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12 Decluttering Secrets from a Small-Space Mom

Written by Laura Fenton

Photography by Photo Via Living Small

If you feel like your kids’ toys and gear have taken over your home, you’re not alone. When I was writing my book The Little Book of Living Small, I imagined that many of the readers would still be in their single or at least in their pre-kid days, but since it came out, I’ve heard the most questions from parents. And the question everyone asks is, “How do you deal with All. The. Kid. Stuff?” I haven’t developed a perfect system, but living in a small space with no auxiliary storage space (and poking around in other small family homes) has helped me to tackle the conundrum that is kid clutter.

Back-to-school season has always felt like the real beginning of the year to me. And this year especially, I long to get back to some sense of “normal” after many days (and months) of unstructured days. To get my family and my home ready for the year ahead I’ve been tackling our clutter, reorganizing like crazy, and reminding myself that this strange time shall pass. Here are a dozen ideas for a fresh start in your family’s home this year:

Make peace with the baby gear.
New mamas, this one’s for you: Children also have a way of making a home feel too tiny. New parents feel their home is overrun with Baby’s gear and others find themselves wishing for a third bedroom when a second baby arrives. These seasons are relatively short: the bouncy seat and stroller will be gone before you know it (and they are essential right now!). In just a few months, your baby will sleep through the night and can begin sharing a room with your big kid.

Reframe the decluttering.
I love the toy editing approach Denaye Barahona offers in her book Simple Happy Parenting: She suggests you tell your child, “We are going to give your play space a makeover so you can easily see the toys and play with them in new ways.” That’s an idea kids can get on board with! She says to tell your kids the toys you’re removing are going on “vacation.” Try to edit down what is stored in your child’s room to the true favorites. I personally prefer to do this when my kid is not around, so ask your partner to take the kids to the park or declare a movie afternoon.

Put the rest out of sight.
When you’re done doing the edit, you don’t need to kick the other toys to the curb. Recycle or throw out anything that is broken or trash. But for the ones that your child doesn’t play with often, put them in a place that’s out of reach (and out of sight) for a couple months. Observe how your kids play with fewer toys, and then you can decide what to do with the excess after you’re sure your child doesn’t miss the things you sent on vacation.

Push pause on buying anything new.
It is SO tempting to try to buy our way out of boredom, but more stuff is not the answer. My family used to use a 24-hour rule for all purchases, but I’ve decided 48 hours is even better. Here’s how it works: If you see something you really think you need, bookmark it or ask a store to put it on hold for you, and then wait two days to see how you feel. Chances are the “need” might be less pressing than you think.

Don’t try to do it all in a day!
Instead, tackle a little bit every day. Start with the kids’ sock drawer one day. Tackle the lunchbox containers and water bottles the next. This bite-sized approach works best for me. My friend Shira Gill, a professional organizer, whose home is featured in my book, is the master of these micro-organizing tasks (she calls it the #15minwin). I followed her 30-day challenge earlier this summer and while I didn’t come close to doing all 30 days, the days I did do were game-changing.

Curate your kid’s books.
There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and children’s books often fall into this category. Editing your home library is an easy win for making space: Identify the books your child has outgrown or never liked in the first place, and post the books as a giveaway on your mom or neighborhood group, or host a book swap. I’ve settled on a method of two storage spaces for kid books: A small selection of my son’s current faves in his room and the rest stored on a dedicated shelf in the living room. We use three of IKEA’s Flisat wall ledges for our current reading materials, and we make it a point to rotate the selection every month or so.

Beware the big bin!
Know that most bins are too big! The problem with big bins is that it’s hard to find a toy within, and when they inevitably get dumped out, they create a huge mess. Choose a greater number of small bins. If you already have large bins, try subcontainers within. For example, we have all our small toy cars zipped into a fabric pouch so they are contained if the large bin of toy vehicles is overturned.

Organize like a preschool teacher.
Try to picture your child’s preschool classroom: I bet everything is in an open-top bin or basket or sits directly on a shelf—and more than likely those shelves are labeled (often with photos for pre-readers). There are two things going on here: One, the toys are easy for kids to access when they are displayed within reach in a way that children can see them. Second, they are easy to clean up because everything has a place and the child can easily see it too.

Try a capsule wardrobe—for kids.
This past summer we didn’t buy any new clothes for my son. Instead we cut off his sweatpants from the previous school year for shorts and made do with getting-small tees. Now that it’s time for a wardrobe refresh, I am taking an uber-minimalist approach. He’s getting seven pairs of the same pants, seven long-sleeved tees, and a couple hoodies, all in different colors and patterns for some variety. I also threw out all the singleton socks and I took all the too-small or ill-fitting clothes out of his drawers, and it feels so good.

Get a clutter buddy.
This is one of my favorite ways to declutter. Convince a friend to tackle their kids’ rooms and playthings at the same time as you. Then text each other pictures of what you’re getting rid of or organizing each day. My friends and I have done this, and it is a serious dose of motivation.

Tidy every day.
Hard truth: A house does not keep itself neat, especially with kids in the picture. If you do a sweep each night and put things back in their places, you’ll be able to keep the clutter at bay. I promise that waking up to a tidy home is worth the daily effort!

Remember the long view.
Life’s stages come and go, sometimes quickly and sometimes ever so slowly (hello, COVID). If your space has begun to feel too small, take a step back and examine what’s happening now. Don’t let today’s temporary discomfort force you into moving into a space that’s bigger than you really need.

Laura Fenton is the author of The Little Book of Living Small and the former lifestyle director at Parents magazine. As a writer, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton and explore her Mother Essentials list right here!

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