Organizing Kid Art and School Papers

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A few weeks ago, Angela asked:

“I wonder if you’ve ever written about how you handle saving and organizing kids’ memorabilia, school work, art, photos, etc. I’m very sentimental so it’s easy for me to want to save everything, however I don’t want to burden my kids with all this stuff when they grow up. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that topic.”

I have actually written about this before, but I recently streamlined my system for dealing with the vast quantities of artwork produced by my children, as well as all the school papers that come into the house. I used to have large, 20-gallon Rubbermaid bins for each kid’s papers, and I just pitched everything into them, but these took up way too much space in their closets, and I knew I needed to find a better solution. Recently, I was inspired to pare down by a comment I read on a home organizing message board:

“My mom saved everything I ever did in cardboard boxes. Every drawing. Every book report. All my homework. When she moved out of her house and into a condo, she gave all these boxes to me because she thought I would want them. Sorry Mom, but the Easter egg I painted in 6th grade Girl Scouts just isn’t something I want to decorate my house with.”

As parents, it’s very natural for us to have sentimental attachment to the “creations” of our children, because we’re proud of them, of course, but also because their artwork represents different stages of their development. When we look at the Christmas wreath ornament made of tissue paper and way too much glue, with our baby’s smiling, toothless mug peering out from the center, we’re immediately transported back to that time, which has now passed, and cannot be reclaimed. Believe me….I get it. However, it’s very important for us to remember that what is sentimental and special to us may someday be a burden to them. Most kids don’t have our level of attachment to their 4th grade math tests, book reports, and research papers about Benjamin Franklin, and they aren’t interested in being saddled with a box full of them when they graduate from high school. It would be like quitting a job, and having your boss hand you a box containing every memo, email, and report you ever wrote as an employee there. Would you want that stuff?

Probably not.

Artwork, in particular, can be hard to let go of, because it so often conveys a child’s personality. But again, it’s simply not practical to keep every crayon scribble, every magazine collage, every paper plate snowman or clothespin butterfly. Like all areas of life, kid memorabilia requires limits.

In preparation for moving the girls to their new rooms, I decided to tackle the daunting task of paring down the artwork and school papers. I bought one of these for each kid, because they’re large enough to accommodate most kid art, but small enough to be stacked on a closet shelf (in my new office – woo hoo!). They also have a handle, which makes them easy to remove and put back.

Then, I dumped out the art bins, and went to work. I recycled anything that didn’t illustrate genuine artistic ability and creativity, such as collages, and other cutting and gluing activities. I also recycled mediocre drawings, most coloring pages, and nearly all crayon scribbles, keeping only a few examples of their best work at each stage of development – IE: toddler, preschool, 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. I also saved examples of especially unique and artistic work, such as Bee’s colorful giraffe,

and her American Gothic parody.

When I came to something that was cute, but not necessarily keep-worthy, or impractical to keep because it didn’t fit in the box, I found that my digital camera made it much easier to let go of it because I could just snap a photo. Here are some examples of artwork that was photographed, and then recycled:

I started a “Kid Art” folder on my computer, with sub-folders for each kid, and I sorted all these photos into them. I’m planning to have them printed as keepsake photobooks – kind of like kid art coffee table books.

When I was done, everything I kept fit in these cases, with plenty of room for future additions. But… if the cases fill up, I won’t buy more; I’ll get rid of more stuff. One case of artwork per kid. That is my limit.

I have the cases stacked on the top shelf in our bedroom closet, for now.

For homework and school papers, I’m quite particular about what I keep. Last summer at a garage sale, I bought 5 very large (4-inch!) Avery binders for 25 cents each, and I’m using one for each kid, to organize report cards, awards and certificates, and school papers.

I only keep the papers that showcase particular achievement or special accomplishments, such as this math test that Bee got an A++ on:

Or papers that are especially entertaining, such as Bee’s amusing use of spelling words (she was learning the meaning of popular phrases that week – my husband and I still laugh about this):

Or Cakie’s sweet journal drawings with phonetically written captions:

Everything else is recycled. Seriously….everything. I’m especially ruthless about this now, because I have to be. With two kids in school, each bringing home half a ream of paper in their backpacks every week, my kitchen could so easily be taken over by piles of paper if I didn’t keep it in check.

For photos, I have a photo storage box like this for each kid, and one for family photos, or photos of the kids together:

(As with the artwork cases, one is my limit. One binder, one photo box, one memory box. I do have more than one scrapbook for each child, though).

Instead of labeling the photo boxes, I just bought colors that I associate with each kid – pink for Bee, purple for Cakes, blue for DJ. Because I’m a scrapbooker, I do tend to have a lot of photos, but last year I realized that time for scrapbooking is simply not going to materialize until DJ is in school, so I made a rule for myself that I follow to the letter; unless I have a designated frame, or the materials and time set aside for a particular scrapbook page, I do not print any photos. Instead, I keep them organized by year on my computer. That way, when I’m ready to work with specific memorabilia, I can easily find the photos associated with it, and print just a few at a time. Each year’s photos are sorted into labeled sub-folders for each kid, or for specific events. At the end of the year, I burn them onto CDs, which go into our fireproof safe, and I also back them up onto my external hard drive. A digital camera is wonderful for documenting your family life, but it’s also an amazing organizational tool!

So, if you decide to take control and organize this area of your life, or any area, for that matter, remember this quote from the Walt Disney Company:

“Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.”

You don’t necessarily have to hand down an item to convey a memory or a sentiment, though I understand that for certain things, there is simply no substitute. Often though, a picture of an item, especially if you take the time to write down your memories of it, can be just as meaningful – or even more so – while taking up a lot less space.

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Heather is a minimalist in love with a recovering packrat. 7 years ago, she and her husband sold pretty much anything that wasn't nailed down in order to pay off their mortgage, and they've been living happily debt-free ever since. They have 3 hilarious little kids who were conceived with the help of in vitro fertilization, and they haven't had a good night's sleep in the last decade. Heather is an anglophile who loves all things British, and spends her free time looking at real estate listings in Cornwall. Every day, she and her family work toward a simpler, more meaningful life. Some days are awesome, some are disastrous, and you can read about all of them here.

Have a question? Need a listening ear? Contact Heather, or visit Want What You Have on Facebook.

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7 comments… add one

  1. Jennifer February 8, 2013, 7:19 pm

    Thank you for writing about this and for being so detailed!! I have actually been wanting to ask you about this same topic! With four children, two already in school I also have masses amounts of papers and artwork. I should really start the process soon, but I get scared away by the amount of stuff and time it will take! Hopefully this summer maybe while the kids are outside playing! :)

    Reply
  2. Joanna February 8, 2013, 7:42 pm

    Thanks, Heather! My son is 3 and we are just starting to collect piles of artwork; this will definitely help. I used to be quite sentimental about THINGS until I was dumped with tons of memorabilia that meant nothing to me. I don’t want to do the same to my kids so I am pretty ruthless about what I save. I don’t scrapbook but I keep a personal blog and print a blog book annually. I also store each year’s memorabilia in a shoebox per year. Of course, art work won’t fit into the shoebox but your idea is perfect for that!

    Reply
  3. Kim Dion February 9, 2013, 6:12 am

    Very wise words.
    Especially on the scrapbooking/printing pictures. As my kids are older and I’m putting together albums, etc. I find you can’t possibly keep track of it all. I’m so irked at myself when I find that I had already printed pictures or had duplicates elsewhere. Pisses me off that I wasted the money. I’m getting better at double checking as I go along.
    Regarding the art, I’ve done the same thing: one bin, per kid – period. It works. Although I’ve had to ruthlessly toss when they weren’t looking. In my heart, however, I believe that it will all be recycled someday and I think it was far more important to display the best of the artwork while they were little. We have an artwork “gallery” in the basement stairwell and to this day people comment on it with a smile on their face.
    The school work has been harder – its about a 1.5 inch binder/year until middle school. Then its mostly awards or concert programs or newspaper articles and everything fits in one binder for multiple years. I’ve spent a lot of hours (if not days) over the years sorting, editing, re-editing and then three hole punching things for the binders. Now I think they will recycle all of that someday, too.
    Looking back I wonder WHY I kept so much. WHO made me feel so guilty for NOT keeping it? (Lord knows keeping all of this was never my original intention.) And why did I listen to them? I mean, did *I* really want every test of mine from 2nd grade? No, I didn’t and don’t. I think I would have liked a memento of some kind, but now I know I have too much from my kids’ childhood (no matter how organized it is).
    Those early years of motherhood were filled with anxiety for me and, in retrospect, I wonder if I was told by those around me that keeping this stuff was the right thing to do. Within me, inherently, is a good mother, but I was flying blind on the day to day in a world and a life I had only glimpsed from the outside.
    As my kids are older now I can honestly tell you that we’ve only gone back and looked at the school work bins a few times. Same with the artwork. The pictures, however, are another story. I’m glad that I’m taking this time while I’m still home to really organize the pictures and put together the albums. They’re already taking little trips down memory lane. :-) Its a lot of fun.
    Great post, Heather.

    Reply
  4. Shelly February 9, 2013, 4:20 pm

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Thanks for taking time to explain your system!

    Reply
  5. Janel February 10, 2013, 4:00 am

    This was a great post Heather! Wow, you are so organized! Thank goodness this is one area that I too do not save every little thing…I did start to many years ago with my first child, but when it started to get out of control with two I quickly put an end to that. I only save very special (to me) papers and pictures. I love Bee’s drawings :) Cakes portrait is adorable!

    Reply
  6. Brandi February 11, 2013, 9:30 pm

    I was kind of glad that my Mom kept a box of my stuff to give to me when I moved out. Some of it’s quite amusing; like a report from my preschool teacher that said I don’t like to ask for help. Still so true! In another way, it would have been better if she trashed it, cause now it’s kind of difficult for me to let it go. I like your idea to photograph things though.

    Reply
  7. Angela February 12, 2013, 6:49 pm

    Yay! Thanks for your fantastic response to my question! I was sure you must have a streamlined method for handling my biggest source of clutter, and you didn’t disappoint!

    Reply

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