How Big Families Approach Storing Their Kids’ Art & School Work

school work storage - easy ideas from big families

One of the questions I receive most often is about kids and the artwork and school work storage. As parents, what are we supposed to do with the piles of drawings and projects and papers? Even when they’re not in school, my kids are constantly making and creating. Add in school attendance and the amount of stuff coming home can be a bit daunting. Readers want to know: as a mother of six, what is my criteria for saving or throwing it out?

I think this is such a great topic. It’s a daily challenge for many families and there are all sorts of good ways to manage it. This is how we do it:

We clean out backpacks after school each day. I examine homework and art projects. Give lots of positive feedback and then throw almost everything into the recycle bin.

school work storage - easy ideas from big families

So what do we save and how do we save it?

– For artwork, if they’ve created something, at home or at school, without any direction, meaning it wasn’t a follow-these-steps art project, but something really out of their own head, then it will stay around. At least for awhile.

– Large or 3D Artwork will usually end up on our huge kids-artwork bulletin board in the family room, and will eventually be replaced by newer artwork.

– Any drawings in the 8.5 x 11 range will end up in a file folder (a different folder for each child). Then, when the folder is full, I take it to the copy store to get all the work bound into one book.

– For school work, if they really love it and are proud of it and it required substantial work, then it can stay. I have a box for each child — think oversize shoebox size — that’s big enough to fit notebooks and folders.

– Throughout the year, but especially at the end of the school year, the kids add favorite essays, composition books and other projects to their box. By they time they’re done with high school it’s full of meaningful highlights from their childhood education.

Here’s how another big family handles it:

– When we lived in New York, I had a friend named Karen who had 6 kids. And she had a dresser set aside for schoolwork and projects, with a separate drawer for each child.

– Any time her kids had school work or art work they wanted to save, they would add it to their drawer. So they might put in bigger projects like a sculpture, plus book reports, mixed with random math worksheets, or even misc party invitations.

– At the end of the school year, they would each clean out their drawer and were allowed to keep 3 things, which went into a keepsake box that would eventually represent their whole childhood.

I love this solution. If you have space for a dedicated schoolwork dresser, it might work for you too. I love that the kids have easy access to their favorites throughout the year, and I love that there’s a simple system in place for editing the collection down.

Which reminds me, no matter what kind of system you decide to implement, it’s best to start by answering these questions: How much stuff-from-their-childhood is your child going to want when they grow up and start their own family and home? How much room do you have to store things? How much time do you want to spend managing their artwork and school work?

Obviously, the answers will be different for each person. I’m not very sentimental about this sort of thing so it’s easy for me to say: Recycle it all! But that might be heartbreaking to someone else. Additionally, I’ve moved a lot, and my mother has moved a lot, so the idea of me or my mom dealing with boxes of creations from my childhood would never have been a good idea. 

Same for my own kids — if I had saved everything they’ve ever made, we would need a school work storage unit by now. Not even joking. So keeping everything wasn’t ever a realistic option for us. You may have less kids or more storage space and be able to keep more.

In short, my philosophy with kids art work and school work is:

– Display current artwork.
– Replace it when new items are created.
– Save only a very few select items, and only projects that are true originals or that your child is particularly proud of.

What about you? How do you approach school work storage? How much have you saved so far? How do you store it? And how often do you or your kids like to go through it and reminisce? 

P.S. — Pro-tip: as your kids get older, there’s a lot less art work and a lot more school work. And happily, school work is usually more compact and easier to deal with. More good news: I’ve been collecting ideas for how to use and display the artwork you’re keeping. I’ll share those ideas in a follow-up post.

39 thoughts on “How Big Families Approach Storing Their Kids’ Art & School Work”

  1. Here’s one idea: my mother would save everything/most things in a cardboard apple box in the garage throughout the year. Then, during summer vacation, we were each in charge of making a scrapbook for the year. We decided which projects, reports, etc. were important and pasted them into a large album (sometimes we folded them up to make them fit, although now I would just take a photo of the child displaying anyting too large to fit in the album and print it off as a large print).

    The plus side of this was that we had an instant summer craft tradition. The older kids would “help” the younger ones put their together. The minus meant my mother giving up her dining room for a month every summer … As an adult I’ve been meaning to go through and edit down the collection into one or two scrapbooks (we did this all the way through high school) just so it’s more manageable—I’ve started a bit and it’s easier to do because everything’s already organized. Plus, my husband (a physicist) really enjoyed seeing my 2nd-grade report on electricity and magnets (I am anything but a scientist) :)

  2. I am way too sentimental and love to keep my kids’ artwork. I frame my favorites in inexpensive acrylic frames and hang them in the “kids art gallery” in the basement.

  3. I’ve liked looking through the momentos my mom saved from my childhood. We don’t have a ton, but a handful enough to get the idea of what it was like. Neat to see my handwriting change over the years and what seemed so important to me back then.

  4. we also throw away most of the “directed” art projects. and we do the box per child for the important projects, book reports, etc. and sort through it throughout the year.

    i also photograph most things. then, i don’t feel bad when their sculptures get broken (as they inevitably do), or a toddler rips a mobile book report or a something gets thrown away. and framing a few favored pieces is always fun.

    we were lucky with my 2 older girls, their kindergarten teacher made a scrapbook for each child of the year’s field trips and projects.

    hopefully my younger two will get the same teacher.

  5. I have four kids. The last one is four. I have started taking pictures of some of her artwork using my cell phone. Then I store the picture to display as a background image on my phone’s screen. I love it. The more she creates the more screens I have to choose from.

  6. thank you, thank you gabby for posting my dilemma. i am of the sentimental sort and can’t seem to give some of it up, i love all the ideas posted so far…keep them coming…

  7. We use the app Artkive. You just take pictures of the work with your phone or send it in and they will scan it all (obviously, more expensive but sometimes worth it).You can keep it all organized by child and grade. At the end of the year, we can easily pull it together and order a book.

    1. Mandy Ashcraft

      We use Artkive too and love it – the books are great quality and I use it more like a scrapbook taking pictures of ribbons or other things like that and throw in some pictures of the kids throughout the year mixed in with the art.

  8. Barbara Thornton

    I do something similar with my own kids- winnowing it down to the best to keep forever, displaying some for a few weeks and then replacing with new and recycling the old, and taking pictures of the rest. I just went through a giant box of my own school and artwork and I was pretty surprised how little I cared about keeping any of it. I think a good guideline (which I’m sure I read on a blog somewhere) is to keep one thing with their handwriting and one self portrait or other creative artwork per year. I’m having a harder time with the current stuff my kids are creating. But 30 years down the road, I can tell you, neither my parents nor I care about my kindergarten artwork that much. One piece is plenty!

  9. I recycle almost everything, but first I snap a picture of it with my phone. I have a Flickr album for each child that is nothing but pictures of their artwork. So I end up keeping almost nothing, but any time the child wants to look through an entire gallery of all of the hundreds of things they have made, they can. (I will note that neither kid has ever asked, but if they do, it’s there!)
    When they are particularly proud of something or I find it especially impressive, I hang it up on the wall of the stairwell leading down to their playroom or (for seasonal things, especially) on a wall in our dining room. I gradually move those things into the recycling bin as they get replaced with new artwork seasonally. Each year there are a handful of things per child that are just so cute I can’t bear to part with them. For those, I move them into a keepsake bin in the basement. Each kid has just one, and they are big enough that I think they will easily store all of the kids’ artwork mementos until they reach adulthood.

  10. Gillian Goddard

    I have 4 children, 3 are school age, and we would be drowning in school/art work if we kept it all. We mostly follow a similar philosophy to yours, but instead of keeping and binding the originals of special works, I take digital photos with my phone and keep a digital file for each child. Our school is good about binding/publishing writing that represents significant effort, usually 2-3 of these are produced per year and we typically save one from each year, in a keepsake box.

    Something has to be VERY special to keep the original. In pre-k my oldest made a life-sized self-portrait and it still hangs on the back of his bedroom door. I also used a few of the “best” creations in my office at work, professionally framed.

    We have been doing this for long enough that no one cries when a photocopied coloring page or run-of-the-mill math test goes into the recycling bin.

  11. I love taking art-in-progress action shots of my daughter to add to our annual family album – she’s six so a lot of her art is still very process based. Otherwise we have one small keeper bin and the rest gets recycled. I do also have a (small) file folder for things like school and activity reports, ticket stubs, etc.

    A few years back my great-aunt died and we were sent some 80+ year old school papers of my grandma’s which were really neat to see. They were moldy so couldn’t be kept, but were fun to look at!

  12. Our school’s art teacher adds their art to Artsonia. You can order notecards, coasters, mugs, etc. that features the art. It is kind of a cool way to reuse the art. I think you could do the same thing via Shutterfly. The school earns some money towards their arts programs if you order from them.

  13. I have large student portfolios in the garage for their large work, and the kids decide what to save. The best thing we’ve done was at the end of the school year last year, when the art teacher sent home the daunting giant bag of their projects for the year. Instead of despairing, I had my daughters tape them to the walls of the living room and dining room. We made appetizers and invited the neighbors over for an art show and a glass of sparkling wine. Totally reframed the storage problem into a celebration!

  14. Pam mccaskill

    I have no more suggestions for art storage (we do a combination of recycle and keep), but for the homework sheets, we have an end of year tradition of homework burning. We’re not anti homework, but the kids love to celebrate the arrival of summer with a campfire ritual.

  15. Margaret Petry

    I have 3 kids. A couple years ago, I got a plastic storage bin for each one that fits hanging file folders. I labeled each folder “Baby”, “Toddler”, “Preschool”, “Kindergarten”, “1st grade”, and on up through twelfth grade. I toss “keepable” things into an inbox on my desk, and then a couple times a year I go through the inbox and put the keepables into each child’s tub in the appropriate folder. I hope that it’ll be a great time capsule for them to see their changing capabilities and something to take with them when they graduate. The only downside is that the folders are sized for 8.5×11 pieces of paper, so there’s no room for oversized or 3D projects. We don’t have many of those, but I’ll have to figure something else out if somebody makes something that’s too big!

  16. I have the same philosophy as you Gabby for schoolwork. But for other childhood memories like clothes, toys etc we save special ones as well. Like a blanket that lasted until they were 12, or a teddy bear or Halloween costume they wore for a year. Interesting though, when they go through the box as a young adult, parents (moms especially) brace your heart- something like this might happen. 2 of my young adult daughters recently went through their boxes- they both were into American girl dolls. They decided they didn’t want their dolls anymore (gasp!) even after my protestations. They gave them generously to our friend’s young daughter. And they did the same with their my-little-ponies which they spent hours, for years, playing make believe. I was shocked; but their reasoning is that they had those memories in their head but they didn’t want to keep the stuff in a box nor did they care to share the items with future children. So times change and we have to roll with it.

  17. All of these storage solutions are brilliant.

    As someone with a very common last name, we had a legitimate need to keep every single homework and classroom assignment. We found that in a large jr and sr high school, that sometimes teachers make mistakes – even with computer recording, and that having proof of graded work was the best tool for proof of *this particular Brown* to have earned their proper grade.

    We used a simple hanging file folder system for each of the 5 kids, colour coded (each of my kids had a colour), and divided by subject, so that if anything was in question it could be easily accessed for a meeting with the teacher and or administrator. At the end of the year the file would be emptied and it would all begin anew the next year.

  18. I have one large “paper” box since none of my three kids think anything is throw-away worthy. Twice a year, I go through and toss the day to day assignments that just come home in folders every day. At the end of the year, I take cell phone pictures of the good artwork and upload to their shutterfly file. At the end of elementary school I will make each a book with their work. Things that are really good and took a lot of effort, or writings they worked hard on get saved in a file, and a few get hung up on the wall or on a clothesline in their rooms. Some gets sent to grandparents, and I keep some holiday things in the boxes of holiday decorations. It is crazy how much paper they go through each year!

  19. Mom of 4 here. I have several things framed and hung. I also have a box for each child where we’ve saved favorite things. For the most part-I toss it. My parents saved all of my art work-and when they moved out of my childhood home. I looked through, pulled my mission report to show my kids (we had just moved to CA where in 4th grade everyone does a report on a California mission.) And then I threw it all out. I guess I’m not that sentimental. ;)

  20. “How big families approach…..”. I feel like this would be a great regular post. I had #5 two years ago and I feel like I crossed over into a big family. For some reason 4 is so much harder than 5 for me. I would love common sense solutions like these.

  21. These comments make me sad…. As an elementary school teacher, I spend hours of precious time and my own personal money to give my students rich art experiences. To know the pieces just ending up in the recycle bin is a bit disheartening! I also find it interesting considering the number of people that complain about the lack of arts in public schools. Sounds like fine art might not be as important to parents as we were lead to believe.

    1. I don’t think you need to be sad, Jill.

      Practically speaking, if everything were kept, most families would need a storage unit just for all the artwork.

      Gabby, my friend has a good motto that she uses (she’s a mom of 8). The process of doing art is the enjoyable thing for the artist. So they admire things for a week and then out it goes in the recycling unless a particular child feels that it is precious enough for their own memory box.

      I only have 2 kids but I’m just as ruthless. They have one (like a big shoebox size) plastic box that they store their papers in, and they go through this to keep the most precious at the end of the school year.

    2. Think for a moment of EACH year of artwork times EACH kid you have: that’s a lot of artwork. I would need an entire closet if I kept every thing my 4 kids have made over the years. You can appreciate fine art and art in the school without needing to hang onto everything that comes through the door.

  22. Work from childhood is also great to share with the grown-up child’s husband/wife. It can really help someone get to know their significant other better and to connect via their schoolwork and creations. For example, a poem written when the husband was twelve might show talent and what he was thinking about at the time. A painting might show the care and skill in making a work of art that was of such a quality that it was saved. Photos are one thing, and are great, but productions of the mind and hands can also be an inroad into the heart of their beloved.

    Saved work can also give insights and ideas for what a couple’s kids might have skill for, like to do, etc., or just ideas from another time (possibly even another place) that people might not think of now but are great to try.

    Thanks for the post! I like these kinds of organizational, problem-solving, practical posts. Fun and inspiring!

  23. I have been following your blog FOREVER but have never commented, I just wanted to let you know I LOVE the range of topics you cover from design to politics to parenting, I especially love reading all the comments that follow one of your thought provoking questions. I have an only daughter that creates enough art it looks like we have a dozen kids! I also try to keep only the one-of kind pieces, we used to do a lot of art together (before full time school age) and so I have saved a ton of “mommy and me” art that I would love to photograph and create hardbound books as keepsakes.

  24. We include a piece of my daughter’s artwork in each birthday card we send to family and close friends. That way we share the love and it’s out of our place.

  25. Great tips! I love the drawer idea! I love your guidelines for “editing” paperwork and artwork. So helpful!
    We compost a lot of our old schoolwork. I cut off the corners if there are staples and then rip into shreds and throw in the bin. And honestly, I had this beautiful pause recently. It was the 6 pm magic light hour. I was standing at the recycle tumbler tearing up schoolwork on ecosystems, the parts of a plant and the job of decomposers. Sometimes life is so beautiful like that :).

  26. I’m looking forward to your post about displaying kid art! I need an idea that we can execute STAT! I got caught by my 3-yr-old recycling a stack of coloring pages, who was highly dissatisfied with my approach. I guess she hadn’t noticed I do it every day…

  27. This topic and the comments are so helpful! I struggle with this almost daily. My kids attended a Montessori preschool/kindergarten (my youngest is still there) and they chose/choose to do art almost every day. So there are papers coming home constantly–some easily recycled, others much more interesting that I’d like to keep.

    Our current process: immediate cull upon receiving stacks of paper; anything that looks as though it took thought/imagination/time or is just plain fun or funny is taken by the child to a plastic drawer in their room (each kid has one–they’re the stackable kind you can get from Target); when the drawers are full each kid will be tasked with cleaning it out and keeping only their most favorite items (# TBD…5 maybe?); these items will get filed in one of those large ‘kid art portfolios’ you can buy from art supply stores–I have one for each and will label the spaces inside by grade.

    My difficulty comes in the form of a fascination with apps like Artkive–I love the idea of having photos of kid artwork and making a book, but just don’t think I’d keep up with it. And would having a book AND a portfolio of select pieces be overkill?

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  29. Scanners are key!

    And I love the commenter that suggested the summer art project: what a cool, cool idea.

    After being a bit of a pack rat myself, and my mom saving a lot of things, I had about ten giant bins from birth to college that I recently went through. I gave a 1 inch binder to every year, got some plastic sheet protectors, and went to town. They’re now happy and hanging out in my living room (they’re fun colors, so I have them in a rainbow on my shelves). I will say: doing this in a small one-bedroom apartment was tough, so doing everything that you can while a child is growing would be my recommendation.

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