Decluttering 101

Written by contributor Sarah Small of SmallWorld at Home

My grandmother was a packrat. I’m grateful she saved letters written by my great-great-great grandfather during the Civil War and that she saved a sampler handed down through a dozen generations to me.

But those stacks of magazines and drawers filled with miscellaneous utensils? When we moved her out of her home, she was living in just one room of house. The rest was filled literally to the ceiling with junk.

We’re all far from that extreme, right? But what about those boxes of clothes we’re saving for someone, the worksheets from our daughter’s first-grade year, and the puzzles with missing pieces? Do you ever feel cluttered inside because of clutter in your home?

I have one word for us all: declutter. Get rid of all the junk, and then keep the clutter down.

Decluttering is liberating. But where do you start? Plenty of websites provide copious decluttering tips, but I’ve found that occasional purges and routine maintenance work best for me.

The Big Purge

It’s essential to have the house to yourself for a major purge. If you have younger kids, pick a day when they can be elsewhere and start attacking the clutter. Don’t get distracted by Facebook, blogging, or scrapbooking. Stay focused.

For me, purging generally involves three categories: clothing, toys and kid stuff, and paperwork/schoolwork. You may need to take a couple of purge days to make a significant dent, but rewards will be worth the time investment.


You know the adage. If you haven’t worn it in a year, get rid of it. And no, your daughter isn’t going to want that bridesmaid dress someday. Or your maternity clothes. G-o-o-d-w-i-l-l.

Photo by Crystal

But what about those sweet baby dresses and overalls? And the boxes of clothes you’re saving for your grandchildren? Keep an outfit or two for sentimental value and get rid of the rest. Those adorable clothes will be out-of-date by the time you have grandkids, and your own kids will be secretly rolling their eyes when you hand them boxes of “things I’ve been saving for you.”

Toys and Other Treasures

This is the main reason that your kids are gone for the day. Take a deep breath, go into their rooms and throw away broken toys, games with missing pieces, and scraps of Styrofoam. Be sensitive to things you know are truly precious to them: that bird’s nest and one-legged action figure. But if they haven’t played with it in a year, throw it out or put it in a yard sale box.

Paperwork and Schoolwork

Every family’s policy about saving receipts, bank statements, etc. is different, so do your own thing. But as far as schoolwork goes, one common question is: “What do I have to keep?”

That depends on your state’s requirements. Some states require you to submit a yearly portfolio. In Tennessee, we have various avenues through which we can homeschool, and I chose a way that requires very little. I don’t have to save anything, so anything I save is either for posterity or for a high-school portfolio.

I have a 3-ring binder for each of my children with samples through the years: some artwork, writing samples, projects. I add a few pages to their binders each year. Be thoughtful in what you choose to save. Your child is not going to care about Saxon Math Lesson 87 in 15 years, but he may enjoy reading a poem he wrote about pumpkins.

I also have a couple of totes filled with lapbooks and other books that the kids have made. These are the real treasures for me and the things they remember most.

For your high schooler, I recommend saving writing samples, research papers, special projects, and lab reports from sciences. Toss out the worksheets—no college is going to want to see this kind of daily work.


After you have purged, be vigilant about keeping down the clutter. Ideally, maintenance is a daily habit and includes the whole family. Here are our best systems:

  • Pick up _ _ things: Choose a random number, like 52. Everyone must go to his or her bedroom or other room and pick up and put away (or throw out) 52 items.
  • 15/15. My kids love this. I set the timer for 15 minutes, and we all declutter. When the timer goes off, we take 15 minutes of free time. We do this for a couple of hours and make tremendous progress.
  • “Before you”— decluttering. As in, you must put away 10 items before you go outside, before your friend comes over, before you can play the Wii.
  • Mini-purges. I can only manage major purges about twice yearly, so I rely heavily on mini-purges. Take an hour to iron all the clothes that are piling up or to throw out the dried markers and paper scraps in the art cabinet.

Photo by Sonny Abesamis


If you are feeling lost in the swamp of little-kid clutter, take heart: someday, you will not step on Legos or pull Barbie dolls out of the bathtub.

At this stage in my parenting, I have only one child left who hangs on to pinecones and bottle caps. With one child in college, I can honestly say I don’t regret throwing out a single math sheet.

How do you declutter? Do you have trouble deciding what to save and what to toss?

About SarahS

Sarah has graduated one child from homeschooling and is happy to have miles left on the journey with her 11 and 15 year old children. With a master’s degree in English/creative writing, Sarah enjoys teaching writing and literature classes at her co-op and blogs about learning at SmallWorld at Home.


  1. Another solution for the school clutter…Take a picture of your child with his favorite project (for your scrapbook or digital photobook) and choose a recipient. My husband is a pastor so when he makes visits to the hospital or to shut-ins, I frequently tell the kids to choose something to give away. Also, long-distance loved ones LOVE the treasures in the mail. And my kids enjoy choosing what to send to whom. It’s a little easier on them than throwing away what they’ve worked on so hard.
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  2. We take photos of projects before throwing them out. We also scan tons of stuff. Three kids in a 1 bedroom apartment requires constant purging. The hardest part for me is the kids’ toys. We keep it pretty minimal, but when they go through phases when their toys seem to never hold their interest I’m tempted to buy more. I’m finding if I pull out some of their forgotten toys and breath new life into them by playing with them myself (or in a different way) the kids are interested in them again. It’s also very fun.
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  3. Jen Burns says:

    After 6 years of homeschooling 6 children, our totes of “school” were beginning to rule our storage space. We took 2 weeks this winter and went through every workbook and folder, making 6 binders of work representing the past 6 years.. It is amazing the difference. To see the trash at the end of the driveway after that purge was amazing. To think I’d moved that stuff to 3 different states in the past 6 years was overwhelming! 😉 The other thing I did that has helped with school clutter, is purchased the stack of plastic drawers that have 6 drawers and wheels. Each child has their own stack, and I am able to put it beside them where they need to do school. This keeps my house from looking like a school library everywhere, and they are able to be mobile around the house if need be. We have loved the difference.

  4. I only save a folder’s worth of schoolwork for each of my kids–in the beginning, I saved it all, but I’ve learned that our “homeschool” is most productive when there isn’t so much stuff around. Simplicity is the key to my happiness, and that rubs off on my kids. With three kids, I do a de-clutter/clean up with them at different times, and I tackle the house one room at a time. If I tried to do it all in the same week, it would be too overwhelming! One incentive I give my kids is that they can send some of their toys to a local consignment shop and keep the money from the sales.

  5. I’ve been in the de-cluttering phase for almost two months now. I haven’t been able to do a major get-all-the-kids-out-of-the-house purge, so I’m doing little areas at the time. The thing that makes it hard is that keeping was a virtue in our family growing up (and throwing away possibly sinful). My parents think my hubby is horribly wasteful — they like to get in their jibes of “Here it is…If I had thrown it away, I wouldn’t be able to give it to you now!”

    A couple of things I’ve realized: 1. I have to turn off the soundtrack of my childhood, where the mantra was “If you throw it away today, you’ll need it tomorrow!” 2. Usually the reason to keep was fear: “If you get rid of it, you might need it later and just have to go without.” That’s not faith in God my provider, but fear! 3. The question is, what is my source, God…or the stash I have in my storage area? If he can provide something for me ahead of time, can’t he provide it when I need it? Did “Jehovah Jireh, my provider” give this to me so I could store it for 15 years…or did he give it to me so I could bless someone else with it? (This doesn’t mean I don’t save anything, it’s a matter of being realistic: how likely is it that I’ll use it and how soon? I decided a few years ago that I would save hand-me-downs for actual children, but not hypothetical ones!) 4. I need to limit my purchases (even bargains)…and my garbage picking and dumpster diving (all time-honored traditions in my family) to stuff that I don’t need to fix up before I use it (because I won’t) and to stuff that I’ll actually use right away! Even something in perfect condition is CLUTTER if I don’t have a place or a use for it!

  6. I feel like my house is always a work in progress for decluttering. Thank you for your ideas and the comments are helpful as well.

  7. You will feel so much better once you let some of this stuff go! I have a funny story about collector kids. My youngest is now 18, She was fascinated by rocks and especially arrowheads when she was a kid. We live in the south and there is plenty of granite here. She used to save any coll rock, and if it was triangular shaped, she was sure it was in arrowhead. Finally, when she was about 14, she cleaned out her room. She pulled 4 shoeboxes from under her bed, full of rocks, lol! She got such a kick out of it. She said “what was I thinking? They’re just rocks!”
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  8. Three cheers for decluttering!
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  9. I’m in the middle of the season where kids collect all sorts of “treasures” — it’s good to remember that this won’t last forever, and to enjoy it while it does!

    Thanks so much, Sarah.

  10. I so need to do this. We are into our 8th year of homeschooling and we moved 4 years ago, I haven’t decluttered the schoolbooks since then and only accumulated, it’s taken over 2 kitchen cupboards and is leaking into a 3rd. It’s time to take control. Thank you – perfect timing!
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  11. Wonderful post Sarah! I’ve been on a decluttering mission for almost a year now … last year my goal was 2,010 things from the house. This year it is 2,011. I’m over halfway there for the year and embarrassed to say I am thinking I’ll need to get close to 6,000 things before I am done. Homeschooling is such a huge a part of it, if I let papers pile up for just a few days I find it sort of just gets a way from me.

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