Cleaning Up & Clearing Out!

Written by:  Ms. Alice Pilkey, Assistant Teacher (Redondo Beach)

The start of a new year, after the holidays have passed, is a natural time for cleaning out our homes. Moving away excess to streamline daily experience is an essential part of caring for ourselves and one another, and it makes sense to include children in this process. In addition to the skills and attitudes directly associated with paring down, children can also learn service—what it means, and how it feels, to give back—if some of the excess is returned, by or with the children themselves, to the community.

Studies completed in 2004 revealed that children in the United States receive, on average, 70 new toys per year (Schor, in Payne 57). Educator and family counselor Kim John Payne, M. Ed., argues in Simplicity Parenting that because children lack the sensory filters of adults, the accumulation resulting from this constant influx of new, brightly colored, and distracting objects can send them into sensory overload (Payne 22). Too much choice and distraction, he feels, can shorten attention spans and, when coupled with increasingly fast-paced lifestyles, push children over the edge into stress reactions similar to those displayed by children who have experienced trauma (8-9). In his counseling practice, on the other hand, Payne has worked extensively with the families of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and found that trimming the excess, or decluttering the home environment, can be a drug-free way to significantly improve children's ability to concentrate (27-30).

Maria Montessori characterizes possessiveness as a natural response to an environment which does not meet a child's developmental needs. “If a child,” she writes, “finds no stimuli for the activities which would contribute to his development, he is attracted simply to 'things' and desires to possess them” (Montessori 1966, 163). Paradoxically, an environment filled with too many of these things becomes an environment which cannot meet children's needs because of the distraction the things themselves impose. A downward spiral ensues: children want, and demand, more, because needs are not being met. Unfortunately, the more they receive, the worse the problem becomes.

In Jungian psychology, toys are ritual objects imbued by children with deep, even magical, meaning and resonance (Payne 59). But this meaning is lost when too many toys are present; children cannot sustain sufficient focus on any one toy to invest it with the meaning they need. Longing for meaning, and not finding it, children once again ask for more; and, once again, this more does not satisfy them.

In contrast, a one-in-one-out rule can safeguard the simplicity of a child's world: a process which, according to Payne, “protects the environment for childhood's slow, essential unfolding of self” (24). While all toys are not equal—natural materials being preferable to plastic, and open-ended toys better than those whose purposes are conceptually fixed—children themselves should, to some extent, make their own decisions about what to keep and what to discard. They, after all, are the ones who will be doing the playing. Children might also, at this time, sort through their books and select a dozen or so favorites to keep in their bedrooms; some to return to the community; and still others to store in their own section of the family library. Finally, drawers and closets can be streamlined as well, and only seasonally appropriate clothes which fit kept. This, of course, makes for both independence in dressing, and smoother transitions in the morning and evening (89).

Children learn through imitation; it is not enough to simply tell them what we want them to do (Montessori 1995, 159). Decluttering, therefore, needs to start with us, in our own sections of the home. And, giving back also starts with us. As we model boxing up unneeded items and carrying them away for redistribution—and invite children to imitate our actions—we plant seeds of responsible citizenship in their hearts and in their minds. According to Julie Bragdon, assistant head of Montessori School of Denver, children who practice service “know that you feel better about the world when you see you can make an impact” (Bragdon 45). This is personally empowering, and lays the foundation for a lifetime of peaceable interaction with local, and potentially global, communities.


Bragdon, Julie. “Be Happy.” Montessori Life: Spring 2013.

Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995.

----------. The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.

Payne, Kim John, with Lisa M. Ross. Simplicity Parenting. New York: Ballantine, 2010.

Schor, Juliet B. Born to Buy. New York: Scribner, 2004. Cited in Payne, Kim John, with Lisa M. Ross. Simplicity Parenting. New York: Ballantine, 2010.