Young Children and Decluttering: 4 Development Concepts

Kids rooms are a prime source of clutter in almost every household. It’s perfectly understandable, children’s notorious reluctance to let go of objects, coupled with the generosity of family and friends is a recipe for chaos.
Most parents I meet who wish to declutter their kids’ rooms tend to approach the project when their kids aren’t around. I get why. Decluttering with your kids around can quickly become a very frustrating experience. In spite of this, I DO encourage parents to attempt it. Decluttering with your kids is actually an amazing opportunity to teach them very important life skills and instil your family’s values. But how to get the kids on board?
The bottom line is that kids think differently to adults. Most children, especially children under the age of eight, have a difficult time making decisions about decluttering for various reasons. They are unable to understand the purpose and process the way you do, and this can lead to miscommunications and reluctance to participate. Their natural tendency toward possessiveness, lack of abstract perspectives, and immature reasoning skills all combine to make the task overwhelming for them.
So how do you get kids on board with a decluttering project? There is no simple answer, but reviewing the following four aspects of cognitive development can help you understand a little bit more about how your child may perceive the situation.
Starting at age 2, children’s brains allow them to explicitly remember past events. As their brains develop, they begin to use these memories to help them hypothesize about future events. Young children also begin to recognize behaviours of other people as coherent “roles” and begin performing increasingly sophisticated imitations of those roles (usually in the form of play).
The takeaway:
Fostering good tidying habits can begin very early. A simple daily tidying session involving the whole family will help children internalise the concept that “everything has a place”. This doesn’t have to be a huge deal for anyone. A simple, regular “tidy time” for literally one or two minutes, say, before or after dinner is a good start with toddlers. This instills a reassuring pattern: “this is the predictable way our family life works” and adults can consistently model and teach the kind of role the children must play in the activity.
Face-value perception, rather than logic, dictates how young kids view the world. This means that skills like abstract thought and categorisation are usually beyond young children or, at best, very underdeveloped.
Abstract thought:
Imagination is the basis for abstract thought and kids, as we know, have amazing imaginations. When referring to abstract thought in this context however, it means applying imagination to accurately predict or understand real-world concepts. The older children get, the more they can consistently apply abstract thought like this, but the skill is generally not fully-formed until later teenage years.
This does not mean that young children are unable to categorise at all, just that the parts of their brains that govern categorisation are still under construction. Young children may be able to categorise certain kinds of things very well but are as yet unable to transfer (apply the skill on demand in any given situation).
The takeaway:
Abstract concepts like “less is more” or “Mummy and/or Daddy will have more time with you if the house stays cleaner” will probably not have the impact you desire because they require abstract thought. Try to give younger children immediate, concrete reasons and methods while you declutter. “See, now you have more space to play”, or “look, now you can see all your things, isn’t that good?” are far more effective ways to help your children understand why decluttering is a positive process.
Categorisation is an integral part of decluttering (for example, all the toy cars should live on the shelf). Fortunately, young children are most likely to be able to categorise many of their own things, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t need your support. You can support your child’s development by explaining how you identify which objects belong together, and giving them a go at it too.
Conservation is the ability to understand that an amount must stay the same if nothing is added or taken away, despite any changes in shape or arrangement. For example, young children are unable to understand that water directly transferred from a short fat glass to a tall thin glass retains the same volume, or that if you widen the spaces between a row of blocks, the number of blocks stays the same. As children reach the age of four or five, they often develop a sense of conservation, but studies have found that these conclusions are more intuitive than logical, and can therefore be haphazard.
The takeaway:
Spatial and volume considerations that are intuitive to you may be difficult or impossible for your children to understand, and can therefore cause miscommunications and frustration. Exercises such as “we get to keep all the stuffed toys that fit in this basket” may end in tears because your child didn’t understand how limiting the space would be. Be aware of this, and try to demonstrate concepts through physical manipulation of the objects when trying to find appropriate receptacles for items.
Egocentrism (the inability to step outside one’s own perspective) is a hallmark of young children’s development. This is not to say that children do not have empathy, they certainly do, but it is under intense development and different from our own. The more social interactions children are involved in, the more quickly they (usually) progress past egocentrism.
The takeaway:
It is good to keep in mind that just because your child imitates your behavior does not necessarily mean that he or she truly understands what you think and feel about keeping the house tidy. For example, knowing that somebody is showing outward signs of being displeased, and understanding what that person is feeling are two very different kinds of knowledge. Support young children’s development by giving them both empathetic and concrete reasons that apply to them at the same time. Example: “We need the whole floor clear because we need space to play where we won’t trip over” AND “Mummy is happy when this cleaned up”.
Don’t forget that donating unused items to charity can be a great catalyst for conversations about helping others. This will also support your child’s development past egocentrism.
Guest Contributor:
Tessa loves helping busy families get more peace and enjoyment from their home environments. Information about her services – including decluttering, organisation, aesthetic adjustments and detail cleaning – is available in the Inner West Mums business directory and”

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