How to clean a child’s room when you can’t see the floor

This is an actual advice essay, not a joke. I write joke articles about cleaning pretty often, but that is because I would rather do anything than clean, even write; and I would definitely rather tell jokes than write. 

But not today! Today, I cleaned the middle upstairs bedroom, where three children sleep, including two of the rattiest packrats known to mankind. I’m a bad housekeeper, and I do a bad job making my kids clean. So their room was horrible. That’s just a fact.

However, I have a room rescue system that offers quick gratification; and, if you stick with it, you will eventually be able to see the whole floor. This essay is not about how to organize, how to decorate, how to make your children be tidy, how to optimize space, or anything of the kind. It’s just about how to get from “Oh Lord of mercies, please smite me now” to “Welp, now we have a floor again.” It’s fairly common sense, but I’m offering it in case you find yourself in this situation and need a clear plan and some moral support.


Several garbage bags 
A trash barrel (or upright laundry basket)
About three smaller collection containers 
Broom and dustpan
Vacuum cleaner
Optional: A fan, because you will get angry and hot; a cool drink; music or podcast that’s going to encourage and energize you (not the news or anything challenging or upsetting). If the room is dusty, maybe take allergy medication at the beginning of the project. 


If you want to really go hard, sweep everything onto the floor, including what’s on the beds and under the beds, what’s in the closets, what’s on and in the drawers and shelves, etc. It all goes womp on the floor. Only do this if you have a ton of time and energy and mental fortitude, and your kids have already been given an opportunity to take care of it themselves. Save the nuclear option for rare, dire situations. I recommend just sweeping clean the bed and under the bed. 


Look at that mess on the floor! Decide what the mess is basically made out of. For a child’s room, it’s usually: Clean clothes, dirty clothes (including anything that needs to be laundered), costumes, books, toys, sorty things, art supplies (including papers they want to save), trash, little bitty things, and Hey That’s Not Yours. 


You are going to pick up every last thing on the floor, decide what category it belongs to, and fling it into a zone. The zone will not be its final resting place; it will just be a good spot for a pile. Try to help yourself, and make the dirty laundry zone be near the door, the book zone near a book shelf, etc. 


Just like it sounds. Make yourself comfortable, pick up the first thing you can reach, brush it off if it’s gross, and fling it into its zone. Do this over and over and over again until you can see the floor in front of you. Then shift slightly and do the same thing in the spot next to the clear spot. Continue until you can’t reach anything from where you’re sitting. Then move and do it again. And again. And again.

I know. It’s stupid and squalid, but I have found this to be the most efficient way to get through a knee-deep mess. It’s much easier on your back than plodding around the room with a bag, trying to pick out all the books, and all the socks, and all the toys, etc. It also gives quicker gratification, and is therefore more encouraging, then sweeping or raking the entire floor contents into a Towering Pile of Everything and sorting through it. This top-down,-one-spot-at-a-time method rewards you with a glimpse of the floor pretty quickly, and if you haven’t seen the floor in a while, it’s surprising how encouraging that can be. It’s very satisfying to watch the patch of clear floor grow and grow as you work your way around the room. 

It is very helpful to have a trash barrel (or a bag inside a tall laundry basket) that stands up and stays open, rather than a trash bag, so you can toss things in from where you sit, rather than having to pull open a slithery trash bag ten thousand times. This is going to be a very frustrating job, so you want to save frustration wherever you can. 


Once every last thing that’s on the floor has been picked up, judged, and flung into a pile, and the room is all sorted, haul out all the trash and dirty laundry. This will clear out the room tremendously, which is encouraging. Then you just have to put away the already-sorted piles of stuff. 

A few need explaining: 

Little Bitty Things are items you pick out of the dirt pile before you sweep it up because you’re tender-hearted — things like like money, jewelry, tiny ceramic kittens, important Lego heads, and so on, that you don’t feel like finding homes for yourself, but which you don’t want to get lost. If the kids care, they can sort through it, but at least you rescued them.

Sorty Things are pieces of sets and kits that have been strewn all over the place. The kids will enjoy these things so much more if they’re all together again, so you don’t want to just throw them away. But you don’t know if you’re driving yourself crazy saving out pieces of a set that the kid only owns half of anymore. If you just put All Sorty Things into one box and then sort it all (or better yet, present it to the kids to sort) afterwards, you have already done the hard part. Way easier than roaming around a chaotic mess stopping and making a million decisions about whether or not to save something, and what set it belongs to.

Hey That’s Not Yours is obviously dishes and utensils, my missing cardigan, 46 pairs of scissors, etc. Feels a little like Christmas, in a profoundly pathetic way, to exit the room clutching your little treasure trove of reclaimed goods to restore to their rightful places in the house until someone immediately comes and steals them again. 


If the room was so bad that you can’t see the floor, it will be necessary to sweep said newly-exposed floor before vacuuming. Then vacuum. (This kind of content is why people pay me the big bucks to write.) 

And then the room is . . . cleaner. It is a good stopping place, and if you want to continue organizing and sorting, you can do that the next day. At least you can see the floor. 


You don’t really need this essay, right? It’s a stupid essay. The truth is, cleaning is easy. All you have to to is pick up the things and put them back where they go, and everybody already knows this. But it’s the emotional side of it that makes it so daunting. When you’re facing an overwhelmingly, wretchedly chaotic mess, it helps to have a clear plan about how to tackle it, and to make things as encouraging for yourself as possible. It’s okay to encourage yourself. 

The other thing that makes cleaning hard is the guilt and other emotional baggage that goes along with it. You’re not just sorting through Barbie shoes and Halloween candy wrappers, but also feelings of guilt that you let it get to this state and you never taught the kids better, feelings of rage that they made this mess, feelings of shame that you spent money on toys and never made them take better care of them and now they’re not enjoying them and you’re filling the world with plastic and what about the poor dolphins, and then maybe the ghost of your mother or grandmother is haunting the closet making hissing sounds about all the socks on the floor.

All I can tell you is that, if you are feeling not just aggravation but crushing, paralyzing guilt over a messy room, it’s almost certainly inappropriate guilt. You can feel bad about a mess, but you shouldn’t feel like you murdered someone. 

Unless the mess is actually dangerous — like there is mold, or vermin, or your children wear the same outfit every day because they have no clean clothes — then whatever failings have led up to this point are probably not as bad as you’re telling yourself. Really. It’s just a mess. I say this as someone who just cleaned a real stinkhole of a room, and who (thanks to several years of therapy) just shocked myself by feeling nothing more than moderate irritation because, oh, that’s where my tape measure went. It was a big mess, but it was just a mess. I should have cleaned it sooner, but oh well, I’m cleaning it now. This is something I’ve been struggling with my whole life, and I think this is just as good as it’s going to get. I’m good at other things. The end. Got my tape measure back.

Good luck! Good luck with it all. 


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17 thoughts on “How to clean a child’s room when you can’t see the floor”

  1. 30+ years ago, our collective understanding of neurodivergence was different so I try to be kind to myself for not understanding that my young sons who seemed perfectly normal to me did not ( and seemingly could not) learn to tend things in whatever way I attempted to teach them. I eventually gave up and just waited for them to grow up and move away. The post move-out clean resulted in (among other things) 64 socks being unearthed in sons room.

  2. Such an important post. Every year I did this after school started and before school ended. Did the same way. I still have guilt over tiny pieces, sometimes nightmares. So much stuff!! When did I buy so much stuff??

  3. I’m decidedly late, but there is one item (well, two, sort of) that should be added to ‘things you need’, and that is 1 pair of thick running shoes or slippers.

    Never try to clean a child’s room without thick foot coverings. *Nothing* hurts so much to step on as one of those small Lego bricks, a toy soldier, or a poster pin.

  4. The room of my two younger boys needs to be cleaned twice a year for when my mom and brother visit, and it’s a terrible process I have to start weeks in advance. First I tell them to clean up a particular category of item every few days. Very little progress is made, and two days before the visit I panic and tell the boys they are not allowed to ever use a computer again unless they pick up everything. Day before the visit, I yell at them about the piles that are still under beds and desks. Day of the visit, I go in and clean up the inevitable remainder.

    You are much nicer than I am about little bitty things and sorty things, Simcha. I am ruthless, and I tell my youngest whatever of those are still on the floor by the time I take over get swept up and thrown out.

  5. My oldest child (untidy and disorganized, diagnosed with ADHD in college!) went from about age 12-16 without cleaning her room. I was busy with my other four and I just . . . didn’t go in there. I feebly told her to change her sheets from time to time. One day she was ready and we went in with many garbage bags and began excavating–the good news is that kids change a lot from 12 to 16 so about 90% of the bottom layer of the room went straight into the trash. Thank God for the shop vac because of the beads! Holy handycrafts, Batman, the BEADS! They were everywhere. And her room was never that bad again.

  6. I am going to show this to my naturally tidy husband to explain to him why I’m so bad at cleaning. It really is true about all the strange feelings cleaning stirs up.
    (Am I the only person in the world who has a husband who is wayyyy better at domestic stuff than she is? lol)

  7. Sometimes it feels like everything I did or do results in guilt, and this was one of those areas, although my kids are out of the house! Have to remember I was busy back then, it was impossible to keep up with everything, and part of it was just modern life with all the relatively low-priced and accessible stuff people previously didn’t have (especially since we shopped at thrift stores so it was easy for the kids to acquire a lot inexpensively, plus relatives giving gifts). There have to be some areas of our lives without value judgements – sometimes stuff is just stuff and that’s the way it is and it won’t always be that way. I haven’t stepped on a Lego in years! And I miss it.

  8. I helped my nephew redo his room at Christmas and talked him through the approach (get everything off the floor and sorted, vacuum, clean the rug, protect the floors, paint, etc.). It is something that can seem daunting and having approaches really helps. We even taught him how to use a rug cleaner to get out the stains in his carpet. 6 months in and his room is not the worst.

  9. My youngest kids are in high school now and I do miss having younger ones around. Mostly. I don’t miss all the crap. That picture up top is all to familiar to me. Our home has finally hit a point of rarely being in a state of CHAOS. And it’ll happen for you too, Simcha.

    1. When my now adult daughter was about 3, she decided to play house and she pretended to be the alpha female. She went over to to living room coffee table, picked something up and said “whose crap is this?”. Ahhhh ….like looking in a mirror.

  10. I don’t have kids, but I have to clean out my parents’ home and get it ready to sell, so this is extremely helpful. I also like the music/cold drink idea.

  11. This *is* why people pay you to write, Simcha. Because you are humane, and real, and you write clear and necessary things that help us get existence out of the way. Love.

  12. This brought back so many memories! Those feelings are so familiar to me. Once, after going through layers of stuff in my daughter’s room, right at the bottom was ‘The Little Book of Feng Shui’! I was ready to cry until then. I’d love to be able to tell you that she is now a tidy young woman, but she isn’t. But as you well know, some things are more important.

    1. Slightly off topic but I’ll tell it anyway. My sister once had a roommate who lost two feng shui books. *Two*! Some people’s brains just operate like that.

  13. Such a helpful post of encouragement! I like the idea of a cold drink and music to accompany the effort.
    Lady, you put so many of my thoughts and feelings into words on paper (screen), it’s rather eerie. You are living my life, but in a slightly smaller house (nice job!) and in the city.

  14. Thanks. I needed this. I no longer have small children, but I still have some messy, dusty rooms that I am trying to get through.

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