A Losing Battle

I’m not often a shouting sort of parent.

But yesterday, I raised my voice. I’d spent a couple of hours tidying and cleaning; went upstairs for a quick shower and came downstairs to utter chaos. “WHY ON EARTH HAVE YOU GOT ALL THIS OUT?” I yelled. “BECAUSE I’M PLAYING,” Flea yelled back.


“Oh, I thought we were playing a game,” said Flea.

Sigh. I have zero authority.

Anyway, I am currently trying to teach Flea about being tidy. This is important to me because, well, I’m basically borderline OCD. I alphabetise my spice rack and, in times of trouble, knowing my socks are ordered by colour, ranging from black to white, makes me feel the world is a better place.

So I put in place a cunning, three step plan for having a tidy home even when there’s a child in it.

Step 1 is the use of circle rugs. Costing just under £7 from Ikea, these are a useful way of encouraging children to define their play space. We have two in the lounge and a larger rug in the dining room, and the optimistic idea, which sometimes works, is that Flea plays on the rugs, and doesn’t spread her toys ALL over the floor.

BasketsStep 2 is the strategic deployment of baskets. Rather than keeping toys in unnecessarily big boxes or unwieldy bags then trying pile them up on shelves, we empty everything into baskets containing specific sorts of  toys. So there’s a basket for Playmobil people, a basket for animals, a basket for action figures, and one for soft toys. The upside of this is Flea is able to reach all of her toys, she knows where everything is, and she’s able to put things away herself. Also, I think it looks prettier. Yes, I’m shallow. 


Step 3, my final line of defence, is the play table. For
everything that doesn’t fit in a basket, there’s the play table. We
bought ours from GLTC for about £150 about three years ago, and it’s
been one of our best investments. It’s another great way to give kids a
defined play ‘space’ and the plain side is great for drawing, modelling
and so on, while the other side has a landscape that makes it great for
playing trains or cars. It has two giant drawers underneath – one
containing craft toys, the other containing Playmobil and Lego.

Despite all of my efforts, Flea delights in subverting my plans. This is because children are evil. Flea does not care that I prefer books on a book case to underneath beds and sofas, and she doesn't really understand why I might think it’s a bad idea to keep tiny Playmobil scuba diving masks and bits of seaweed in the bottom of the bath (ouch). Such things are, to her, the irrelevant details of a bourgeois mind.

Some days it feels as though I do nothing but pick up after her. For someone who doesn’t have a natural affinity for housework this is a problem. I think we need a couple more steps in our tidy strategy – so tell me, what works for you? Or have you stopped worrying and learned to love the chaos?


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.


  1. 15th June 2010 / 10:08 am

    I second the baskets idea – ours are full of playmobil, horses/jumps/stable nonsense, soft toys etc. Also useful are those fancy bags that people give presents in – they usually look reasonably pretty on shelves (once you’ve weeded out any Disney princesses) and they can take quite a lot of battering about…

  2. 15th June 2010 / 10:18 am

    I have a very similar system, but TOO MANY TOYS! (Two children, large gift-giving family.) I really should give some away before we drown in them when baby number three arrives.

  3. 15th June 2010 / 10:28 am

    Threatening to bin them works for me – especially because I am a Mean Mummy and will quite happily chuck stuff that annoys me, even if I have spent money on it! I massively streamlined their toys (while they were all in bed obviously!) and replaced all game/puzzle cardboard boxes with tupperware as it’s much hardier. The books continue to be the bane of my existence though – bookshelves and children just do not mix!

  4. 15th June 2010 / 10:53 am

    I have two methods. The children get Golden Time (Wii/laptop time) while I cook in the evening but only if they have tidied up their toys.
    From time to time I also go round with a big black bag and throw out anything that hasn’t been picked up because, as they like to tell me often, I’m mean like that.

  5. 15th June 2010 / 11:07 am

    If only it were so simple – ponies in here, Sylvanians in there. But what about the bits of random crap? Half a toy phone from off the front of Cbeebies magazine, three Tinkerbell crayons which are DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHER CRAYONS so are not allowed with the rest of them, a handful of beads, a small bag full of bits of wool and a Hello Kitty lipgloss? Where do they go? Eh?

  6. 15th June 2010 / 11:16 am

    From someone who is also borderline OCD, I love the basket idea!
    Being childless, I’ve no direct advice to offer – though I do remember my mum threatening to throw things out if we weren’t tidy (memory triggered by Ellas comment above – let me tell you, it worked (possibly a little too well), made me the tidy monster I am today!!

  7. 15th June 2010 / 11:42 am

    Yes, we have a constant charity bag in the front porch that’s added to on an almost weekly basis.

  8. 15th June 2010 / 11:42 am

    Flea actually has big book baskets – one in the dining room, one in her bedroom – keeps things tidier than a bookcase, in my experience – might be worth a try?

  9. 15th June 2010 / 11:43 am

    My Mum used to do the same and we’d come home from school to find them on the lawn!

  10. 15th June 2010 / 11:43 am

    Aha – we have one of those ‘click and lock’ boxes called the “small toy” box that provides a home for such items. Once every few weeks, I empty all the comic crap into the bin, once I’m confident she’s forgotten about it. Ha!

  11. 15th June 2010 / 11:53 am

    I often find myself despairing. Surely it would have made sense in terms of evolution to have tidy children?
    My energetic bundle of a 2 year old bounces from room leaving a mass of destruction in her wake. I actually quite like it when she’s at nursery because she can’t mess anything up. I have just bought a reward chart for her but she doesn’t quite get it!
    Vertbaudet do some fantastic storage solutions. I like the idea of the rug and a few friends do exactly that, however I’ve yet to find one I like that’s big enough.

  12. 15th June 2010 / 12:31 pm

    I thrive on chaos. That said what works for me when I’m trying the tidy thing is to never leave a room more untidy than I entered it and to tidy up just one thing…I find this is not too overwhelming and in theory the rooms should get tidier and tidier, but it only works if everyone plays the game, which is why I have learned to thrive on chaos…

  13. 15th June 2010 / 4:10 pm

    Mine have memories like elephants, but I am going to my first car boot sale this weekend and have agreed that anything I make on toys they can spend on a wii game! I like the idea of Golden Time. My toys used to be very organised – OCDish, untill I got ill, not I can not find the energy, but I am going to do it all as soon as I feel better again We too have a play table, full of train track!

  14. Kathryn
    15th June 2010 / 7:48 pm

    Ah yes, Random crap! We have a toybox that I used to call the Crap Box until I overheard my 4 year old telling his daddy ‘that goes in the crap box’ It’s now the bits & bobs box. Sometimes I feel that my life is one long round of tidying up after 3 people (2 children + 1 husband) who NEVER put anything away. But I am working on the children! Shouting, nagging and black bin bags are making slow progress. Golden Time is unlikely to be as successful here as refusing to turn on the telly until the playroom/bedrooms/wherever is bugging me at the time is tidy. Pointing out that it is downright unfair to expect me to do all the housework has been the most recently successful strategy. My friends have a “One-in, One-out” rule which is about to be implemented in our house because the essential problem is that the children have too blinking many toys. With two birthdays approaching fast, there is going to be a cull…

  15. KidsTravel2
    15th June 2010 / 8:23 pm

    I try the compartmentalising but it just doesn’t work! As well as the baskets (have opted for seagrass to pretend they are part of the furnishing scheme and would be there anyway) my son also has an old shoe box (no expense spared) for all those annoying things that you just don’t know what to do with – random party bag items, stray piece of lego etc. He calls it his ‘box of Narnia’ because once he delves into it it’s like going into another world. Once it gets full up he is supposed to go through it and make some space if he wants to put anything else in it. Great in theory – in reality it is an another annoying box of tat that I regularly find scattered all over the floor.

  16. 15th June 2010 / 7:42 pm

    The baskets are the acceptable alternative to plastic tubs for me! And I can’t believe your Mum did the threatening to throw things out, too! We’re all it, traumatising the nation’s children…

  17. 15th June 2010 / 7:44 pm

    Evolution’s rubbish, isn’t it?
    Ikea does larger ones – they’re just plain and in a variety of colours at different times of year. GLTC also does some nice rugs for playrooms, and Aspace, too.

  18. 15th June 2010 / 7:45 pm

    I just can’t relax while the floor is full of toys – I wish I could. I think partly I became super-organised because I have a shocking memory. This means if I don’t have a place for everything, I don’t have a shot at remembering where it is. Second, I think it’s procrastination. When you work at home, it’s terribly tempting to say, “Oh, I’ll do that work, but first I MUST tidy out that cupboard.”

  19. 15th June 2010 / 7:46 pm

    Ooh, good luck with your sale. I like the Golden Time idea too, it’s good, isn’t it?

  20. 15th June 2010 / 7:53 pm

    Oh I’m down with the chaos! We do various boxes for different toys, but not particularly rigidly – to be honest I’m happy if stuff is just put away!
    As my Mother did before me, I threaten to throw things away when it all gets too much… But I never follow through. Just don’t tell my children 😉

  21. 15th June 2010 / 9:19 pm

    Sadly I don’t have any advice, I have learnt to live with the chaos. Well 95% of the time anyway. The remaining 5% is where I flip out, drop my son off at a friends house for a few house and blitz the house, only for it to be trashed again when he returns!

  22. 15th June 2010 / 10:33 pm

    It’s not that I have learned to love it. It’s that I have learned – just – to tolerate it. I suffer in silence. And ponder how small LEGO and Playmobil parts turn up in their nappies (are they ingested?).

  23. Nikki
    16th June 2010 / 7:03 pm

    Gosh Sally, that sounds very OCD. I thought I was bad PMSL. I do let the kids get stuff out in their rooms for the day and in the lounge, but once its finished with I get them to clear it away beofre they move on to the next toy. I guess things do have their place but I don’t worry about the spice rack, CD/DVD collections being in alphabetical order 🙂 My other half does a little though.
    My theory is that yep, tidiness is good as it teaches them to look after toys etc., but they do need to play and go crazy too every now and again. It doesn’t take too long to clear up!

  24. 16th June 2010 / 10:56 pm

    No great tips for you I am afraid. I just run myself ragged keeping on top of it all! Mich x

  25. Pants With Names
    17th June 2010 / 11:33 am

    I find moving house every few years with a mission to fit your worldly belongings into the back of the car to be a very effective way of encouraging a toy cull. We also have tidy time before they are allowed to turn the TV on and many many baskets/boxes/toy containers.
    Even with all that I have had to learn to love the chaos. Never the tidiest of my own violation I am actually becoming tidier with age, whereas my husband is going backwards since he got married. Words do not express how much this annoys me!

  26. Gareth Davies
    17th June 2010 / 12:12 pm

    Sally – you should seriously consider turning your life with Flea into a sitcom – it would be HILARIOUS! Your stories make ‘Outnumbered’ look like a seriously unfunny half an hour of TV.

  27. angelsandurchinsblog
    18th June 2010 / 9:49 am

    I’m impressed – and more than a little scared – that you have enough different colours of sock to ‘rainbow-ise’ them! A pic of the sock drawer, please.

  28. 18th June 2010 / 9:58 am

    I have read all your tips with interest, as I also like a tidy home and am not looking forward to toy explosion all over the house. My baby is only 4.5 months so she can’t spread cause too much havoc yet, but we have found that an old wooden chest that used to serve as our coffee table has become a good place to return the toys she has been given at the end of the day.
    Golden time as suggested sounds good to me, and someone else told me it can help to have a special song for clean up time to pump the kids up while their doing it. Nothing too kiddie, something more adult that you don’t mind listening too every day! This could be worth a shot…

  29. Swan
    18th June 2010 / 9:09 pm

    Rotate toys? Put half in shed, then take them out after six months and hide the other half. Invite friends over to play with the toys so you feel less cross about them taking over your entire house.
    I think arranging things neatly on shelves also appeals to children and their collecting instinct, and keeping the original boxes.
    I think children are untidy because they are naturally experimental and /or territorial, it’s a way of asserting their right to use the space? If they were worrying about the “mess” they’d made, they’d never have the confidence or inclination to do much…
    On the other hand I think they feel peaceful in a tidy room. They need us to tidy up for them. They might help if we involve them. But, they just don’t see their play as “mess”. They don’t make the connection. I think you have to be careful how you phrase it.

  30. 18th June 2010 / 10:13 pm

    Oh, thanks for such a great comment. I do agree with you about language – I don’t chastise Flea for being messy during play, but I do explain to her that it’s important to take care of toys and that means not leaving them on the floor to get stood on, and that putting things away in the right place means you know where to find them next time. I think that’s reasonable and respectful, personally.
    The baskets are actually a Montessori idea, and the plan (which mostly works) is that they’re more accessible to children than boxes and tubs so children can be responsible for getting their own toys, and returning them to the right spot. I’ve always made a point of keeping all Flea’s toys where she can freely choose them – but also where she can put them away afterwards.
    So, personally, I don’t agree kids need us to tidy after them – I think from an early age children can learn that the home is a communal space and it’s important to be considerate to other people by tidying away your toys when you finish playing. That’s a big deal in Montessori schools where there are very few rules, but one of the most important is that you return something when you have finished using it.

  31. 18th June 2010 / 10:14 pm

    When Flea was a baby and toddler, I used to have a specific piece of sleepy classical music I played when it was time to signal it was time to tidy up and get ready for bed, and it did work quite nicely, so it might be worth a try.

  32. 18th June 2010 / 10:15 pm

    I’m saving that Twitpic for a very special occasion…

  33. 18th June 2010 / 10:16 pm

    Thanks for that!

  34. 18th June 2010 / 10:17 pm

    Maybe your husband needs golden time?? (joke)

  35. 18th June 2010 / 10:17 pm

    I admit I am a bit compulsive.

  36. 18th June 2010 / 10:18 pm

    Personally, I prefer not to think about it. Either option (ingested, or they have had their hands down there) doesn’t bear too much thinking about.

  37. jo
    11th January 2011 / 1:02 pm

    please please please write more posts like this!!! sooo useful !! im in the market for baskets a play table and a lift to the charity shop lol

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