Thursday, October 15, 2009

Kids and Smart Storage

I was fortunate enough to have met Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, the founder and NY editor of Apartment Therapy, while working at Martha Stewart. Always full of unique perspective and practical advice, I asked if he would share his thoughts on how to manage kids and all their "stuff" (or dare I say, clutter). So many of us find organizing and managing children's toys, books, artwork, or even clothes, a daily challenge. A practitioner of "less is more," he takes it to a degree that was even surprising to me.

Do you have an overarching approach to organizing children and their stuff?
"Children, more so than adults, are natural collectors of stuff. Parents should not be surprised that they have more things coming into their lives. The challenge is how to allow for it and build a doorway by which the stuff goes out again. We need to remember that children care most about what is right in front of them at the moment. They are not archivers by nature, we are."

Maxwell summed it up in these words from his book "If you have the filter way at the front door, you don't have to deal with the other problems later." He and his wife, Sara Kate, are "careful editors and careful buyers. We have to be given the rate children produce and collect."

The bedroom of Maxwell's 3 year old daughter. Edited while incredibly inviting and warm.

Maxwell made his point. We all should work on that filter, our upfront editing.

That said, will you offer some smart strategies or systems for parents to store toys?
"First, it is important to take old toys out, as you move new toys in. There is much less attachment to toys. Most are heavily used and then totally forgotten. So, keep to a minimum. Take them to charity. Most of all, kids want to play pretend like they are their parents."

For storage, he likes "open bins that can sit on the floor and be moved around. It is important for children to be able to see what is in the bins. If something is hidden, it is out of mind. It is important to keep toys fresh and accessible." He prefers the clear, rigid plastic storage bins such as these from the Container Store. Storage should be unified. "To the extent possible, keep all toys in a child's room and, for example, all art supplies in the playroom. The toys can move around the house, but should all go back in the child's room." (He acknowledges that this is easier to do in a small apartment.)

Ideal storage bins with toys and stuffed animals.

What are your suggestions and systems for storing children's artwork?
As a parent and former teacher at a Waldorf School, Maxwell stresses the importance of reinforcing today and not dwelling on the past. When artwork is saved, it slows down children as there becomes pressure to replicate. Here is his solution for storing and displaying art:

1. Keep something representative of the session or moment.
2. It is important to have a real, caring space. The refrigerator is not enough. His mother had an entire brick wall for display.
3. Keep only the best from the session. Early on, throw away work out of your children's sight.
4. If you commit to collecting artwork, you must care for it. He likes the artist folders for preserving work. If you have space, he loves the flat file drawers (in stacks of 2-3) and would put in the playroom.
5. For display of artwork, there are several options. He and his wife use blu tack, a simple adhesive, to hang their daughter's art. You can also buy chipboard, cut and paint it for a big section of your wall. Alternatively, you can frame a corkboard. Be sure to paint the frame the same color of the room "so it does not become more visual clutter." Finally, if you prefer a more modern look, try magnetic paint (the same color of the wall) to hang work with magnets.

Interestingly, Maxwell is not a proponent of framing artwork for younger children. "That makes it too special. It needs to be a moving display. Children love change and want to show you what they have done now."

Flat files for artwork. See Apartment Therapy's round up of flat files and cabinets.

Thank you Maxwell. We are all inspired and smarter. Be sure to check out Apartment Therapy's site for children,, for many great storage ideas.


  1. Great interview - thanks for posting!

  2. I think Maxwell clearly has a very young child. What happens when the boy is 6 and likes to bring home bookmarks and shells and rocks (look a sparkly one!) and a broken screw and a bracelet and a crazy pen and a whole bunch of other things that can't necessarily be boxed together in an organized way. Good luck!

  3. Anonymous--I have no doubt Maxwell will come up with some fantastic solutions!

  4. We just spent this weekend totally sorting our 6 year old daughters room and halved what she had, I thought she would be upset, but not really. She loves it, everything is on show and we have a tub for bits and pieces for all those things my little magpie brings home from school or the park.

  5. children are collectors...not archivers. that is brilliant! sometimes i think i'm more attached to my daughters old adorable toys than she is, but this has inspired me to edit!

  6. really really bothered by the "this makes it too special" part of this article. Why should it not be speical? Why not frame a special thing from each "session" or "season" to bring out year after year?

    I'm not a teacher, but do have three very creative children, I give them the very best craft supplies I can come up with which has resulted in some stunning art work that I display around my home.

    I also take issue with the "children are collectors not archivers" stance as well. My 7-year-old is very attached to certain things and collections that he has, if something was removed from his room, he would notice, as well as my 4-year-old.

    I think what we as parents have to do is lead by example, if we want a uncluttered room for our children we need to be mantaining an uncluttered -rest-of-the-house the kids will follow suite.

  7. Perhaps I was an overly emotional child, or perhaps I simply didn't have that many toys, but I knew every single toy by name and would have been terribly upset to have any of them be sent away. They were *people* to me, not just toys. If I sent them away it would hurt their feelings!

    Creating a natural way for less-favorite toys to gracefully exit such as being "given away" even if they're really ending up in the dust bin is a great idea - but don't force it too far if that just doesn't fit the child's temperment. For some easily attached children, keeping new toys to a minimum might be better.

    If all else fails, I suppose you could always read the Velveteen Rabbit and try to emphasize that sometimes toys should go free...

  8. I am mostly curious about the well are behind Maxwell & his dtr in the top photo

    Where is it form?

    I'm desperately looking to add colour to my office. Any ideas are welcome!

  9. we appreciate the comments, thank you. it makes it so much more interesting. each person will take something different from this article and make it work or not for them.

    fyi, the paint color behind maxwell and his daughter is China White by Benjamin Moore. he says he loves it and uses it instead of white all the time.

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