade me for it – one stuffed animal out, another one put in. Every so often she asks to look though the boxed items and does a big reshuffle, but again only a certain number of stuffed animals can be kept out. I’m hopeful that at some point we can work toward donating some of the boxed items…

  5. Emily says:

    I realize this is beside the point of this wonderful article, but can you share where the beautiful rainbow book sets are from?! The one with Oliver Twist? My son is coming up on reading age and those books are gorgeous!

  6. Heidi says:

    I have a 9yo boy and an almost 4yo girl. After reading The Life-changing Magic last January, I started on the house right away, but have put off dealing with the toys….still. My son, then 8, and I tackled his room last March. I know Kondo says to not do the process by room, but we treated his room as his “house” and went through everything by category. The hardest thing for him was learning and internalizing that it is all right to get rid of something that doesn’t bring him joy – even if it was a gift. It went a LOT better than I ever expected and I’ve only had to say “go clean your room” three times since then! My 3yo and I haven’t completed her room yet but we did do her clothes with great success. One thing that surprised me was how cognizant and opinionated she was about her clothes, even at such a young age. Her comments were regarding the feel of the clothes rather than the designs on the front. She informed me that she didn’t like how several items felt on her because they were itchy, tight, etc. As the mama, it was a little difficult at times to let go of certain items, but I decided that if she was aware enough to let me know something was uncomfortable, then I should honor her decisions.
    One way we’re tackling daily clutter is by having one of the kids’ daily chore categories be to “put away adventurous hikers.” I’ve taught the kids that all of their things (toys, shoes, books, etc.) have “homes” where they like to sleep when they’re not being used. The items like to be in their homes because they’re with their friends there. If things get used during the day and are not put away right away again, they are called “adventurous hikers” (a term my 9yo and I collaborated on). Before we begin the bedtime routine, the last chore list item they have to complete is getting all adventurous hikers back to their homes. Doing cleanup this way has actually led to more things being put away throughout the day because when we first started this practice, they didn’t like feeling overwhelmed by the huge mass of adventurous hikers to be put away every night.

  7. Kerri says:

    When I read this book, it helped me and my husband a lot, however my main takeaway was “this lady doesn’t have kids!” I don’t remember her addressing them much so I felt like it wouldn’t work for my daughter. I’m glad for your tips. Now I feel confident to tackle her stuff with her. Thank you!!

  8. Wells says:

    Thank you for this!!! I LOVED reading the book, but found it pretty hard to implement. I got rid of a bath robe that didn’t necessarily spark “true joy,” but then winter came, and I was COLD! It is even harder to help my children through this decluttering! I felt like I was left without a paddle because Marie Kondo did not mention how to approach it with children. I mean, we did have the girls sort their clothes and books, but my second daughter is extremely sentimental, and keeps things even that she never wears… or she wants to give it to “someone that we know.” –Which is one of the no-nos! And when we say “thank you” to an item and throw it away, she gets tears in her eyes! Eeeek!

    I am right with you with the decisions about what to keep for future children, and YES the thought of not having to buy them all a new wardrobe–THAT sparks true joy! LOL. I wrote about that too. But you are so much more concise. =)

    #12–SOOOOOOOOOO smart! Just to let them see the difference! I am doing that ASAP. Our children’s room is crazy!

  9. Dawn says:

    With my 9 yo daughter when I would ask her to clean her room she would get very overwhelmed about cleaning it because of how big the mess was. So what I did was make a list of all the types of items (stuffed animals, art supplies, barbies etc) to clean up, cut the list into straps of paper, folded them up and put them in a container. She would then pick one of the folded straps of paper and clean up what was listed. It made the cleaning up more fun. I would also help sometimes too.

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