How to Get Kids to Clean Up After Themselves: 7 Tips
By Marilee Nelson |
There’s nothing like that magical moment at the end of the day. The kids are asleep. The dishes are done. And you finally have some time to spend by yourself or reconnecting with your partner.
Then you see it…the explosion of toys your kids left behind from a day of creative play.
Sure, you meant to make them tidy up before bath time. But then the evening routine kicked into high gear, dinner needed to get made, homework completed, pajamas found and put on, etc. and suddenly everyone forgot about tidying up.
So you wind up spending a good portion of your “me time” cleaning up everyone elses messes. So much for that “magical” time of day, huh?
If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re in good company. Getting children to consistently participate in tidying up is a challenge nearly all parents face.
But there is a light at the end of the play tunnel. With a little preparation, organization, and commitment you can get your family on a fuss-free clean up routine in almost no time flat.
In this article, we’ll share what helped us make this happen with our young children. We’ll discuss why it’s important for them to help clean up, plus offer tips on what’s appropriate for different ages, how to make clean-up fun, and how to restructure your child’s play space to make cleaning up a whole lot easier.
Why We Should Teach Kids To Clean Up
Teaching children to clean up after themselves is not only practical, it also helps set them up for future success while enhancing their mental and emotional development and well-being.
Years ago, Maria Montessori, discovered that children have an inborn passion for order, consistency, established routines, and repetition. She called this the sensitive period for order which starts at birth, peaks at 18 months to 2.5 years, and continues to age five. Montessori's work is confirmed by modern researchers.
For example, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that when children were given age-appropriate chores, they developed a greater sense of self-reliance, responsibility, and mastery.
Playing and living within a more organized, clutter-free environment also contributes to a child’s emotional health by reducing stress and enhancing focus.
When we live in a state of clutter or half-finished projects, it causes our brain to constantly shift focus (should I tidy that up now or wait until later? Should I finish building that tower…or move onto something else?). Even if we aren’t consciously aware of it.
The same goes for children, who may not understand that it’s the clutter causing them to act out, express frustration, have trouble focusing, feel anxious, etc.
One study in Environment and Behavior
That’s not to say children shouldn’t be free to make a big mess while they’re having fun. In fact, this is essential to developing creativity and life skills. However, that mess shouldn’t linger too long after they’re done playing with it.
Creating a consistent clean-up routine also helps enhance the parent-child relationship. At a basic level, it takes away the conflict of always asking them to clean up. Plus, being unable to find their favorite toy is stressful for everyone.
At a deeper level, it helps contribute to the sense of security kids crave from routines, rhythm, consistency, and being a useful part of the family unit.
But How Young Is Too Young?
Children can start cleaning up at a very young age. The key is to keep your expectations age-appropriate.
For example, a young toddler will enjoy modeling what mom or dad are doing. And may be able to help with things like:
- Washing non-breakable dishes (a learning tower is great for this)
- Bringing their dishes to the sink
- Dusting low surfaces
- Cleaning sinks
- Sorting socks
- Starting the washing machine or dryer
- Cleaning their own toys in a big bubbly tub of water
As our kids got older, 2 ½ - 3, we even let them help with cleaning the bathrooms, floors, and mirrors. You have to monitor them of course. But if you’re using a non-toxic cleaner, like Branch Basics, it’s safe to let them participate in supervised cleaning.
Note: Do NOT ever let children clean with chemical cleaners! And keep in mind, many “eco-friendly” or “natural” brands still contain harmful ingredients. If you’re unsure if your cleaner has chemicals, look it up on EWG or forego cleaning with your child. It’s just not safe.
Insofar as tidying up toys, children can start helping as soon as they can put an object into a bin. They may get bored after cleaning up just one or two objects, but it’s a start.
As they get older, stay consistent and they’ll participate more. And be sure to show appreciation for their efforts.
7 Tips To Get Kids To Clean Up
If your children are resistant to cleaning up, and/or you’ve not been consistent with requiring it, these seven tips will help right the ship fast.
Tip #1: Start Young
If you’re lucky enough to have babies or toddlers, now’s the time to get them involved in cleaning (and if your kids are older, don’t worry we have tips for that too!).
Toddlers naturally enjoy helping, and want to model what mom, dad, brother, or sister are doing. Instead of telling them “no”, or putting them in a pack and play with toys while you clean up, let them get involved.
Toddlers can also get involved in cleaning up their toys. Singing a clean up song, modeling tidying up, and helping them put things away is usually enough to get them involved.
It’s also helpful for them to see a tidy home each morning. This sets the expectation that we tidy up at the end of each day.
All this said: don’t expect miracles with young ones.
A friend who taught Early Childhood Education for over 50 years once told me: often you can only expect a young child to tidy up as many toys as their years. For example: “Jackson is 2, that means he needs to pick up 2 toys.”
Tip #2: Make It fun
This may sound like a no-brainer, but kids will be more likely to tidy up if it’s a fun activity vs. a chore. Some simple ways to do this include:
- Playing music
- Getting the whole family involved
- Allowing plush toys to be thrown into bins (or even through a basketball hoop)
- Offering a reward at the end (this could be television time, a story, a dance party, etc. we don’t recommend bribing them with sweets)
- Setting a timer to see how much they can clean up in 5 minutes
- Make it a competition to see which child can clean up the most toys first (although this one can backfire with very competitive children, so only use it if it creates a positive experience)
No matter how you choose to make it fun, the point is to eliminate the idea that cleaning up is a “chore” or “punishment”. So, keep it positive, get creative, and have fun.
Tip #3: Limit Their Choices By Cycling Toys
In one of our favorite parenting books, Simplicity Parenting: Using The Extraordinary Power Of Less To Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids author Kim John Payne, M.Ed, describes how excess toys and stuff causes a variety of behavioral problems in children. These behavior issues often go away when their spaces are radically simplified.
In other words: less is more when it comes to enjoying toys and taming clutter.
Unfortunately, society is obsessed with showering children with excess toys. The best solution we’ve found to this (which saves you from offending well-meaning gift-givers), is to cycle their toys.
So, one evening a month or so, we take inventory of their toys: what are they loving…and what’s collecting dust?
From there, we quietly box up the forgotten toys—or give them away if they’re really out of date— and replace them with other once-forgotten toys from our storage spaces.
If we’ve done our job well, the children are thrilled to see some of their old toys, have no idea we took away the ones they weren’t playing with, and we have a much less cluttered playroom.
If they do ask about a toy that’s “missing”, tell them you put it away because it looked like they were done playing with it. If they’d like it back, tell them they can exchange it for another toy.
This usually works well. However, if it creates anxiety or a problem, just bring out the toy they’re missing and quietly put away another toy in a couple days.
Tip #4: Have Realistic Expectations…and Forget Perfection
We’ve already discussed what’s realistic with young children, but what about older children?
That all depends on your expectations, your family culture, and what’s doable given the season of life.
Children over 4 or 5 should be able to tidy up their playrooms and bedrooms every day. However, they may not do it perfectly…and that’s okay!
Ultimately it’s consistency and doing their best work that matters vs. perfection. If we nit-pick too much, it can erode their self-esteem and cause feelings of resentment towards cleaning up. Which is exactly what we want to avoid.
Bottom line: reward consistency and true effort vs. perfection every time.
Tip #5: Establish A Clean-Up Routine And Be Consistent
Children thrive on routine and consistency. It gives them a sense of security in a world in which they have very little control.
When it comes to tidying up, decide what you think is realistic on a day-to-day basis. Some families’ clean-up routine involves cleaning up before moving onto the next activity.
Others only require a once-a-day-before-bed or television time tidy up. While some families have a tidy-up-before-every-meal policy.
There’s no wrong way. Just make sure it happens at the same time every day and your children will participate more eagerly.
Tip #6: Make It Easy For Your Children To Clean Up
Children love to be self-directed—which means doing things for themselves.
As parents, it’s our job to create an environment that facilitates and encourages this natural inclination for self-sufficiency.
The best way to do this is to minimize toys, and organize their play spaces in a way that makes everything super-accessible. This works great in entry ways and bedrooms for clothes and shoes too.
Toy Boxes are cute and nostalgic, but they’re not a very organized way to store or tidy up toys.
Instead, use clear, lid-free plastic bins labeled with words and/or pictures so children know exactly where everything goes. For inspiration, do a quick image or Pinterest search of Montessori classrooms.
It’s fine to have one “dump bin” where random things get stored, but make sure the general categories have a specific place to live.
Books should be stored in bins or a child-specific, front-facing bookshelf that makes taking them out and putting them back easy.
For library books, keep a library book basket or bin. This keeps library books separate from theirs and makes it easy to clean up.
Tip #7: Model The Behavior You Wish To See
As a parent you know that your children are always watching, listening, and observing your every move.
Children learn how to function in the world from watching us. We are their ultimate role models and they are the ultimate reflections of us.
This means, we need to model the behavior, actions, and moral character we wish to see in our children. Including, keeping our own spaces tidied up.
This doesn’t mean you have to keep an immaculate and sterile home. But, do let them see you respecting your home by cleaning and tidying up on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to be perfect, they just need to see you making an effort.
As the old saying goes: “I wouldn’t ask you to do something I wouldn’t do myself”.
At The End Of The Day…
Teaching our children to clean up is all about the household functioning better as a whole, while giving our kids the tools they need to be successful.
It’s not about constantly nagging them, getting into a power struggle, or trying to force a perfect picture of neatness.
As you embark on establishing a fun new clean-up routine that sticks, remember these key takeaways:
- Age-appropriate chores/jobs, like tidying up, helps set children up for future success while enhancing their mental and emotional development and well-being.
- When possible, start young! Just remember to ONLY let them help if you’re using 100% natural, non-toxic cleaning products.
- Make it fun!
- Limit their choices (and overwhelming clutter) by cycling their toys.
- Have realistic expectations and forget perfection! If younger children are resistant to tidying up, simply tell them: “Mika is 2, that means she picks up 2 toys.”
- Establish a routine and be consistent. Children thrive on consistency and repetition.
- Make it easy for your children to clean up. When they know where things go, can reach everything easily, and there’s not too much to put away, it encourages them to be self-directed.
- Model the behavior you wish to see. Walk your talk, and get the whole family involved in tidying up.
Getting your children on a regular clean up routine will take some time, consistency, and patience. But, if you follow the tips in this article (especially about consistency and making it easy for them to tidy up) and tune into their natural rhythms, it may not take as much time as you think.
And above all, be patient, keep your expectations realistic, and keep things positive. Sure, there’ll be set-backs and resistance along the way. But eventually they will get into the flow…and you’ll finally have your evenings back.
For more tidying-up inspiration and tips, check out:
Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.