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How to Teach Children to be Organized

Teach Children with playdough

Organizing is in my DNA. I’ve been organized ever since I can remember. As a child, it never dawned on me that people weren’t organized. I thought everybody knew where everything was. I had it all worked out. My 10-year-old self would pack up her backpack the night before and leave it by the front door for an easy exit in the morning. Every square Candy-land card was intact, hospital corners fascinated me and I always handed my homework in on time. Systems were my thing before I knew what they were called. With young whippersnapper confidence, I glided through the day and I knew that I was onto something.

Teach Children Systems

I loved systems and I still do because they make life easier. I had an aptitude for “Getting- it -Done” before I hit middle school. So, I tried to teach others this coveted skill because it came so naturally to me. Boom! Right there I knew my life’s passion.

Then there was my younger sister who had many talents. Though picking up and putting it back wasn’t one of them. As youngsters, we shared a room with one small closet. She never understood how I knew every time she shoplifted a piece of my clothing for the day. She tried ever so carefully to put it back exactly as she found it. I never understood how she didn’t know that I was onto her. 

She was ousted more than once because she didn’t follow my system. All of my hangers that were once turned the same way were suddenly turned around. A favorite dress was then thrown over the hanger, pretty much upside down or falling off to one side.

We lived in the same household had the same parents and the same upbringing. Yet, we had very different skills. Everyone learns and processes things differently. No two people are exactly the same. We develop differently; we’re wired differently and have different strengths, weaknesses, and interests. How we’re motivated is the key.

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Teach Children How to be Organized

Organization and time management can be a challenge for children. That’s why there’s not one way to teach children organization. But if you start at a young age and instill really good habits, for many it can become seamless. For this reason, I have compiled this comprehensive guide on how to teach children to be organized.

Ages 1 ½ to 3

It’s not too soon to teach preschoolers organization, which becomes critical lifelong skills.

Start By Giving Every Item a Home

Children find a sense of comfort knowing where everything belongs. Books go here, trucks go there. It’s the same each time and repetition is important in this age group. It’s also a lifesaver when little ones want to find something. Like magic, when an item or toy has a home, a destination, they’ll know where it is. Explaining that when we have to put things back after using them, we can find them again! Toys can be organized in bins, baskets, containers and on shelves that are low enough for them to reach (little ones love to dump toys) which makes putting away an easier task.

(Hint: Keeping puzzle pieces together can be a nightmare. Try this. Give every puzzle a number. Then, on the back of each puzzle piece write a “1” – on the second puzzle write a “2” on the back of each puzzle piece and so on. It makes identifying the pieces to each puzzle easier and if a random piece is misplaced, you’ll know where it goes.)

Colorful containers encourage sorting and color recognition as well. Blocks go in the red bin, balls in the green. A child’s memory responds to the color first and identifies which item goes there. 

Always label toy storage by attaching pictures. Combine this with words underneath the picture. Do this even if you are using colorful containers. You’re teaching young children how to be organized and there’s a lot to process. Labeling encourages this skill.

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Pick Up Put Away Stay Organized

Cleaning up is a necessary process to stay organized and eliminate the dreadful toy hunt. You can develop this habit by making it fun as it most likely isn’t something your child is going to do on his or her own. Doing it every day and preferably at the same time, every day becomes the ideal repetition that they need.

Remember the Barney cleanup song? If Barney can make cleaning up fun, so can you. Simply say “It’s clean up time.”  Before you know it, your child will surprise you and chime right in.

“Clean up clean up, everybody everywhere.
Clean up clean up
everybody do your share”

Or try this one:

“Cleanup cleanup 1-2-3  I’ll help you if you help me”

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Ages 4 to 6

At this age, you can further teach essential organization skills and when you’ve laid the foundations already, this will be a natural progression.

Routines become automatic habits of behavior and eliminate the stress of getting things done. It also lets a child know what to expect. Children love predictability and routine provides that. This provides a sense of comfort and security for children.

Make it simple. Create a list that you can post on the bathroom mirror such as “3 Things To Do In the morning.” Include things such as brush teeth, get dressed and pick out a snack for school. Referring to a daily list will develop your child’s ability to understand tasks in a time frame.

Teach Categorizing

Look for opportunities to teach categorizing to young children in this age group as it is such an important part of sorting and organizing. Tasks such as putting away groceries with like things together, pairing socks, arranging crayons and markers in different jars are good examples.

Take your child with you to the drugstore, department store and supermarket showing your child groups of items in different aisles. When they are a few years older, they can help you make a grocery shopping list, grouping the list into categories and help find the items that are on the list. 

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Ages 7 to 10

At this age, you would have familiarized your child with organization techniques and systems. Now, as they start to develop their own individuality, allow them some freedom to find what works for them.

Let Them Create Their Own Systems

As their individual personality develops, allowing them to find their own unique way of doing things is critical. Although it is up to you to instill the basics of organization, management, and categorization and more when they are younger – they may not see things as you do as they get older. Guide them as they discover their own way of grouping items. Be lenient and let them decide how they organize their clothes (by color or style), their books (subject or alphabetical order), and their schoolwork (class, subject or due date).

By finding their own systems it enables them to more easily maintain these systems as they grow up and life responsibilities increase. Sometimes the best thing you can do is take a step back as they find what works best for them. Then, just monitor this and teach, advise and guide them where needed.

Responsibility & Accountability

While at this age you may be giving your child more freedom to design their own organizational systems, they still need to learn responsibility. That’s why once they have created their own system; you need to hold them accountable for maintaining that system. This teaches them responsibility for their own possessions as well as the choices they make. Not only will this motivate them to keep their systems in place and utilize all the skills you’ve taught them but it will allow them to feel autonomous and ‘grown-up’ too.

At this age, you can even give them more responsibility by teaching them how to do their own household chores such as washing dishes (or packing the dishwasher) and doing their own laundry. Give them a laundry hamper (one with wheels makes it easier), teach them how to sort their clothes, use the washing machine, and get into a routine.

Tweens & Teenagers

These transitional times of life can be quite daunting for children as more is expected of them. However, the skills you taught them when they were younger will enable them to navigate turbulent times with grace and ease.

Teach Tweens the Value of Decluttering

The ages of 11 to 13 can be quite messy for children as they move from owning mostly ‘kid’ things to more ‘grown-up’ items. During this time teaching your kids how to declutter is vital. Teach them how to distinguish what items are valuable and sentimental to them and what they’ll never use again. Preserve the valuable keepsakes and give away or recycle the rest. This helps them make room for new items they’ll want as they mature. Not only is this a great organization exercise but it allows them to reflect on the past, present and future.

Provide Teenagers with Support

At this point, you’ve taught your children all they need to know to be and stay organized as they head into adulthood. As they become more social they will learn that the skills, tools, and techniques you taught them have great value. This is because organization helps to support a busy life that will hold them in good stead as they move onto college and their own lives. The best you can do during these years is to provide support, offer reminders and help them keep the system in place as they navigate their full lives.

Teach Children Organization through Homework

Homework is part of every child’s life, which makes it the ideal way to teach children the value of organization. Developing good organizational systems early on is vital to your child’s success both in school and in life. Here are some tips on how you can use homework obligations to teach your kids the value of organization.

  • Set up a homework center or designated study space in a quiet place that is free of distractions but gives them easy access to any materials they may need.
  • Establish a homework routine or study time that is preferably at the same time each day as this routine will encourage your child to stick to a schedule.
  • Provide your child with a small filing cabinet (or bookshelf for the files) to sort and organize their homework papers.
  • Use a calendar (or kid-friendly planner) to plot out when which homework should be done, as this teaches children how to manage their time and avoid missing deadlines.

Teaching your children how to be organized doesn’t need to be a difficult task. Start early on in life and make sure to follow through as they grow up. Even if organization doesn’t come naturally to you, these tips will help you cultivate this important skill in your children. Along the way, you may just become more organized yourself. Plus, this quality time spent with your kids will only improve your bond and they’re sure to thank you later on.

What’s your favorite way of teaching organization to kids?

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Comments 18

  1. I love this post, and would like to include it in the Organizing Kids Resource Roundup on my website! I am not a parent, but it seems to me that there are few things more futile than when parents say, “Go clean up your room!” without having provided any guidance (such as clear, specific expectations) or tools (such as adequate containers) for the task. I’m sure parents will find your guide to be very helpful.

    1. Hazel, thank you so much. I would love to be included in your Organizing Kids Resource Roundup on your website. What an absolute honor!
      I know these tips work. I was a preschool teacher, raised three children and now implement many of these skills with my 19 month old grandson. We love sorting these days!

  2. What you said about your younger sister reminded me of a recent conversation with my older brother. He’s 10 years older than I am and had an amazing record collection which he kept on the shelf in his bedroom closet. I used to listen to them when he wasn’t home, but was always careful to put them back exactly where I found them. Last year I asked him if he ever knew that I did this, and he didn’t. Either I did a great job hiding it, or they weren’t in any kind of order to begin with – I never thought to ask him that!

    1. I love the story about you and your brother. My guess is that he just didn’t pay attention.I imagine this goes on with my siblings.

  3. Lots of great advice here, and I love how you split it up by age. Some children do take right to the concept of organizing and systems… maybe future organizers? I think both my sister and I took to the idea of putting things away without too much trouble. In contrast, my oldest spent a lot of energy avoiding this exercise. She resisted it from day 1. What has been interesting is to see how she has returned to a lot of what I taught her now that she is an adult. So bottom line, even if a child resists, keep trying, because it pay off way down the road.

    1. That’s the same road my sister took. Besides being late to appointments, which happens frequently, she’s very organized today.

  4. I love this! When I see disorganized parents, part of me is sad for the children because I know they’re probably not being taught these skills. It’s super important to start early. I love that you included tips for every age. I think this will be helpful for so many people!

    1. Thank you so much, Angie. I really hope this piece is helpful for many young parents. When we teach the skills to young children, it almost becomes seamless.

  5. What a stellar primer for new parents (or parents who are just new to organizing). Tiny humans need lots of training, and you’ve given parents the ultimate start-up guide!

  6. What a great idea about numbering the back of puzzles! I never heard that before. I imagine it takes some work, but it sounds well worth the time saved when having to sort them.

    I did a lot of experimenting with our daughters when they were growing up. Like you and your sister, they shared a room. And they had very organizational styles. They learned tolerance and how to co-exist. Organizing was something we always did together when they were little. But as they got older, they had assimilated the skills and refined their systems so that they worked for them. As young adults, they continue to organize and tweak their systems.

    I feel good that I gave them a good base to work from.

    1. Children sharing a room learn so much from one another; how to share, tolerance. My sister and I have many similarities and differences as well. For the most part, today, she is very well organized.
      Organizing the puzzle pieces isn’t so hard when you do them one at a time. Like everything else😀

    1. The key is to start when they are very young. Teach the information so it becomes very routine. Hopefully, what can be learned will continue.

    1. Hi Rose,

      Getting organized can be a challenge, especially when you don’t know where to begin. I have quite a few articles on my blog that address how to get organized. I would encourage you to read these articles as there are many suggestions that will help you in the process.

      Best,
      Ronni

  7. Thanks for such a useful assortment of practical ideas! I especially remember how each of my 3 children enjoyed having their own calendar & bulletin board in their rooms. And having a memory box for their special papers. Yes, I did take the time to number the puzzles, too!!

    1. Hi Olive!
      I’m so excited. I don’t know too many people who actually number the backs to the puzzle pieces but boy does it save time.
      Thank you so much for your comments. As I saved lots of my children’s artwork, papers and special projects, my now grown children love to look through the art portfolios to find their old work.

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