It lives in your child’s closet or under her bed. It’s furry and squishy in some spots, pointy and shiny in others, and sometimes sticky or slimy. It’s multicolored, and when you’re not looking, it slowly oozes out, gripping your home in its tentacles.
It’s the Clutter Monster.
Children bring joy and laughter into our homes, but they also bring in seashells and pine cones, Lego blocks and Beanie Boos, dollhouses and hockey sticks. And the bounty of youth can easily consume your home if you don’t fight back.
In her quest to contain the flotsam produced by her 3-year-old son, Henry, and two dogs, Newton-based interior designer Erin Gates swears by built-ins and the receptacles that fill their shelves with order. “We are all about baskets in our house,” says Gates, author of Elements of Family Style, which came out in April. “The dogs have a basket for their toys. Henry has several all over the house — in the family room, his room, the basement playroom. I like to be able to run around and tidy quickly, so baskets are the easiest way to make it feel like the insanity is at least contained.”
If you can afford them, nothing maximizes linear and vertical storage space as well as custom-made built-in cabinets, drawers, and shelves, Gates says. A cheaper option, she notes, is to line up several open bookcases along an empty wall and use the lower shelves to hold matching bins or baskets for toys.
Jenn Largesse, founder of the DIY website Build-Basic.com and mom to a 2-year-old boy, prefers large containers to small ones that require items to puzzle into place during cleanup, and she likes them to stay hidden. “I’m not a huge fan of open storage, as it’s nearly impossible for a room to appear tidy, even when everything is in its place,” she says.
In that vein, Gates favors furniture with hidden storage, such as benches and ottomans with compartments for games, and likes to place storage hooks low enough that kids can hang up their own backpacks and coats. “A decorative or custom pin board can be a nice way to keep papers, art, and school stuff organized and off a tabletop, too,” she says.
1. A GRAND ENTRANCE
Combating clutter begins as soon as kids get through the door. Designer-builder Dave Supple, founder of New England Design and Construction, likes to study how a family uses their home, starting with where they enter.
“A lot of the time it’s not the formal entry at the front of the house, where there might be space for a mudroom,” he says. In those situations, he tries to get creative in carving out space for kids to hang their backpacks, jackets, and other gear.
In a project for Somerville homeowners April Dovholuk and Mike Ermann, Supple installed custom slide-out storage under the stairs at Dovholuk’s request. It now holds diapers, wipes, and toys and craft supplies for the couple’s two children. “Kids come with a lot of stuff, that’s for sure,” says Dovholuk. “All that stuff gets hidden away. You’d barely know we have children.”
2. OUTSIDE THE BOX
Beyond the entryway, searching out less obvious locations for storage can be worth the time investment. And rethinking shared living spaces can allow them to better serve the whole family without looking unkempt. In the search for extra space, Supple turns his eye upward. Small homes with very high ceilings can sometimes accommodate a storage mezzanine with a rolling ladder — a feature kids like— or space to hang bikes in a house without a garage.
Even if the ceilings are low, a finished attic can be a great playroom, and the crawl space in the eaves makes an easy spot for adding more storage. “It’s a good opportunity to utilize what could otherwise be dead space,” Supple says.
In tight quarters, a living or dining room may have to pull double duty as a part-time playroom. Clever design — such as the banquette seating Gates installed in her dining room — can help free up more space for varied uses.
Versatility is also important in textiles and finishes. “We almost exclusively upholster sofas and chairs in outdoor fabrics now,” Gates says, noting that texture and pattern options are better than ever.
An eggshell finish lends a little more protection to drywall and plaster walls than a matte effect, and “adding wood millwork to the lower half of walls, [such as] beadboard or paneling, and using a tough semigloss paint on it can really help in homes with toddlers with sticky fingers,” says Gates.
“If I’m building furniture for a [kids’] space, I specifically choose a finish that’s ‘touch-up friendly,’ knowing that nicks and dings are inevitable,” says Largesse. “When a space is durable, it allows me to relax during playtime instead of worrying that something irreplaceable might get ruined.”
3. TO START, PARE DOWN
The most common counteroffensive to the Clutter Monster is to lock it up in a storage bin or closet, but that doesn’t necessarily defeat the beast. “While I’m a fan of getting clutter out of sight, this can lead to a landslide situation when you open a door,” says Christine Koh, editor of BostonMamas.com and coauthor of Minimalist Parenting. You don’t want the monster attacking houseguests.
That’s why Koh says conquering clutter should start with paring down. “Grab three bags — one for recycling, one for donation, and one for trash — and go quickly through the area of clutter with your kids,” Koh says. “I have been known to cheerfully yell, ‘Be ruthless!’ if one of my kids gets mired in nostalgia.”
Although that sounds like a nightmare to some parents, Koh says involving your kids is a must, so they can learn to do it themselves. What’s more, some children have sharp memories and might feel betrayed if they later discover that you’ve thrown away a treasure. “Even if you explain rationally that they haven’t played with something for years, they might, for example, be attached to the person who gifted it to them,” she says.
Professional organizer Maureen Nuccitelli of Ask the Organizing Diva in Watertown agrees that the key to organizing is whittling things down to “the greatest hits.” From there, Nuccitelli tells clients to “group like with like” into storage containers; for kids, she recommends using open, color-coded milk crates. “They’re simple and easy for kids to use, and you can reconfigure them as needs change,” she says.
Visual systems are key to helping kids stay organized, says Anthony Picariello, a school psychologist in Quincy. “It’s a tool that’s always available for the child to refer back to,” he says, whether it’s a storage unit with labeled baskets or a job chart on the fridge that shows which chores a child is responsible for each day.
4. DRAWING THE LINE
Setting clear physical boundaries for toys — in a container, shelving unit, or closet — can help both children and parents, says Joshua Becker, author of Clutterfree With Kids and founder of BecomingMinimalist.com. He suggests asking, “Every toy has a home — where does it live?”
Perhaps more important, Becker says, is this rule: Once the defined space is at capacity, toy owners need to cull some items if they want to add more.
“When my kids were really young, we used a wall in the toy room, so they could keep any toys they wanted that fit along the wall,” he says. Later, they were allowed to keep whatever fit in their closet or dresser — including toys, clothes, games, and the random treasures kids like to collect, from shiny rocks to souvenir keychains. “It empowers the kids to make their own decisions about the toys they’re going to keep.”
Koh takes a similar approach. “Honestly, just say no to upsizing . . . do not expand your space to fit more toys,” she says. Her home has no playroom, and toys are not allowed to overrun the main living area. The kids each have a couple of built-in storage spaces, a corner bench to hold games, and two shelves in the kitchen pantry closet for art supplies. “That’s it! There is no room for expansion, and it works just fine.”
Children might protest, but it’s good for them to hear “no” once in a while, Becker says. “If they’re always getting a new toy or anything new they want, then they’re never forced to just find happiness with what they already have,” he says. “I also think it’s helpful to overexplain to our kids why we’re making the decisions we’re making,” for example, detailing how your family will better use the money that would have been spent on a new toy.
5. BE THE CHANGE
Before forcing kids to purge their toys, Becker stresses, parents need to walk the walk and lead by example. “You should be decluttering your own kitchen and your own bedroom and office and garage before you ask your kids to do that themselves,” he says. “I don’t think it’s fair to tell our kids that we’re not going to buy them any more toys if we have an Amazon package showing up on the doorstep every two days.”
If you explain how donating toys will help kids who are less fortunate, Picariello says, “most children will surprise you with their compassion and empathy.” Again, it’s important to lead by example, pruning and giving away some of your own possessions, too.
Selling bigger-ticket items can also help children learn the value of paring down their possessions. When one of her daughters wanted a very expensive doll, Koh offered to help put some old, high-value playthings up for sale online to pay for it. “She got rid of a bunch of toys, collected enough money to buy the doll, and offered to take me out for ice cream as a thank you for helping her,” Koh says. “She learned about what it takes to obtain something of value, and I swear she played with that doll more than anything else, because she had to work to earn it.”
6. GROOMING SELF-STARTERS
After you’ve allocated space for your child’s whittled-down collection of toys and trinkets, one final challenge remains: getting kids to put away their things on their own.
Becker suggests implementing and enforcing a nightly routine of picking up all toys before bedtime. It can teach kids to be responsible for their own things and help signal that the day is at an end. It also helps emphasize that more isn’t always better. “When you have a room full of toys, it becomes very overwhelming for a kid, or even for an adult, to put things away at the end of the night. But with fewer toys, that becomes way easier to do,” he says.
Establishing consistent routines with clear expectations can help kids develop organizational habits that, with time, can hopefully become second nature. “At the beginning, you might have to walk your child through each step of a task or chore,” says Picariello. Rather than issuing a broad — and, to them, possibly overwhelming or ambiguous — command like “clean your room,” lead them through the process one step at a time: First we put small toys in the red bin and large ones in the closet. Next we pick up the clothes on the floor and put them in the hamper. Then we pull the covers up to make the bed. And we’re done!
Picariello reminds frustrated parents that organizational skills come from the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which isn’t fully mature until early adulthood. “Children are still developing the skills to complete many organizational tasks that may seem automatic to us,” he says. “The hope is that after providing helpful tools, helping them use those tools, and developing routines, that it becomes second nature and automatic.”
Stick with it, and one day you might have a new ally in your battle. Because, as the ancient prophecy probably said, the child who created the Clutter Monster will be the one to destroy it.
Jon Gorey is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.