Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you have likely seen or at least heard about Netflix’s new series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Maybe you’ve even tried KonMari-ing at least one thing in your life. I’ll admit that my family has. Our dresser and closet have never been so organized...and yes, it feels great. KonMari is a method of organizing your home that focuses on minimalism and finding joy in possessions--or getting rid of them. Why am I blogging about home organizing in a blog about education and parenting?
It’s no mystery why Ms. Kondo’s ritualistic approach to decluttering our lives is so powerful - whether we know it or not nearly all of us, our children included, suffer from overstimulation. Marie Kondo, as delightful as she is, hasn’t discovered anything new about the human experience. Her approach to organizing the home hits upon our deep desire for simplicity, meaning, and calm. When we take a step back from the hustle and bustle of our lives and consider the impact of all the demands, expectations, and interactions, it is truly overwhelming.
What lessons might we glean from the Kondo-craze as we create cultures in our homes and classrooms?
My reflections might encourage you to let go of emotions or possessions that are holding you or the children in your life back from experiencing true joy, fulfillment, and learning. My reflections aren’t judgements; they are rhetorical questions that will hopefully lead to giving yourself permission to let go of what isn’t bringing you, your family, or your students joy.
How many toys does your child have? Sometimes do you just buy them a little cheap thing because it’s the fastest way to get them to pull it together until your Target run is done? What do you do with all those birthday party favors? Have you saved every picture your child has ever drawn since they could hold a pencil?
I’m willing to bet, like our family, you have crates full of toys that don’t get played with and books that don’t get read. Why not get rid of those? One of the greatest lessons we can teach our children is the idea of “enough.” One of the most important presents we can give them is the gift of “empowerment” to winnow their possessions and prioritize what brings them joy and remains a valuable asset. For many children, that’s hard. As soon as you put that tricycle they haven’t ridden for years out on the street with a “free” sign on it, they’ve collapsed on the driveway in tears screaming, “NO...not my favorite tricycle!” Nevermind that they are ten years old and nearly five feet tall. Not all important lessons are easy. In fact, some of the most important lessons are the hardest. As soon as you are able, consider involving your children in the culling process. Consider asking them what old toy they want to donate to another child when they ask you to buy them the newest toy craze. (And while you are considering donating well kept toys for young learners, call a local preschool; they may be able to take those off your hands. In our community, our district preschool is doubling in size next year, great place to drop off your trains, blocks, costumes, legos, magnatiles, etc.).
Beyond “things,” children today also have an abundance of activities and commitments. My children sure do, and they are 4 and 8 years old. I think we all benefit from considering how many activities from which our children can benefit without unnecessarily overwhelming them with too much. Believe me, I’m not suggesting that we not keep kids active. In fact, I think it is essential. However, with our oldest, we learned just how important it was for him to have at least two afternoons per week free from scheduled activity and responsibility. He needs downtime to ride his bike, rest, read a comic book, play a quick video game...just be a kid. We also learned how important it was for us to enjoy that downtime WITH him as a family. We try hard to reserve Sundays for the whole family to share downtime together.
The amount of choice we provide our children is also something to consider. Even our adult brains can be overwhelmed by too much choice; this is more true for the underdeveloped brains of children. If you want your child to be more creative, with an increased attention span and happy to play for longer periods of time, perhaps the easiest way to encourage those qualities is to simply offer fewer options. Even with no toys or multiple parent facilitated options, it’s important to remember that children don’t even need “real toys” to play engagingly. Are you one of those parents that spent countless hours and too much money on holiday or birthday gifts for your five year old, only to have them most enjoy the big box in which one of the big gifts came? Regular household items can be the source of hours of enjoyment; most importantly, those items require children to access their imagination for play--something we should prioritize.
One resource with which we desperately need to reacquaint ourselves and our children is the outdoors. Parents and educators frequently lament that kids today just don’t go outside and play like they used to do. Part of the reason is because we overschedule and overmanage their play. To the extent that we can manage their safety, let’s try to get our kids outside with friends and neighbors. Make use of the parks available in your community. Take bike rides as a family. Go on a hike. Catch tadpoles in the creek. Let’s find ways to cut down on the meaningless distractions we give them, and let their natural creativity in the environment blossom.
Adults are easily distracted by too many toys, too. In the heart of Silicon Valley, where my district is situated, the grown up toys come in the form of the latest electric car, smartphone, vacation house, robot, app...things. They are undeniably fun and I am as guilty as the next guy for pursuing them. However, if I’m being honest, the pursuit and collection of all the “stuff” can derail time from more meaningful pursuits like experiences with friends, time with our family, enjoying a hobby or the outdoors. We are constantly on the lookout for the next best thing. But are we enjoying it? More stuff does not make us any happier.
The same is true for a calendar full of commitments. You may not be a collector of things, but you may, like many, collect appointments, responsibilities, and expectations. My wife frequently reminds me that I’m “always on;” she fears that I’m only happy when I have something scheduled to do. Personality faults aside, she’s right. While I may not fill my life with ‘things,’ I do fill my life with things to do. This clutter of responsibility drains me and those around me--including and especially my kids. I own it. This is all the more reason for me to take stock of the way in which I spend my time and prioritize downtime for myself and with my family.
It’s unrealistic to expect that we are able to abandon material things and busy lives. Working, parenting, maintaining relationships...just living...all require a great deal of our time and attention. Rather, we can live with a bit more intentionality around ‘things’ and time. We can model for our children by making more selective and thoughtful purchases. We can schedule regular time to disconnect. We can try to do one thing each day or each week that gets us closer...not to perfection...but joy.
Perhaps one of the most unlikely - and most impactful - places to spend some time decluttering and focusing is in the classroom. We all have a vision of what a great classroom looks like. Effective and welcoming learning environments come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and themes. However, like the home with fewer toys, a classroom showcasing just a few well chosen items can also spark more creativity and focus.
I can hear teachers cringing as they read this! Yes, there are millions of wonderful educational toys, posters, books, manipulatives to help convey a lesson. Yes, those egg cartons and berry baskets will make excellent crafts or supply holders. But remember, kids (and adults) can only focus on so much at a time. It’s worth a reflection over next summer to consider reducing what is displayed in the classroom and any changes we observe in students’ experience of their learning. The same reflection is necessary around the number of tasks we expect of students at each grade level, or the level of detail, papers, and tasks our young ones, all with underdeveloped prefrontal cortices, are expected to hold in one lesson, day, or week. To be clear, there are no “right” answers or single ways of doing anything. However, continuous improvement requires us to reflect on how what we do (and don’t do) impacts the student experience. Merely asking question is a great place to start. I can just imagine Marie Kondo encouraging us to wonder, “Does my classroom spark joy?” or “Does my lesson spark interest and engagement?”
For the record, I had Marie Kondo’s tidying up book long before it was cool. I had heard about it on NPR and thought the idea of getting rid of the crap in my life might be just what I needed. And the book sat there, among all the other books I haven’t read, gathering dust. Thank goodness for Netflix, right? This surprise heroine is causing millions of us to ask if everything with which we surround ourselves sparks joy. As we consider the mindset impacts on our parenting and educating I would add the question, “Is this adding value?” If the answer is no, maybe it is time to let it go.
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Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.