Advice for parents on how to reclaim a sense of order when your children take over your space.
Maintaining order in a chaotic household
Rationally, you knew it would happen once you had children. Even so, it's hard to underestimate the daily shock that comes from gazing around you, at the home whose minimalist aesthetic was once your pride and joy, and taking in what a complete tip it's become. Kids make mess. In fact, you can go further and say that kids should be allowed to make a mess, sometimes - it's how they learn. (Education experts reckon "messy play" is crucial for proper cognitive and creative development.) But there are ways of minimising and containing this mess so that it doesn't spill over into areas you'd prefer to keep adult and "visitor-ready".
It's also the case that, however much you love your children, you need respite from them occasionally. And it's a lot easier to get this in a room whose floor isn't covered in Lego and bits of broken train-track.
So how do you prevent your children from taking over your entire living space? Here are some useful, practical solutions:
Buy storage bins
You can get these from Ikea or larger branches of Lulu and Carrefour. Try to choose boxes that are attractive objects in themselves and look good stacked on top of each other. Label each box (paints, cutting out, etc). Big wicker baskets or chests are also good in the early years for storing baby toys, and their lids are light enough not to squash tiny hands.
Instil tidiness as a goal from an early age
This is easiest if you've already got the above system in place because then putting toys away becomes natural and obvious. It's what has always happened, so it ceases to feel like a chore. Make it fun: teach them a "tidy up" song, which you can then sing while you're doing it. (Most nurseries do this. If your child attends nursery, find out what their song is so you can sing it at home too.)
Be tidy yourself
It sounds obvious - patronising, too. Sorry! But children learn by example. If you're always forgetting to put DVDs back in their cases, why should they remember?
Try to clean up immediately
Otherwise you'll spend the critical hour after you've put them to bed, when all you really want to do is lie down, washing up the casserole dish you used for that tasty-sounding Annabel Karmel mulligatawny chicken and wiping splattered milk off cupboard doors. Also, if your children aren't yet old enough to eat what you eat…
Cook in advance and freeze it
Actually, that's probably what you were doing with the mulligatawny chicken, wasn't it? It makes mealtimes much less of a performance and reduces the utensil count.
Designate one room an 'adult' room
Perhaps the most important piece of advice. And while we know this is something of a challenge if you live in a small open-plan flat, even if it is only your bedroom that is off-limits as a play area, it is a rule that you should try to establish.
It's a cliché that child-rearing is all about establishing boundaries, but it's true - and the good thing about an actual physical boundary is that it becomes a working metaphor for other kinds of behavioural boundaries. From your point of view, it's nice to be able to relax somewhere that doesn't have sticky hand-prints all over it and listen to music on a hi-fi that a four-year-old hasn't tried to feed yoghurt.
Take shoes off at the door
It's possible you do this anyway - it's mandatory in lots of cultures, and with good reason. Children have a special gift for trailing in soil and sand around the house, grinding it into rugs and in between floorboards or tiles so that it takes hours on your knees with a pack of antibacterial wipes to undo the damage.
Only eat at the table
By which we don't mean you can't ever let them eat in front of the TV or computer or have "midnight feasts" in bed. Just make sure to reinforce that it's a treat - something that doesn't happen all the time. Otherwise, well… Kids wandering round the house with food is the surest way to mess the place up and make it feel like a kindergarten. Which is ironic because there's no way any self-respecting kindergarten would let children have their lunch while simultaneously watching In the Night Garden and trying to find that Shakira song on your iPhone. (Incidentally, did I mention? Never let a child under seven anywhere near a touchscreen mobile phone unless you genuinely don't care what happens to it.)
Throw away what you no longer use
Houses can fill up fast with toys, clothes, DVDs and books that aren't used any more, usually because they've been outgrown. Donating them to other families or charity can be a sad business - you're waving goodbye to a chunk of your own (as well as your children's) past. But Where Is Spot? is of only limited use to an eight-year-old, and it's amazing how much storage space all this stuff takes up. You could be using it for something more important. Like shoes!
Introduce 'quiet time'
A much-loved (by the parents) part of any childcare routine is the lunchtime nap which, if you're lucky, you can string out until they're over two years old. Traditionally, this is the time when you get to read a newspaper, make phone calls, do a little internet browsing, talk to your spouse. So when your kids cease to need the sleep, the loss can be devastating. This is where "quiet time" comes in: a two-hours-plus chunk in the middle of the day where you get to be a sentient human being with meaningful opinions and they get to go off to their rooms and play with their Nintendo DSs. Obviously, you'd rather they were reading books or designing a prototype for a new sort of car engine. But New Super Mario Bros will do fine for now.