Whether you have convinced your children to practice the joyful minimalism of KonMari or if your house is just overrun toys, tidying up is a skill that every child needs. Like most lessons we teach our children, getting kids to help clean up is easier said than done. We talked to some local moms and asked them for their tried and tested tips. So, before you pull out the black trash bag or threaten to take away electronics, try these techniques to get your kids to clean up.
Everything has a place. If you want your child to be able to clean up, they need to understand what that means. When everything has a place, it’s easier for a child to respond when you ask them to put it away. They know that “clean up” means to put the toys back in their places. Labeled baskets, a catch-all toy chest, open shelving, even upcycled diaper boxes are all great options for toy storage. End the constant flood of questions like, “Where does this go? What should I do with this?”
Sing a song. Never underestimate the power of music. Younger children love to sing what they’re doing. Daniel Tiger has a clean up song that Robin C.’s toddler responds to. Katelyn B.’s kids learned the Barney clean up song in preschool and sing, “Clean up, clean up. Everybody, everywhere. Clean up, clean up. Everybody do your share!” Mary S.’s family is slightly less traditional and plays “Colonel Hathi’s March” from Disney’s animated "Jungle Book" while her children march their toys back to their places. If your kids are too old for clean up songs, just playing their favorite songs can get them into a good mood to clean.
Speed clean. This is a great tip for those active kiddos who never stop moving! Set a timer and see how many toys you can clean up before it rings. Or start a stopwatch and see how long it takes to clean up all the train pieces. Sam M. suggests racing a clock, rather than each other, to discourage sibling rivalry. Older kids can write down and save their times and try to set a new clean up PR.
Go on a roll. Grab some dice and add an educational spin to clean up time. Use a traditional six-sided cube die to work on one-to-one correspondence and count the dots and pick up that number of toys. You can use numerical gaming dice to practice number recognition (they can go up to 20 sides). For older kids, use two dice at a time to practice addition or multiplication facts.
Make it fun. Mary Poppins said it best: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.” Send your children with their toy bins to pretend that they’re recycling trucks that need to collect all of their special item to take back to the recycling center. Help your children get into character and send them on a mission to rescue the toys on the floor (maybe they’re lost in the forest or deep in the ocean or have fallen in lava!) and bring them back home. See what games you can come up with to make clean up an extension of play time.
Get creative. Gretchen B. took clean up to a whole new level. “I wrote daily chores on colorful popsicle craft sticks and they draw them out of a little cup,” she says. “I included fun things too like 'turn on music' and 'five-minute race outside'... it’s a mystery what chore will be next and they love the surprise!”
Think outside of the box to help your kids get everything back into the toy box. Your creative clean-up techniques could become new family traditions and memories in the making.
Help. When my kids ask me to help them clean and I say no, I only teach them to respond the same way when I ask them to help me clean. A clean room is something that I need because I find the mess overwhelming, but it’s also something that my kids need, too. When it’s messy, they have nowhere to play and tend to pick fights with each other out of boredom. When the playroom is clean, my kids are newly inspired to play. I try to model a helpful attitude and show them that I am happy to help them get right back to playing.
You might also like:
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2018, and updated in April 2020.