Having an organized kid is not a result of luck, but one that requires opportunities and practice. As a parental wellness and early childhood development expert, and a parent of two myself, I know how much time and energy is consumed by cleaning up after our kids. I hear often from parents that they wish they could spend less time dealing with mess, and more time enjoying their children.
It’s understandable to assume that children aren’t capable of organizing or cleaning up their space in early childhood—but the opposite is actually true. By teaching children how to organize their space, routines and belongings, we are helping them grow into future responsible members of society, students, parents, partners and more.
After all, when we talk about organizational skills in children, we are really talking about executive function and self-regulation. The Harvard Center on the Developing Mind describes executive function skills as allowing us to “plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” As parents, the opportunities we set up for our kids to practice critical thinking and executive function skills are imperative to the overall quality of their childhood, adolescence, adulthood and beyond—and imperative to raising an organized child.
Research suggests that we can develop the capacity to organize information, regulate emotions and filter distractions through structure, practice and exposure. Here are some ways we can encourage organization at home, regardless of whether you have an infant, toddler or school-aged child.
Here are 4 tips to help children stay organized at home
1. Start young
When we talk about organization, we’re really talking about the skills related to executive functioning. Even though it may seem like my 4-month-old is not doing much but thinking about sleeping and eating, her brain is developing rapidly and the development of executive function skills is already underway.
Games like peekaboo, which require an infant to focus and anticipate a surprise, are some small but impactful ways of developing working memory and self control in infancy.
For older children, ask them to help you make a chore chart or schedule outlining their responsibilities, whether that’s feeding a pet, making their bed or taking out the recycling bin. Having a clear outline of what’s expected of them can help them plan ahead and remember their tasks.
2. Provide access to hooks, bins and drawers
The temptation to throw everything on the floor or kick off our shoes as soon as we walk in is real, but providing our children easy access to storage means they’re more likely to associate a routine with coming home.
With the proper setup, we can encourage kids to put their shoes away in their spot, hang up their backpacks and coats on height-appropriate hooks, and put their water bottles in the sink while they wash their hands. This helps children take ownership of their belongings and execute an organized series of events as soon as they walk in the door.
3. Integrate clean-up into play
Consistency is key when it comes to helping children establish a positive relationship with cleaning up. Setting a timer for 5 minutes of clean-up time before you need to move onto the next activity helps children feel more emotionally prepared to transition out of play. If you notice your child is anxious about leaving behind something they’re working on, rather than insisting they break it down, create a “Play in Progress” sign that they can place on their “project” that reassures them that it will still be there when they return.
For pre-literate children, using visual labels helps them navigate organized spaces independently. You can use visual labels in play areas, closets, garages (for bigger toy storage and “parking spaces” for bikes) and even bathrooms. For older kids, use word labels or name labels so they know where to place their personal items.
Related: Let your kids make the mess
4. Involve them in the day-to-day maintenance of their home
We might think chores around the house are time-consuming or boring, but we should try to avoid projecting that on to our children. Children are empowered by age-appropriate responsibility and utility.
For example, I provide a low drawer with my 3-year-old’s plates, cups, and utensils and encourage him to “set the table” while I prepare our meal. When we’re finished, he helps me put his items in the sink, trash, compost or dishwasher.
Other ideas for kids of all ages include laundry sorting, cooking/baking, gardening and vacuuming or sweeping, with increasing responsibility and less parental oversight as they age.
A note from Motherly
As with any teaching we implement at home, start small and make sure it’s sustainable—manageable over a long period of time. These suggestions won’t necessarily mean your child wakes up tomorrow ready to tidy their rooms, but consistent routines, time and practice are the best bet for encouraging children to develop the skills to stay organized.