Eliminating Clutter in Children’s Lives


How did I end up with so much?

In today’s world, the coming of a baby is a reminder for lists – we make long and winding lists with toys, books, mattresses, clothes, shoes and some more toys. This is our way of preparing for the sea of changes that are to overtake us; our way of welcoming the baby. The fact that we can simply stretch back on our couch and click ‘buy’ has completely changed the way we shop. There is no longer that extra effort of going into a store to buy the stacking cups or the exhaustion of waiting in line to hold us back. Shopping for something is tailored to be as comfortable as sitting on the couch.

But, soon, we are left with an overabundance of stuff – a by-product of an overabundance of choice – that has no specific place in our homes or our lives. Clutter creeps into our lives unawares – a result of the impulsive wants that we don’t need. It is also, sadly, the side effects of a materialistic society that equates ‘things’ with richness.

As we look at how best to organise all our stuff, we cannot help but wonder how we ended up with so much. 

Clutter & its many forms

On one hand, we have physical clutter. The stuff that we can actually see – the sea of books and toys that overtake our living rooms, bathrooms, beds and that forgotten spot under the staircase. Each year, in the United States alone, 600,000 children’s books are published. Could we possibly want them all? Or are we depriving our children of something if we don’t buy them all?

On the other hand, we have mental clutter. All that stuff we cannot see yet which occupy our thoughts, interfering with our ability to focus, to just be. Our minds are crowded by umpteen parenting styles – the latest research on child development, the newest article (this included!) on how to nurture children. While some of these ideas may be beneficial, how many do we really need? Often, too many ideas interfere with our natural parenting rhythms because all the outside voices make it difficult for us to hear our own voice. 

What does clutter do?

↑ cortisol

When there is too much stuff lying around the home, there is a continuous increase in cortisol – a stress hormone. Typically, cortisol rises in the morning to stimulate activity and gradually drops by mid-afternoon as children head towards the end of their day. But, when there is clutter, the brain continues to produce increasing amounts of cortisol which begin to over-stimulate children, contributing to high energy and affecting their emotional state. 

↓ exploration 

Naturally, when there is an overabundance of stuff, children struggle to explore because they cannot settle down on ‘what’ they want to explore. They go through fragmented exploration by jumping from one to another, unable to stay with any. This kind of play puts children in a loop of distracted exploration. It neither gives enough time with one object to send feedback to the brain nor gives a chance to concentrate.

↓ harmony

A home should ideally allow for engagement, bonding and the space to think and be ourselves. When there is an abundance of stuff, children want to give energy to everything in sight. This often triggers parents who are also navigating through all the stuff (both physical and mental). Parents, then, are less patient and more prone to reaction. Because of all this, a home, instead of being restorative, ends up creating disharmony. 

An overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces can impact mental health. It is this danger of clutter, the totality of one’s possessions being so overwhelming that chips away at your well-being, relationships, and more, drowning in a sea of stuff. As clutter grows, and demands more attention, everything else that’s important gets forced out of your life! 

Joseph Ferrari, The Dark Side of Home: 

↓ rhythm

Young children thrive on some level of predictability to feel secure. Simple things like finding their plate in the second drawer of the cubby or finding their toothbrush on the left cabinet in the bathroom gives them a sense of calm because they feel secure in knowing. Clutter erases this kind of predictability because clutter sits anywhere. It has no home and belongs each day, each moment in some part of the house. Clutter for children is antithesis to clarity.

How can we manage clutter? 

Reduce – Rotate – Recycle 

The first (& honestly, the most difficult) step is to reduce buying. How many toys can a child play with? And more importantly, how many are we willing to buy in a year? What message are we communicating by constantly providing a range of stuff? There are so many books and toys available in the market for children that we will always feel like we are offering them less. But, less is good. Can they have that one book on leaves and instead explore the other parts of a plant by spending time outdoors? We feel a need to spell everything out for children,  robbing them of experiencing these through self-exploration. 

“Gather all their toys, half them, then half them again, then perhaps, once more.”

Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, Sage Family Podcast

Rotate what is available instead of having everything  accessible all the time. Some young children need a maximum of 2-4 items and anything more will overwhelm them. Some other children can lend their attention to one item even if there are 5-6 available. So, watch for the ideal range of toys that your children are able to handle and keep only those many available. Swap them once you feel their interest waning with something else from storage. Leave room for boredom and refrain from keeping something always available. 

Before buying, ask around if friends and family have anything meaningful for your child to play with. Once your child is done exploring, save their toys to offer to other children that you know of. Saving one or two of their cherished toys for sentiment, recycling the rest is a helpful way to move on. It also models the practice of sharing to our children.

Access – Play – Cleanup 

We need to have some system of storing children’ items in cupboards with easy access and keeping a few out on a shelf or the bottom rack of the centre table or even a simple mat. Keeping a few out neatly shows respect for the toys and books. And when these items have a designated spot in the house, it is easier to model bringing the items out for play and putting them back once done. This helps children take ownership for their tasks and when they know where to put them back, they are much more likely to fall into the habit of cleaning up. 

From “My child really needs that!” to “Does my child really need that?

Every single thing out there for children carries a label that makes it impossible for us to walk away from. But, do we really need them all? The next time we feel our children need something, remember, the more we accumulate, the less space we keep for ourselves and our children. Afterall, when there is more, less can stand out and when there is less, more can stand out. 

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