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Teaching Kids to Tidy Up

Teach kids to clean their room in five minutes.

Key points

  • Cluttered spaces increase stress and make it harder for kids to focus and to sleep.
  • Daily tidying is an easy entry point for kids that can build lifelong habits.
  • Help them focus on quick tasks that make a big impact: beds, floors, laundry, and dishes.

Some people are naturally neat. Their bed is always made. They finish dinner and have the kitchen spotless within minutes. When they get a phone call saying someone will be dropping in unexpectedly in five minutes, they smile, put on some tea, and open the door without panicking.

If that sounds like you, stop reading, this post is not for you. This post is for people like me who like things neat but, but for whatever reason, don’t always manage it.

What is clutter?

Although only 2% to 3% of us are hoarders, many of us have "cluttered" homes, bedrooms, cars, and offices.

Clutter is the accumulation of things in a way that is unorganized and chaotic. Ferrara and Roster (2017) found that clutter runs across generations, although how is not always clear. Part of the issue is procrastination. If we have a hard time making decisions, we tend to delay—where does this book belong? Should I throw out the check I cashed electronically or save it? Clutter happens.

Clutter makes us unhappy

Clutter tends to increase stress, make it harder to focus because it introduces visual distraction, and make it harder to find what we want (Ferraro, 2018). Many of us, me included, also find clutter vaguely embarrassing. I know my house should always be clean. It's a nagging something I feel I should have done, but haven't gotten to. Another small failure.

Before I trained as a psychologist, I studied and worked as an interior designer. Deep in my bones, I believe that we are profoundly influenced by the built environments in which we spend our time. Like the air we breathe, it's something that is around us, but rarely notice.

How to straighten

Decluttering is a big job and requires thought and time (see a post on that topic below). I’m going to use the word “straightening,” on the other hand, to talk about a lightning five-minute cleaning that makes a room a more pleasant place to be—calmer and visually more pleasing. It’s a great skill to teach kids. I’m going to focus on bedrooms, because that’s where kids spend most of their time, but the same principles apply everywhere.


  • Wastepaper basket
  • Hamper
  • Spray cleaner and cloth
  • Broom

The key to this technique is that it’s got to be fast, it’s got to focus on big things first, and it’s got to be focused on clutter. Satisfying though it can be, this isn’t about tackling that big organizing job. I remember my Oma telling how she sent my mom to clean up a very untidy bedroom. My mom worked away for an hour, but when Oma came in, she found my mom had pulled out all her books from the bookcase and was happily sorting them alphabetically. That can be a fun job, but not what Oma was looking for when she said "clean."

Step 1: Scan. The first step of the lightning clean is to stand at the door and see the big flat surfaces that catch your eye. In a bedroom, that’s almost always the bed, the floor, and desk or dresser surfaces. That’s where you want to focus.

Step 2: Scoop.

  • Make the bed. (Recommendation: a quilt with a pillow on it is the easiest way for a child to quickly make a bed. And cozy.)
  • Clothes in hamper, closet, or dresser. Fast.
  • With clothes up and bed unrumpled, loose paper, wrappers, and miscellaneous trash will suddenly stand out. Scoop them up and into the trash.

Remove the obviously dirty.

  • Gather odd dishes, glasses, cups, and silverware.
  • Shoes in the closet or neatly paired under the bed.

Straighten the curtains, shades, or blinds.

Much of the obvious clutter that drew your eye when you stood in the doorway should be gone. Notice what you’ve done. You have created large, flat horizontal surfaces. Previous research has shown that this is naturally calming and pleasing to the eye. You have also removed those things that scream "dirty" to your subconscious mind—the dishes and food. I point out the curtains for a reason. Windows are the brightest point in most rooms so irregularities in window coverings are highlighted and draw the eye. It’s not something you "see," but subconsciously it feels out of balance. Something is off, even if you don’t know what it is.

Step 3: Consolidate.

Clutter is defined as objects arranged chaotically. Give them order.

  • Scoop all those pens and put them in your pen jar. Stack the papers and books.
  • Gather similar items together, leaving more clear horizontal space around them.
  • All those odds and ends that you should have thrown out and didn’t? Scoop and toss.

This consolidation process does two more things. It creates a sense of order, as we see the few groups of objects instead of the many scattered ones. It also has created more clear horizontal surfaces. And you revealed and got rid of some more real trash along the way.

Step 4: Clean.

If you still have time or want to extend cleaning to 10 or 15 minutes, two more steps make a huge difference.

  • Sweep
  • Wipe down high-use areas like doorknobs, light switches, or the area in front of a keyboard.

Most people don’t notice the dust on the floor. Until it’s gone. Suddenly the room feels much cleaner, even though you never really noticed the lint and tiny bits of tracked-in dirt. Similarly, light switches and doorknobs never look noticeably dirty until you notice them. Then, ugh. And when they’re clean, everything looks better.

Step 5: Praise.

Walk in and say, "Hey, this looks great." Don’t make a big deal of it. Just help them notice how nice it feels to have things a little straighter. And doesn’t that make a pleasant contrast to walking into the room and starting to nag?

Daily habits

Getting kids into the daily habit of doing a lightning sweep has a lot of advantages. It becomes part of their daily routine, a good habit to get into for life. They will also become used to calmer, more pleasant spaces, and start to initiate it themselves.

This is a skill they will use forever. Housekeeping is rarely taught nowadays, but it requires many complex tasks to do well. It’s something everyone should know how to do.

Pragmatically, straightening every day makes it easier. If you straighten every day, you’ll have a few dishes and some loose paper to clear away. It makes it easier to do a real cleaning once a week.

Tidying daily also buys you extra time. If you get into the habit of tossing your clothes into the hamper or hanging them immediately, you have extra time in that five minutes to do one extra task. So maybe you do take the time to dust your lampshade or wash the windows. Once you’re used to looking for dirt and clutter instead of habitually passing your eyes over it, it’s easy to do just one more thing.

This may also be the time that they ask for something to make the job easier for themselves. Like buying another bin for their Legos or a basket to throw all their toy cars into or a hook on the back of the door to hang clothes they’re going to wear again.

Tidying is a habit, just like dropping your clothes in a heap is. Making that habit easier to learn and part of a pleasant mindless activity they do with a YouTube video running in the background or music on their headphones sets them off to a good start.

More information

Reducing the number of things we own but don't love is a long-term solution. For more information, see an earlier post: Cutting Clutter: The Problem of the Ugly Coffee Cup.

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