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Psst: You Should Organize Your Home Like a Kindergarten Classroom
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Your house used to look like a West Elm catalog and feel like a meditation center. And then you had kids. (Womp, womp.)

That’s why we were excited to hear from organization and time-management guru Julie Morgenstern on a recent episode of the popular family podcast Mom Brain, hosted by Daphne Oz and Hilaria Baldwin. Morgenstern is the author of a new book called Time to Parent. Here, she talks about how to regain control of the pantry (and the kitchen and the playroom), as well as her “Principle of the Kindergarten Classroom,” a technique she uses to maintain a functional and organized home.

1. Organize Your Home Using the “Principle of the Kindergarten Classroom”

 

Morgenstern: Exactly! It stresses you out. That’s why I always tell people to organize based on the principle of a kindergarten classroom. When you think about a kindergarten classroom, it’s organized into activity zones. There’s a reading corner, there’s an arts and crafts area, there’s a music zone, there’s a building blocks area and everything is stored at its point of use. So if a 5-year-old finds a tambourine in the middle of the floor, within two weeks of starting school, that 5-year-old knows exactly where it goes. It goes in the music zone. Even if there’s an empty shelf in the arts and crafts area, they know that a tambourine doesn’t go there. So think about that with your pantry: What are the zones of your pantry? Is it the grains? Then the broths? Then the canned things? Think about the zones.

Second principle: You have to plan out your organizing. We make the mistake of organizing spontaneously when we can’t take it anymore. You stop what you’re doing and you’re going to fix the problem. But you haven’t anticipated how long it’s going to take. It’s a very reactive task and you always run out of time. So think about organizing your approach into three stages: 1. Analyze. 2. Strategize. 3. Attack. Not attack first, right? Because we attack first and ask questions later. You want to ask questions first and attack later.

2. Never Shop for Containers First

 

Morgenstern: Too often we go shopping for containers. And that’s what I call organizing from the outside in. You buy a bunch of containers and then you bring them home. But you don’t know what size containers you truly need, you don’t know how many containers, etc.

Oz: So is there an ideal way to organize? Or is it just the way that your brain works?

Morgenstern: Every system has to be designed based on the unique way you think and your natural habits. The way one pantry is organized is going to be different from another. It’s about answering key questions: How do you eat? How do you cook? Do you want your kids to have access to certain snacks so they don’t have to always ask? That’s where all the analysis is. How do you live and how do you function? Not just how does it look. Function before form. Ignore Pinterest. I’ve been in this business for so long: Even for the most organized people, their stuff grows, it swells, then you have to trim it back because life gets busy. If you have a good system, you’re golden. 

So you need a daily rule or a daily habit for when you put things back. To start, you analyze: Say what works about the space and what doesn’t. But be precise so you’re not reinventing the wheel for anything that does work. Do it as a family. Ask each other what is most essential. In other words, what is the stuff you’re always looking for but can never find? Because, honestly, we probably only use about 20 percent of what we own in any category of life. 

For sorting, I have this acronym that I call the S.P.A.C.E. formula. It gives me a strategy for every pile. The S is for sort. You begin by grouping similar items. Put like with like. Then P is purge. Once things are grouped in categories, that’s when you can decide what to keep and what to get rid of. Because when you see 17 bags of lentils, you’re like, “OK, maybe we donate some to the food drive.” You get each category down to the essentials. A is for assign. You assign a home. Which shelf? Which side of the closet? Which drawer does this category live in? As you’re putting things away and into their homes, you’re like, “Oh! We could use some containers to keep these categories separated inside the drawer or on the shelf.” And that’s when you make your list. Like, “Whoa, we have three categories: hats, gloves and mittens. We need three bins that fit on this size shelf.” That’s when you go shopping. E is for equalize. No system is going to sustain itself automatically. So you need a daily rule or a daily habit for when things get put back. Is it before you leave the room? Is it as you use them? Is it at the end of the day?

3. Every Space Has to Be Simple Enough for a 5-Year-Old to Figure Out

 

Baldwin: How do you transition from being a super organized parent to teaching your children to start doing it for themselves? And when they don’t do it, how do you avoid the fighting and drama?

Morgenstern: First, you have to have the system finished. Once you have that, a lot becomes about your own attitude about order. Make sure your kids know that cleaning is what makes life easy and fun, and that it’s a way of taking care of each other so that people can find what they need, when they need it. And always make sure you’re building in the time to do it. You can use your cell phone timer. If you want the kids to clean up ten minutes before dinner, then set your cell phone alarm for ten minutes before dinner and say, “OK, it’s time to clean up.” Not “will you?” Not “will you, please?” It’s cleanup time. And then you just do it and have fun with it. It doesn’t have to be “We get to have fun and quality time after we do all this.” Encourage having fun during the cleanup. It’s fun to put things away as long as we’re doing it together. 

Baldwin: It’s also important to create a system that’s sustainable for little kids. For example, having bins versus making it a tedious task putting everything back one by one on a shelf.

Morgenstern: And you can teach very young kids that everything has a home. And the reason it has a home is so that when you want it, you can find it. When you have a friend over and you want to play that game, you can get your hands on it. Narrate the why so that they really understand and can cherish what order does for them. It can be so tedious—all the dolls have to be facing a certain way. But you don’t want that. You want a simple system. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more from Julie Morgenstern, listen to her recent appearance on our podcast “Mom Brain,” with Daphne Oz and Hilaria Baldwin, and subscribe now.

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