Organization vs. Imagination

I know just about everyone is in an organizing sort of mood in the beginning of the New Year, and I am no exception. I’ve been anxious to tackle our messy, disorganized rooms ever since we moved into this house over a year ago. With my baby on a more dependable sleep schedule (most days), and my oldest in school, I have a little more time to get things done.

Most projects are fairly straightforward: throw away junk, donate things we don’t use, find places to put the things we want to keep. But when it comes to my oldest son’s spaces, things get complicated quickly.

Shortly after he had started school in the fall, I spent a day rearranging and cleaning his bedroom from top to bottom. I figured I’d surprise him with the new layout and breath-of-fresh-air neatness. I surprised him, alright–he spent a good half hour in tears because I had ruined his imaginary bear exhibit at his imaginary zoo.

I talked him into liking it, but it wasn’t long before toys and books took over once more. Fascinated by his trips to the school library, he set up an elaborate library of his own, organized by genre, around the perimeter of his bedroom. And his bear family eventually found a new home in a blanket fort that made access to his closet very tricky.

Pretend library

This past Monday we tackled the bedroom again. I discovered a different furniture arrangement that worked better, and rid his closet of clutter, freeing up space for his bears. He agreed that they would be very happy in his cave-like closet, and we made them a cozy new den out of a cardboard box.

Cardboard box teddy bear den

London Bear and his baby brother, East

I noticed two things when I went up to my son’s room this morning. First, he had played with his rather neglected pirate ships, now that he had a nice empty floor on which to use them, and the missing bits and pieces that had been strewn around were back in place. But, even better, I saw that he had made his bed without me even asking!

Tidy boy's bedroom

I could tell that he appreciated having a tidy room that was no longer an assault on the eyes.

Once re-wiring is completed, we will paint his room so it feels more like his own. I also want to install some ledge shelves on the wall, so he can set up his pretend library again in a neat way. For now, though, it is working great.

The bedroom was the easy part.

We have a playroom set up in a very small fourth bedroom, and this is what I see every time I walk past the door.

Disorganized playroom

I am not the neatest person in the world myself, but this grates on me. The thing is, when my son looks in that door, he doesn’t see a mess, he sees a metropolis that he is very proud of.

A boy's imagination

He’ll work a little bit each day on his city, which he has dubbed Washington D.C. (a trip to the real place when he was three left a lasting impression). He’ll tell me about the workers’ progress on various buildings, emergencies that have occurred, and his plans for expansion. If you take the time to look beyond the mess, it really is fascinating the way he utilizes every toy he can to make his vision a reality.

Toy city with Lego, Megabloks, Lincoln Logs, Brio

The toy farm, which he agreed could belong in his baby brother’s room now, has migrated back to the playroom where all manner of little plastic animals are lovingly tended to.


He was so proud of his first Lego house that didn’t fall to pieces when he put on the roof, and his city had the perfect empty lot.

Lego house

It’s all hands on deck when there’s a fire emergency–vehicles large and small are ready and waiting.

Toy fire department

There’s great police coverage.

Megabloks police station

And plenty of well-organized parking.

Toy vehicles

We’ve talked about putting the city away when he’s done playing, which frustrates him and just about breaks his heart. Don’t I know that he’s never done playing with it? Don’t I know that it takes a long time to build his city, and he can’t build a new city every day?

On my own, I study the carefully placed bits and pieces and I realize that he has a point. Some things are more important than having a picture-perfect playroom that doesn’t look played in. Imagination is one of them.

His making the bed proves that he values neatness. This sprawling city is not messiness or sloppiness or laziness; it’s passion, dedication, creativity and hard work. Instead of fretting that he’s not learning to be neat (or selfishly wishing for a magazine-worthy home), I should appreciate and enjoy that I have my own fascinating version of Christopher Robin living under my roof.

But we do still need to take care of some of the mess. Our main toy storage is a wire shelf that was repurposed for the playroom when we decided to use a nicer wood shelf for the baby’s room. It’s ugly, looks messy, and with no solid surface, it doesn’t hold toys well.

Bad playroom shelving


Then there’s the toy kitchen which my son uses to operate his imaginary restaurant, another endeavor that he takes very seriously. But with his city taking up all the space in this little room, it’s difficult to enjoy these other toys.

Play kitchen mess

So, my plan is to purchase and install cube shelving on either side of one window. We’ll use bins to store the smaller toys like blocks, logs, train tracks and cars. I may also try to find an inexpensive area rug to set some “city limits” and ensure there’s room for clutter-free movement. Although he has managed quite well, I’m sure my son will have more fun and feel even more creative in a better organized space that looks less visually chaotic.

To free up some additional room, and to make it easier to play, I’ll finally do what I’ve wanted to all along: move the play kitchen into our real kitchen. We’ll be able to spend more time together, and it will lend a bit more realism to his pretend play. There, however, he will need to be tidier so that Ringo dog doesn’t try to share his toys.

My ideal had been a room in which big brother’s toys were put away during the day so that baby brother could play there, too, but that isn’t going to happen right now. Soon enough my older son will transition to smaller-scale toys that he can play with in his own bedroom, and maybe I’ll miss this mess.

For now, I’ll grant “Washington D.C.” a reprieve as long as he plays with it, but we’ll have some rules; any extra pieces not being used will need to be put away before bedtime each night, and I’ve also stipulated that he needs to leave enough space so I can close the door. He can have his messy looking city, and I’ll have a small measure of peace.

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