21 Tips on Keeping a Simple Home with Kids

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

Any parent knows that kids create clutter like nobody’s business.

It’s enough to drive a simplifier such as myself crazy. Still, with a little diligence, and a little bit of Zen detachment, it’s possible to have a simple, (relatively) uncluttered home as well as peace of mind.

Reader Christa recently asked:

As a mother of 4, I have to ask how you manage to simpify, declutter and live a minimalist lifestyle with 6 children. It seems we have toys everywhere, and the kids stuff accumulates into every room of the house. What is your system for their stuff?

Let me first state the obvious: any life that includes children is going to be complicated, at least to some degree. You’ll never get an absolute minimalist lifestyle with kids, and I’ve learned to accept that. While my minimalist inner self would like to live without a car, a cell phone, or a large house, my kids preclude those things from happening.

However, I have found ways to simplify my house, including the kids’ rooms. Sure, the house still gets messy — especially their rooms. But it’s not as bad as it once was, and it’s at a manageable level.

Here are my tips for simplifying your home with kids:

  1. Identify the important. The first step in decluttering is identifying which toys and other possessions are truly important to the kids. What do they play with, what do they love? Then get rid of as much of the rest as possible, keeping only those they use and love.
  2. Massively purge. In the beginning, if you have a lot of kid clutter, you’ll want to go through a massive purge. The way to do this is to block off a day to go through their rooms. Do one area at a time: a drawer, a section of the closet, a shelf. Take everything out of that area, put it in a pile. From that pile, take only the really important stuff (See Tip 1). Get rid of the rest. Donate it to charity if it’s still good. Get some boxes and put all the stuff to donate in there, and when they’re full, load them up in your car to donate on your next trip. Then put back the important stuff, and tackle the next area. If you do this quickly, you can do a room in a couple of hours.
  3. Leave space. When you put the important stuff back, don’t try to fill up each drawer, shelf or closet area. Allow there to be some space around the objects. It’s much nicer looking, and it leaves room for a couple of extra items later if necessary.
  4. Contain. The key for us has been to contain the kid clutter. We only let them keep their stuff in their rooms. The living room, kitchen and dining room are for household stuff only. We do have a play area for the two toddlers, and their stuff gets spread throughout the house, but still, we try to contain the kid stuff to certain areas only. This leaves our living area very simple and minimal.
  5. Bins. These are the best type of containers for kids stuff, in general. Bins or baskets. The key is to make it easy for the kids (or you) to toss their stuff into the bins, making cleanup simple. Label each bin, if possible, with the type of stuff that goes there (blocks, stuffed animals, Legos, instruments of destruction). If your child can’t read, use picture labels.
  6. Cubbies. We have a small plastic 3-drawer organizer (we call them “cubbies”) for each child. They don’t take up much room in the closets, and it allows them to have a place to put their little odds and ends that would otherwise be all over the place.
  7. A home for everything. We haven’t actually completely succeeded at this, but we try to teach the kids that everything they own has a “home”. This means that if they’re going to put away a toy, they should know where its home is, and put it there. If they don’t know where the home is, they need to find a home for it, and put it there from now on. Actually, this is a useful concept for adults, too, and it’s one that I’ve mastered and found very useful. Our kids understand this idea (at least, the four older ones do), but sometimes they forget. Still, it helps keep things organized.
  8. Organize like with like. Try to keep similar things organized together. So, one bin for stuffed animals, another for sports stuff. This makes it easier to remember. Same thing with clothes: underwear and socks together, shirts, shorts, pants, etc. All video game stuff in one place.
  9. One place for school papers. Similarly, you should have one place to keep all incoming school papers. We have an inbox for all incoming papers in our house, but we also keep a folder to store school papers, so we never have to search for them. Also, when we get a school calendar or a notification of some school event, we enter it in our Google Calendar, so we never forget when stuff is.
  10. Teach them to clean. Our 1-year-old daughter, Noelle, doesn’t know how to clean up after herself. But all of the other 5 kids do, including our 3-year-old. So, instead of us continually stressing out about the messes, we just ask them to clean up now and then. Sure, things will get messy again soon. But at least the kids are doing the work cleaning up, not us. :)
  11. Allow them to mess. Kids are not perfect. They will inevitably make a mess. You have to allow them to do this. Then, when they’re done, ask them to clean it up. No harm, no foul.
  12. Purge at Christmas, birthdays. On these two occasions, new stuff comes into their lives en masse. If you just add this new stuff to their old stuff, you will have a huge mess. Instead, we ask them to put all their gifts in one place. Then, a day or two after Christmas or their birthday, we go through their closets and bins and ask them what they want to get rid of so they can make room for the new stuff.
  13. Do regular decluttering. Every month or two, you’ll need to declutter their stuff. See Tip 1. Do it at least quarterly. You could put a reminder in your calendar, or just look at their rooms every now and then, and if it looks way too cluttered, schedule some time to do some purging.
  14. Less is more. Teach the kids that they don’t need to have huge piles of stuff to be happy. They can’t possibly play with everything anyway — there aren’t enough hours in the day. With less stuff, they can find things more easily, they can see what there is to play with, and they can own better quality stuff (see next tip).
  15. Go for quality. Instead of getting them a huge pile of cheap junk, go for quality toys or possessions that will last long. Wood is better than plastic, for example. The classic toys are often the best. It’s best to spend your money on a couple of great things than a whole bunch of cheap things that will break and be relegated to the junk pile in no time.
  16. Learn to accept. You’ll never have a minimal life with kids. You have to accept that. It can be difficult for a minimalist like me, but you can learn that being a harpie parent isn’t as fun as being one that just enjoys their child’s company.
  17. Buy less. Drastically reduce the amount of stuff you buy for your kids. It’s difficult to resist them when they really want something at a store, I know, but you aren’t doing them any favors by caving in. Don’t deprive them completely, but also don’t spoil them with stuff. On Christmas, for example, just get them a few great things rather than a whole bunch of stuff.
  18. Clean as you go. I’ve learned to clean up messes as I go (or ask the kids to clean up their mess), so that the house is never a wreck.
  19. Clean before bed. I also do a quick clean-up right before I go to bed, getting any little things the little ones forgot to put away. It makes my mornings much more pleasant.
  20. 30-minute cleanups. On Saturdays, do a “30-minute cleanup”. This means that every child (over 5 years old probably) has a chore, and the whole family (including parents) pitch in to clean up the house. Set a timer, and see if you can do it all in 30 minutes. That’s much easier for our family to accomplish, as we have six people (including two adults and a teenager) pitching in to finish quickly. This gives us a clean house and the rest of the day to have fun.
  21. Prep time. This isn’t so much to do with clutter as with general simplifying your life with kids. It helps to have prep time each evening and morning to prepare the kids’ lunches, clothes, or whatever is needed for whatever we’re doing that day. This means we get the soccer gear and drinks and snacks ready on soccer days, or whatever gear is necessary for the activities of the day. It saves a rush when you are trying to get out the door, and saves you from forgetting stuff later.