How to declutter children’s artwork

It's painful but necessary if you want to maintain an organized home.

A friend came to visit recently and lamented the endless barrage of crafts, writing, and art projects that come home from school with her kids. She feels inundated and overwhelmed, and even though she has tried to keep it all contained within one room of the house, that space has become cluttered and ugly, a source of stress. She asked me, “How do you handle it with three kids in school?”

Her question got me thinking about my approach to purging kids' artwork, which I've practiced diligently for several years but have never really explained to anyone. I realized that my method could perhaps be helpful to other parents in a similar situation. It might be considered ruthless by some readers, but I think it's necessary to prevent my family from drowning in the slew of papers.

1st stage of decluttering

I have a two-part system. There's an initial decluttering that takes place as soon as papers come home from school. When the kids unpack their bags and dump the contents onto the island in the kitchen, I do a quick sort and toss anything I never need to see again into the recycling or trash. This could be:

– Coloring sheets or anything that's not original art
– Art that took less than 5 minutes to complete
– Crafts with glued-on bits that are likely to fall off and make a mess, i.e. macaroni, glitter, buttons, etc.
– Anything that's duplicated, i.e. something I see on a regular basis, such as tracing letters or the same unicorn or Transformer figure that my child loves drawing over and over again

The mediocre pieces that I know I don't want to keep long-term but feel bad throwing out so soon are put on display. I tape them to the wall or fridge, where they stay for a few weeks until we stop noticing them, then they ‘disappear' and we all forget they ever existed.

The good and unique pieces go into a box – the same big box for all three of my kids – that's stored in the basement. These are pieces of original art that may have taken a longer time to create, that are meaningful to my kids, that may represent a memorable stage in their lives, that are made using materials that will last, or that I think are beautiful. If I am unsure, I don't force a decision and just put them into the box. I add to this box throughout the school year and then, come summer, I do the second stage of purging.

2nd stage of decluttering

This is when I pull out the box and re-examine each piece one by one. It's amazing how just a few months of distance allows me to see them more clearly. Suddenly it becomes quite easy to toss pieces that I previously thought were special, but it also solidifies my certainty about the beauty of others. It's also fun, allowing me to see how far each child has come over the course of the year. The keepers go into file folders labeled with each kid's name; this is where I stash their report cards and other important milestone information. The box gets emptied and the cycle begins again. In total, I probably keep about 5 pieces per kid per school year. Their art productivity may decrease as they get older, but it will add up to a decent overview by the time they graduate high school – between 30 and 50 pieces in each of their folders. That's far more than I ever got from my parents' stash!

preschoolers doing a craftPixabay /Public Domain

Other options

Some decluttering gurus recommend taking photos of artwork to create digital albums, but that idea never appealed to me. I know I'll never go back to look at photos of my kids' elementary school drawings, and digital files, whether stored on a computer, in the cloud, or on discs, are clutter, too. Nor do I feel comfortable mailing surplus art to unsuspecting relatives as a means of dealing with it, because that merely unloads the problem onto someone else who may feel a greater sense of guilt about tossing it than I do. (To be fair, I do encourage my kids to make homemade cards, which I consider much more special than a store-bought card.)

To be clear, I never discourage my children from making art for the purpose of reducing clutter. I support their interests and hobbies and provide them with the supplies they want and use. But one thing that's helped reduce clutter at home is to buy them each a notebook and sketchbook for writing, drawing, and painting. This keeps the papers contained, and a spiral-bound book is much easier to store long-term than an equally thick pile of papers. It offers a nice view, too, of the child's artistic progress over time.

But back to the purging – I do try to be ruthless. I ask myself if I'll want to look at this again, if it says something about my kid, if it preserves a special moment in their childhood. I put myself in my kids' shoes and ask if I'd want this art someday, if I had done it myself. I think back to my own collection of childhood crafts and how small it was, and whether I miss having anything. (The only thing I wish I had is my detailed alphabet book from kindergarten, my pride and joy.)

And I think of the words I told my friend during our conversation: “I want to make memories by doing things with my kids, and the more time I have to spend sorting and cleaning the clutter in our home, the less time I'll have to make those memories.” When you think of it like that, the purging doesn't seem so hard.

It's painful but necessary if you want to maintain an organized home.