Helping Kids Get Organized

Expert advice on setting up routines, smart storage, and more.

It's never too early to help children learn organizational skills that will serve them well for a lifetime. By setting up storage systems that young ones can help maintain, they'll begin to learn how to categorize their belongings. And by creating routines and predictability in their lives, you'll help them get used to carrying out certain tasks.

"I'm very methodical about our routine," says Child's Girlfriend to Girlfriend columnist, Vicki Iovine, a Los Angeles-based working mother of four school-age kids. "A good example is bathtime. My big boy, who is 14 now, showers in the morning, but the three younger ones take their baths at the same time every night. I don't allow any variation in the routine because the system might fall apart." The Iovine kids know that Sunday night is "manicure night," as Vicki makes sure everyone is presentable for the coming school week. "My older son does his own grooming, but until recently, I cut 80 nails every Sunday night!" she says with a laugh. Because the kids know what to expect, they don't complain.

Seventeen-year-old Jessi Morgenstern-Colón of New York City knows all about living in a super-organized home -- her mom, Julie Morgenstern, is the author of Organizing From the Inside Out and a nationally known organization expert. Mother and daughter have written a new book together, Organizing From the Inside Out for Teens. "Organizing your belongings is the best way to stay on top of everything that's expected of you," says Jessi, who spends three hours a day studying to become a professional dancer in addition to her full load of schoolwork. "It's a very competitive world, even for kids, and finding a place for everything helps create a sense of control."

Her tip for parents: Picture your child's bedroom as a kindergarten classroom, with activity zones for play, arts and crafts, and reading, and plan easy-access storage in each area. As she notes, "A child shouldn't have to cross the room 20 times to gather supplies to draw a picture." If spaces are properly organized, little ones can find what they need and later return toys to their place without a lot of help from adults.

"Children crave order," agrees Debbie Harwin, New York City-based founder of the professional organization firm I Need My Space and the mother of two boys. "They'll take care of their things and enjoy them more if they can find them easily." Harwin advocates outfitting shelves in kids' rooms with clear plastic bins labeled with a picture of what is stored inside (blocks, action figures, and so on) As kids reach school age, a desk area should be set aside for homework and projects.

Speaking of homework, Vicki stresses that the beginning of the school year is the time to make sure young students are perfectly set up to work efficiently. "Every year, we have one hellish night at the office supply store, where we run into every family we've ever known," she quips. "One mother will call out, 'Fourth-graders, I've found the two-inch binders!' and everyone will go running over."

By the time children reach middle school, they should be keeping track of their daily schedule with a planner, says Jessi Morgenstern-Colón. (Elementary-schoolers can get started with a homework log, an easy way for parents to see just how much work their children are expected to do.) "At this point, I have a Palm Pilot," she says, "but young kids can use a simple paper planner to keep track of what they need to do each day."

When school friends found out Jessi was writing a book, they began asking her to help them get organized, too. "The problems that come up most often are how to keep papers in order and how to find enough time in the day to get everything done," she says, echoing the lament of many busy parents. Her book offers step-by-step advice for setting up a work/study area, organizing a too-heavy backpack, and planning a workable daily schedule. "When you're organized, you just feel better about yourself," she concludes.

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