Cleaning vs. Decluttering a Child’s Room

by Katy on March 30, 2010 · 25 comments

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve cleaned my younger son’s room I’d have a pile of cash that reached the moon. But somehow, however many times he/I/we get his room cleaned up, it’s just a matter of nano-seconds before the cleanliness is completed reversed. (Seriously, I’m going to get NASA working on this.)

Part of the challenge is that he has very little storage space, but mostly because he has too much stuff. The end result is that his room is dangerous for ambulation at the moment and that’s simply not acceptable.

It would be very easy for me to clean his room up while he’s at school, but I want him to make the decisions himself about what to keep and what to get rid of. So we’ve been spending a hour here and an hour there agonizing over these difficult decisions. Two laundry baskets of books went to Powell’s, (of which they bought a half basket’s worth) and about half his stuffed animals are off to the consignment store and then Goodwill.

He and I spent AN HOUR working on decluttering his room yesterday. At age 11 he still has all his little boy belongings, so we’re going through all his toys one item at a time, which is overwhelming. (That’s why we’re doing it just one hour at a time.) When we finished our hour yesterday, I had him work on reassembling his “Transformers” into recognizable forms. When he gets these all put together, then we can probably sell them, which we certainly couldn’t do if they were maybe/maybe not missing their pieces. This is a chore I don’t have the skill to do. Seriously.

Also, he’s about to get a daybed/trundle bed (awesome for sleepovers!) which will replace the captain’s bed which has provided underbed storage. The problem was that with the exception of the “action figure drawer,” nothing stored there was anything he ever played with.

We are far from finishing this gargantuan task, but I know we’ll get there one hour at a time. And don’t get me started on his closet.

Are you a fan of cleaning and decluttering your kids’ rooms while they’re away or working side-by-side with them? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

P.S. I super-de-duper wish we lived in Manhattan so that Gretchen Rubin from The Happiness Project could come over and help us declutter. Apparently, she was so gung-ho about helping to delutter during her happiness year, that she was overwhelming her friends. Why do I not have friends like that?!

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl March 31, 2010 at 2:26 am

I am a friend like that, but I live on the other side of the country. Oh well.

I declutter alongside my children, and even my most pack-ratty kid (cough…Joshua….cough) is starting to get the hang of this and is able to let go of stuff much more easily than he used to. I think there’s hope for him. lol


Katy March 31, 2010 at 8:08 am

You know, it’s not nice to pretend you can lend a hand when you actually live 3000 miles away. 😉



Marlaina Abbott March 31, 2010 at 2:52 am

I am BAD. My mother offered to come over last week and address the kids rooms. I was so mortified by the thought that I eagerly welcomed Mrs. Organized through the front door and sent her into the abyss with garbage bags and plastic tubs.

Tony would never get rid of anything and that is mainly because of his autism. He is mentally unable to detach even though some of the stuff hadn’t been played with in months (possibly years?). He did, however, love the results when she was finished. She organized the big toy box that we had just thrown everything into. In fact, she turned the toy box into linen storage and gave him smaller baskets and bins for his stuff that are easier to keep organized. The legos are still somewhat of a nightmare but he uses them everyday. I also moved a small bookcase from the family room into his room that allowed books to be better organized.

Morgan’s room (the almost 15 year old) was even worse. Scary. And we broke the closet while trying to clean… Still working on fixing that…


HeatherS March 31, 2010 at 4:31 am

My 10 year old sons’ room looks much the same way 99.9% of the time. Either my husband or I will join him on a decluttering/organizing mission and within a day it’s back to the way it was. We also have storage issues and also I’m not much on “nagging” so he is not often reminded to keep it picked up.

I am getting ready to put things in a local consignment sale and both kids know that whatever toys/books they sell gives them spending money. This is only somewhat understood by the 4 yr old. But this has helped inspire the older one a bit to get rid of things he has outgrown. He also is working on a box of Transformers. Now if there really was a good way to organize Legos! We’ve tried just about every suggestion we have seen and nothing seems to work with the way he uses them.


Alison March 31, 2010 at 6:40 am

What are some of the suggested ways to organize Legos? My son loves them, but IMO plays with them less than he could because they’re not organized…


Katy March 31, 2010 at 8:11 am

My kids’ legos are stored in large plastic bins, which make it hard to find that one piece they so desperately “need.” My sister stores hers in shallow plastic bins on wheels which actually works better because the pieces are easier to find and they roll under the bed when not in use.

We do occasionally lay out a flat sheet and dump them out all at once, which is quite dramatic. The clean up is then as easy and picking up the sheet and pouring them all back into the bin. Otherwise, NO DUMPING THE LEGO BIN!



Andrea March 31, 2010 at 5:44 am

Ugh…my three sons share a room, and cleaning it is always an all-day task. (An hour in their room would barely get the Lego’s and dirty clothes picked up…!) Last year, I did a major clean/de-clutter, and most of the things I got rid of I slipped out while they weren’t looking (mostly they didn’t notice, but there have been a few, “whatever happened to my…?”). Every time we clean, I try to load a box of mutually-agreed on stuff to get rid of, and whenever a book comes up that is groan-worthy, I ferry it away to the library donation box. I’m hoping to do the Kim John Payne thing and reduce all of their stuff by half this spring. Wish me luck.


Katy March 31, 2010 at 8:12 am

Good luck! (My younger son needs to reduce by more than half.)



Cheryl March 31, 2010 at 6:01 am

My son has helped in his room since he was old enough to be the one messing it up. We utilize the 3 pile method (empty laundry baskets work well)…The keep pile, donate/sell pile and the I don’t know pile. The I don’t know pile goes out of site and if nothing is requested after one month it joins the donate/sell pile…We also strive (not always succesfull) to do this right before birthdays/holidays where more gifts will be received.


Shannon March 31, 2010 at 6:21 am

I’ve started my boys, ages 4 and 6, pretty young. We have a game we call “Trash or Treasure” which is basically how we declutter, and they actually do pretty well. Paper clutter is the big issue with my 6 year old. He draws something like a dozen pictures a day (he’s good, too!) so we got him a large cardboard artist’s portfolio to keep the good stuff in, while the practice drawings eventually must be consigned to the recycle bin. And we talk incessantly about how we don’t need every toy because they end up in the landfill. Sometimes they are on board, sometimes not. I think it is very important for them to be part of the dejunking process and not do it while they are away.

I think what was depressing to me about the toy situation is that I chose to stay home with my kids to spend time with them and help them learn and grow, not be a stock manager. When I got to the point that I was spending an hour a day on their stuff, I was done. That’s when I changed the way we look at stuff around here.


Shannon March 31, 2010 at 6:32 am

Adding that when I first introduced the game “Trash or Treasure” to my boys, the older one balked at the name, saying “Mommy, shouldn’t we donate this stuff? Or recycle it?”


Hiptobeme March 31, 2010 at 7:40 am

I just organized my legos in a three drawer plastic thingy. Duplo on top for when younger kids come over (soon this will be donated) transformers and bionicles in the second drawer and lego in the bottom drawer. I use small bins for other action figures and a large tote for bigger toys. We made a donation recently, and I had him pick five things he was willing to give to a younger kid and put them in a bucket. Then five more. Then five more. I filled a large box and decided I was satisfied…for now.


Ashley March 31, 2010 at 8:13 am

I have the same issues with my Grandmother. She has way too much stuff and isn’t aware of just how much she has since a lot of it gets stored in unused rooms or the garage and she physically cannot make her way in there to see the stuff.

Every Spring Break, I get 6 days off from work and spend most of them cleaning or fixing things around the house. I also take the opportunity to help her de-clutter.

My trick is that I suggest looking through storage bins from a particular area (such as the kitchen items stored in the garage) and bring them in one box at a time so that she’s not overwhelmed. By the third and fourth box, she’s amazed at how much there is and will ask how much is left.

Telling her she must do something doesn’t work, so I tell her this: “I want you to be aware of what we have stored. You don’t have to get rid of anything you don’t want to, but it does need to have a home (a place on a shelf or in a cupboard) if we’re keeping it.”

After an area or room is sorted through, we try sticking with the 1-for-1 rule where for every item we bring into the house, we have to give up one like item. Like clothes. For every piece Grandma or I buy, one thing has to go.


Katy March 31, 2010 at 8:15 am

You are a nice granddaughter.



Marie-Josée April 1, 2010 at 5:25 am

Wow, great job. Your Granny is very fortunate. I don’t live with my Granny, she’ s in a nursing home now, but I take care of her and all her things and I too make it a point to emphasize that she chooses or decides for herself when she has that option, as she has lost so much due to the decline of her physical capabilities caused by disease and age. It’s great that respect your Granny in that way too.


BarbS March 31, 2010 at 8:40 am

Oh, I so wish I had the answer to this problem. I would definitely LOVE to have a decluttering friend to come and help!

My daughter (the younger child) is pretty good at decluttering. She just needs to occassionally be reminded that “today we’ll each spend an hour cleaning out our rooms” and she’s good to go.

My son (the older one) is an entirely different story…

Last year I was on a huge decluttering kick, going through drawer by drawer and room by room and really paring down. I got side-tracked last fall, and fell off the wagon a bit. Definitely need to get back to it. Thanks for the inspiration!


Laura March 31, 2010 at 8:49 am

I don’t think anything touches my daughters’ hand that doesn’t instantly become a “treasure” to them so the junk piles up pretty fast. They are getting somewhat better as they get older, but de-cluttering their rooms is still a major chore. I used to do it on my own when they were little, and they never missed or commented on the stuff I got rid of. Now we work together and sort through everything, and two weeks ago my oldest de-cluttered her room ON HER OWN, without my even asking, and did a very good job! My motto has always been, “If everything is special, then nothing is special.” Thinking about what is truly special to them has helped the girls when it comes to deciding what to keep and what to recycle or throw away.


Loretta April 6, 2010 at 11:15 pm

“If everything is special, then nothing is special.” I LOVE that quote and am going to use it, often!


Angela March 31, 2010 at 9:24 am

I hope I’m allowed to comment on this post as a person with no kids. Ha! 🙂

I think the idea of charity is kind of abstract for kids, but if you can make it more concrete, like an actual charity who needs their toys, then kids love to give the stuff they’re not playing with to a kid that needs a toy. It’s the idea behind Goodwill and the Salvation Army, but once again it’s an abstract concept.

There’s a group called Toys not Tears that gives toys to abused children, and some children’s hospitals make up “bed packs” for children in long term care, etc. You could find a specific group and make it an event to donate toys once a year, something like that. You’d be teaching your boys that what they let go of directly affects another child’s life.

Just an idea from a childless woman who loves kids. 🙂


Katy March 31, 2010 at 10:16 am


You are always welcome to post on anything!



Melissa March 31, 2010 at 10:34 am

Just like everyone else who’s commented, my kids’ toys can get overwhelming. But I think I mostly have to point the finger at myself, because I’m mainly the one who gets them the stuff (aside from holiday and birthday gifts from other people). My nostalgia (ooh, I had that toy as a kid and loved it! I bet my kids will love it, too!) has caused me to buy some toys that they could probably do without. They’re not old enough to go out and buy that stuff themselves, so I don’t have anyone to blame but myself. That said, they’re still responsible every night for putting it away. No one like to step on Legos!


magdalena March 31, 2010 at 2:33 pm

While the wee one in our care is just two, she gets a lot of gifts and stuff. If she has not taken something out to play with it in a while, it gets rotated out. If it is definitely below her interest level, it goes to the box in the shed for the next rummage sale. She has a limited number of toys at any time, including the cute stuffed animals all the family want to give her. She has no toys in her own room but the bed toys – a baby doll and a big stuffed doll. The toys are in the family room, and they are picked up before bedtime. She has a toy kichen and I do have to keep that a bit organized for her, but it is in the real kitchen and it keeps her amused while we cook!


Julius March 31, 2010 at 11:38 pm

I have no kids, so I can’t comment from that side. But I remember being a little boy well enough to say, thanks for not tidying up your kids’ rooms without them. I’m pretty sure I would’ve not only found that quite traumatic, but also resented it to the point that I suspect it could have done serious damage to my relationship with my parents. I think it’s important to give kids personal space that they have some control over (good lesson about responsibility, too, in a way) – as long as it’s not a health hazard, e.g. moldy plates of half-eaten food or something…

As an aside, I must’ve been a strange child. I had a pretty efficient, finely-grained system for categorizing and storing my Lego. Which I’d set up mostly by myself.


Marie-Josée April 2, 2010 at 4:38 am

I’m curious about what you studied/employment. I am wonder if you chose an employment that put to use the skills you had as a child that you mention in your post.


Julia April 5, 2010 at 7:41 pm

I’ll admit, I have done the clean-out while the kid was out of the house kind of thing in years past. But now that he is older, and we homeschool (and are thus almost always together!), I don’t do that any more. We go through his stuff every couple of months and if I can get him to give up even a few things, I feel triumphant. He loves the look of the room when it’s all tidy and always comments on how good it feels to organize things. (He’s 1/4 German thanks to me, and we Germans are crazy for that kind of thing, sadly.) When he was little, we did talk a lot about giving unused toys up so that another kid could “have a turn” with it. That seemed to make sense to him and luckily he almost never asked when it would be his turn again!
Our community garage sale is coming up next month so I will try and get him to sell some stuff because he’s got a huge list of things he wants to buy and not enough cash to do it…
One last suggestion (surely unpopular with most of you!): move a lot. We have moved 6 times in his 8.75 years of life (granted, some of the moves were only a few months in an apartment while we waited for our new house etc). but paying guys to move around your stuff and seeing it all stacked up in a room or a garage really motivates you to get rid of it!


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