Can you really make cleaning up toys fun for a toddler?
When you get out the mop or vacuum does your toddler anxiously wait for his or her turn to clean the floor?
Most toddlers get excited when they are able to help you with cooking, mowing the lawn . . . and cleaning the house.
How does it make sense they get so excited about vacuuming that you can’t pry the vacuum cleaner away from them, yet getting them to clean up their own toys feels like you joined a circus trying every trick ever invented!
A toddler can whiz through a house like a pint-sized tornado that leaves behind a path of humongous disaster!
In a matter of minutes, all the books can be moved from neat order on the bookshelf to an unkempt pile on the floor, half the toys in the toybox are hidden in the office closet, and the colors that were neatly lined in the crayon box are scattered throughout the kitchen, living room and bathroom!
When it comes time to pick up the toys they have strewn in every corner of the house? Resistance sets in and you find yourself using every child-friendly persuasive word you can think of.
It can be frustrating, although a bit comical, how toddlers think cleaning is fun until it comes to cleaning up their own toys!
Have you experienced this with your toddler, at least once or twice?
The earlier you start working with your child on picking up their toys, the easier it will be to teach the habit of organization which is a skill that will be important throughout their life.
However, keeping the house tidy and teaching organizational skills aren’t the only reasons to have your toddler help with toy cleanup.
The mindfulness it takes to complete the activity plays an important role in the development of the mid-prefrontal cortex of your toddler’s brain. This part of the brain is responsible for body regulation and mood, attention span, and general problem-solving skills.
What age is good to start working with your child on tidying up?
Most children are ready when they are 12 months, give or take.
Evaluate his/her motor skills and language development to determine readiness. As long as they are able to understand what you’re asking them to do and physically perform the task, they are old enough to start helping.
However, don’t underestimate the amount of extra time it will take to teach your child what you want them to do and how to help.
One of the biggest mistakes parents make is to not include their child because it is faster and easier to do it themselves.
While this may be true, it is not doing your child a favor, and in the long run, you will likely wish you had taken the time to teach them at a young age.
The best advice is to not get into a rush, be patient, be consistent, and be precise with your directions.
The following tips can help make the necessary habit of cleaning up a not-so-dreaded task.
1. Make the job seem small
The last thing you want is your child to feel overwhelmed before you even get started.
Divide the cleaning area up into small squares, and finish cleaning that area before moving on to another small area.
Think of this the same as when you may feel overwhelmed decluttering your closet or a cabinet. The way to overcome this is to start working in a small area and focus on that smaller space first.
Another method is to divide the cleanup activity into similar toys. For example, pick up all the stuffed animals first, next pick up all the Legos, etc.
If you want them to learn to willingly help you, they need to be able to understand and see the end result.
We can help them see the light at the end of the tunnel by how we help them clean up. Focusing on one task at a time, he/she will feel less overwhelmed.
2. Be flexible
I understand the importance of toddlers (and littles in general) doing what you ask when you ask. However, if they are in the middle of something and you are ready to clean up, let them finish unless there is an emergency.
In other words, wait for a natural break.
Have you ever had someone at work, or your spouse at home, ask you to do something when you were in the middle of doing your own thing? If you are like most people, when this happens you are happy to help, you just want to be given a bit of time to find a stopping place before hopping up to help.
For example, if you were reading and in the middle of the page, you would probably want to finish that page or even the chapter if you were near the end before you stopped reading.
Littles are just that – little people – so it is important to remind ourselves they have the same tendencies as big people. They are very much like us, they just aren’t allowed or have a difficult time expressing themselves.
Over the years I worked with parents and children as a school counselor, I saw situations like this escalate into something so big, and it was unfortunate because it was so preventable.
The parent would ask the child to do something, the child would try to finish up what they were working on, and the parent would get angry and start the ‘I said now’ rant without taking any consideration that they would want to do the same thing if they were in the child’s situation.
This doesn’t mean to let the ‘I need to finish this’ attitude of your child overrule everything when it is being taken advantage of. However, this is easily solvable with proper guidance and conversation especially with an older toddler (close to the age of three.)
It is important to respect the fact that your child wants to finish a task even though it may not be important to you.
3. Keep it fun
We all know everything in life isn’t fun!
However, there is nothing wrong with trying to make everything we can as much fun as possible!
One way to keep toy cleanup fun is to turn it into a game.
Some great examples to do this:
- Set a kitchen timer and have a race for who can finish first.
- As you put toys away play a color or counting game by pointing out shapes or colors as you sort the toys, or count them as you put them in a toy bin.
- Make up a cleaning song and sing it as you clean up (add in some dance steps for extra giggles!)
You can also keep toy clean up fun and educational by asking questions like:
- I wonder how many blue blocks you can find to put in the bucket?
- Do you think you can get 4 cars picked up before Baby Shark stops playing? Count with your child as the cars are picked up.
- I wonder if you can fit all the yellow and orange blocks into the bucket? Count them as they are picked up and reinforce which ones are yellow and which ones are orange.
- Finish up the blocks with: I wonder if you can fit the green and purple blocks into the bucket on top?
4. Work together
It is unrealistic to expect a toddler to know how to put away their toys with being shown and taught.
It is also unrealistic to expect a toddler to know how to take good care of their toys by themselves and without being taught.
Cleaning up toys is a reflection of taking care of their toys and learning to appreciate them.
When you work with your child to put their toys where they belong, you should walk them through the process each time and teach them how to care for their toys properly.
This is especially important for tougher jobs, like lining up books correctly on a bookshelf.
5. Limit the number of cleanups
Toddlers have a short attention span.
For this reason, it is essential to work on toy clean up in small bits of time rather than long marathon cleaning sessions, and small areas rather than large areas.
As much as you may want your home to stay clean all day, you will make yourself crazy if you try to keep the house toy-free all day!
Your toddler will also get frustrated which will likely come out as negative behavior that will get them into trouble (but can be prevented by the parent grandparent, caregiver, etc. if handled properly.)
Depending on the age of your toddler, there are several different plans of action:
- Wait and clean up at the end of the day
- Clean up on a schedule throughout the day
- Clean up before something new is started
Younger littles have a less organized play routine (for example, they are not building elaborate train tracks or hot wheels loops) so although they make a mess there are actually fewer toys strewn all over.
For a younger toddler, clean-up once at the end of the day is likely the best choice. However, be aware that your child will likely not be able to clean up all the toys that are out from the entire day. Choose a small area to complete together, and you do the rest.
As the toddler gets older (closer to 3 years), they will be able to handle a bigger clean-up area.
If you choose #2, a timer can be set throughout the day (I recommend 3-4 times) and when it goes off it is time to clean-up. Be aware of what your toddler is doing and let them complete an activity they are working on, being clear as soon as they are finished clean-up will happen before the next activity is started.
This is a great choice (#2) because it teaches the importance of routines as well as reinforcing clean-up.
For an older toddler that is closer to the age of three, the second or third option is likely the best plan of action. I especially like #3, clean up before something new is started, because this will limit a big mess from happening. It also teaches your child organization and caring properly for their toys.
For the last option, your toddler must put away one toy or the toys they are playing with (for example, Legos) before they start another activity or get out different toys.
This is an excellent way to teach your child the importance of keeping things picked up and clean, taking care of toys and belongings in general, and developing a habit.
6. Create a home for every toy
I am convinced the holy grail of decluttering is creating a ‘home’ for every single item in your house.
Your toddler’s toys are no different!
Every toy your toddler owns should have a place where it goes.
This will minimize chaos in your house as well as teach your toddler how to take care of their belongings and the importance of organization at a very young age.
Toy chests are not a good option for a ‘home’ for toys.
Throwing all the toys in one place does not keep them organized (so your toddler cannot find something if they are looking for it) nor does it teach kids to respect their belongings.
The best homes for toys are bins, baskets, deep shelves, and storage boxes or crates. Items like these will keep your toddler’s toys organized so they are easy to find. Open bins also make clean-up much easier when the child can see what is inside and knows to put similar belongings with it.
Top Amazon picks for toy storage
7. Use positive words that create excitement
Positive reinforcement is a trait every parent should practice daily.
This tip will help with everything you do with your toddler, not just toy clean up.
When you speak to your child, frame the wording in a positive way.
Instead of saying, “You can’t go outside until your toys are cleaned up,” say “As soon as you get your toys cleaned up you can go outside and ride your bike.”
Another example, instead of saying, “No lunch for you until your toys are all cleaned up,” try instead, “As soon as you get all your toys picked up we can eat lunch together.”
Keeping what we say positive creates a positive reaction from our littles. Focus on the incentive first rather than leading with a negative.
8. Be realistic
This tip comes down to using common sense, as well as knowing your child.
If you have company coming over in 30 minutes and the toys need to be cleaned up, this is obviously not a good time to involve your child in the activity.
On the other hand, there may be days where you have the whole day home together, but your child is grumpy. This is also probably not a good time to work on tidying up the toys.
9. Consistency is key
This is probably the most important tip to follow if you were to pick just one.
Children learn through repetition. If you only have him/her help with toy clean up a couple of times a month or even only once a week, you will be starting the teaching process over each time.
This creates frustration for your child as much as it does for you.
Set a goal to have your child help at least 4-5 times a week. Look at your schedule and decide which days are best for the week, then follow-through.
In the midst of the week, don’t hesitate to throw in additional times if the environment is right. I can bet at any given time of the day or evening there are toys that can be picked up!
What has worked for you to motivate your toddler to help with toy cleanup?
Toddlers are loads of fun even when they challenge our patience!
They have such a narrow view of life at its finest, and they are so simple to please when we don’t expect perfection and when we willingly offer heaps of praise for even the smallest task.
It doesn’t take much to earn a great big hug from a toddler!
And there is nothing that can replace a big, sincere bear hug from one of your littles!
Hop down to the comments and share your favorite method to get your toddler onboard for toy clean up time! And please don’t forget to share and pin this post!