The Great Cubby Clean-Up Week Four: How to Create Tidy Habits, According to Our Experts

published Jan 30, 2023
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It’s Week Four of the Great Cubby Clean-Up, the final week of our four-part series to get your kids’ toys under control. In the past three weeks you’ve identified your clutter trouble spots, edited your kid’s toy collection, and set up a new system to store the keepers (maybe you even bought a new bin or two). This week, we’re sharing the experts tips for how to shift your habits to actually keep things tidy.

None of us wants to be the parent who is threatening to throw away toys, if a child doesn’t clean up. Nor do we want to raise kids who can’t keep a neat room. So how do you get your family to keep things organized? The professional organizers we talked to all say that working with your kids and setting up routines are key to preventing the mess from returning. “Young kids can clean up and put their toys away, but it requires consistent guidance and encouragement from their parents,”  says Jennifer Hawkins, a former teacher who now runs Rejoice in Order. Here are professional organizer parents’ best tips to change your habits for good:

Introduce your kids to their new system 

Once you’ve organized their room, give the kids a tour of the newly-organized space, says Shauna Yule Bresser, the professional organizer behind Lovely Life Home. “Show them where everything goes and explain that they are going to pick-up every day, just like when they are at school.”

Model the behavior you want

“If you want your children to be neat and tidy, it’s important for them to see you making efforts to be neat and tidy as well,” says Jennfier. Alison Mazurek, who writes the blog, agrees. She makes a point to verbalize her own editing to her kids, so they see her making the same decisions. “If I want to buy a new dress, I should let go of an older dress. If I love all my dresses this is a harder decision.”

Clean with your kids

When kids are first learning how to clean up, they need a parent right beside them, teaching them how to put things away, showing them where things go and most importantly, keeping them from getting distracted, says MaryJo Monroe, the owner of reSPACEd in Portland, Oregon.

Try the old timer method

You’ve heard this advice before (and many of our experts suggested it), but have you actually done it? Set a timer and tell the kids to clean up with you while you race against the clock. “It’s surprising how much can get done in less than 10 minutes, says Alejandra. She suggests you can go one step further and purchase the Time Timer ($32). “It’s large, fun, and visual—perfect for kids!”

Commit to tidying daily—but don’t overdo it

MaryJo emphasizes the power of a daily 15-minute clean-up at the same time each day to establish a routine, but at the end of 15 minutes, be sure to stop! “This is not the time to do a major purge and reorganization,” she says. “Kids feel demoralized and are going to give you attitude if the daily 15-minute clean-up turns into 30 or 60 minutes routinely. A clear stopping point teaches kids that cleaning up can be relatively quick and painless.”

And if it’s not enough, reassess 

“If you and the kids are doing the daily 15-minute clean-up for a few weeks, but their room never seems to be cleaned up after 15 minutes, then you probably have too many toys out,” cautions MaryJo. She says the solution for this is to put some toys into rotation or pare down even more. “We don’t want to give kids more toys than they can manage and clean-up effectively. This means fewer toys for younger kids who have less stamina and ability to clean up.”

Give them a hyper-specific task

Instead of asking your child to “clean up the toys,” which is a big scary overwhelming task, give specific instructions, like “find all the Magnatiles and put them in this basket,” suggests Lindsay Downes, founder of A Considered Home.  “This helps build focus and attention to detail, in addition to breaking a large job into smaller, more manageable steps,” says Jennifer. 

Be a sportscaster

In addition to coaching your kids discreet and specific tasks, it can help to narrate the play-by-play as your kids clean up. “I often say out loud where things go and remind the kids that if they put it back in the right spot it will be there when they need it next,” says Alison.

Take a tidy-up time out between activities

Remind them that if we want to start a new activity we need to clean up the old one, says Alison, “And then stay strong in that request.” For example, they can build a fort, but first they need to clean up all the tiny toys, so no one gets hurt. 

Start a boredom-busting shelf

“I always suggest that my clients have a “snow day shelf” where they can tuck away unopened toys or games to pull out when they need to spice things up,” says Shauna, who notes that this is a great thing to do with craft kits, puzzles, a LEGO kit, and other non-open-ended toys.

Stay strong when you lay down the law

“As an elementary teacher, I learned that following through with what you say is crucial,” says Cole Boge who organizes under the name The Detailed Dad. “If you tell your child that they cannot go outside to play until they clean their room, you need to follow through with that. That one time you don’t do that, your child now knows that you sometimes say things just to scare them—and you can bet they will test those limits again. “

Let them choose their chores

If cleaning up and doing chores, in general is a struggle with your kids, make a list of chores and allow them to pick their top three, suggests Alejandra Costello, who helps people get organized through her courses and membership community, TeamOrganize. “Allowing them to have a say in their efforts can give children a sense of ownership over their tasks.”

Try a family meeting

If your kids are four and older, Jennifer suggests starting a weekly family meeting. “If your children struggle with tidying up after themselves, the family meeting is a great, judgement-free space for everyone in the family to brainstorm solutions and then make efforts to follow through during the week,” she says. “I find that kids are good at self-reflection and cooperation when they feel listened to and valued.” 

Pick one or more of these exit strategies to keep your family on track going forward.

  • Make donations part of the routine. MaryJo suggests setting up a donation station in a corner of the house. “This can simply be a large box that family members toss their unwanted, outgrown items into,” she says. “When the box gets full, a parent can drive the box to their local family shelter or charity.”
  • Designate 24-hour toys. Shauna says to nip the junk toys in the bud when they enter the house. From here on out Happy Meal toys, birthday party favors (someday!), and toys from the dentist or doctor are 24-hour toys. “Let them stay in the house for that long and then let them go,” she says.
  • Try the one in, one out method. If you stick to a system of donating/giving away a toy for every new toy you purchase, your collection will never get out of control. This is especially true in a small space, like Alison’s. “When the kids ask for a new toy, we can remind them that then we need to let go of something else,” she says.
  • Host an annual garage sale. One in, one out, is often easier said than done. MaryJo and her team at reSpaced have found that having a system to annually remove old or unwanted toys is an effective and easy way to clear the clutter. Host an annual garage sale or do a big purge just before Christmas donate any like-new toys to a local family shelter. 

Catch Up on The Great Cubby Clean-Up

New to the Cubby Clean-Up? Find all four weeks of The Great Cubby Clean-Up here:

Our experts

Alejandra Costello is a Virginia-based organizing expert (@AlejandraDotTV), who helps people get organized through her courses and membership community, TeamOrganize. Deemed “The Decluttering Queen” by Good Morning America, Alejandra’s organizing videos have been viewed 100M+ times. 

Alison Mazurek (@600sqftandababy) is doing her best to live small, thoughtfully, and sustainably in Vancouver, Canada with her husband and two kids while sharing about it through her blog and her small space consulting service.

Cole Boge is a professional organizer located in the Appleton, Wisconsin area. He brings his experience as a school teacher, sports coach, and father to his organizing business The Detailed Dad. 

Jennifer Hawkins is a former teacher-turned-professional organizer in the Atlanta area (@rejoiceinorder). Jennifer uses her parent-educator training to help parents think about how to develop the skills and behaviors their children need to become organized, too

Lindsay Downes is professional organizer and founder of A Considered Home (@a.considered.home) in Alexandria, Virginia. With a master’s degree in child development and two boys of her own, Lindsay’s approach to organizing families is grounded both in her experience in the classroom and the realities of life with young kids.

MaryJo Monroe is the owner of reSPACEd (@respacedpdx) in Portland, Oregon. MaryJo started reSPACEd in 2008 with the goal of helping families clear the clutter so they could relax in their own homes. The company has since grown to provide a variety of organizing services to homes and small businesses, but helping families get organized remains her specialty.

Shauna Yule Brasseur is the owner of Lovely Life Home (@lovely_life_home), an organizing and design business based in Hingham, Massachusetts. Shauna believes that we are happier and calmer in organized spaces.

Tanisha Porter is a professional organizer and the owner of Natural Born Organizers, LLC (@naturalbornorganizers) based in Los Angeles, California. Tanisha spent the first eight weeks of the pandemic building a community of women across the country who not only wanted to create order in their lives but needed to due to the initial shutdown.