12 Tips for a Better Clean Up Time

Look what is this

Your kids have been playing all afternoon; moving from one activity to the next. You realize dinner is 20 minutes away and the house is a mess. There are toys EVERYWHERE.

  • Start young – I tend to think clean-up should be part of play from the beginning.  Even before children can help, you can talk to them about how, “we are done playing now, so I am going to put these toys away.” By 18 months to two years old, give them small jobs as part of the clean-up. By two-and-a-half, they should really be participating, and hopefully by four years old taking ownership.
  • Get organized – For kids to be able to put away toys, there should be clear places for toys to go. This means having a preferably clear bin for each type of toy, a box for puzzle pieces, a cabinet or shelf for puzzle boxes, a big basket for balls or a cabinet for dress-up clothes. It may take a few months to teach kids where and how things get put away, and it is worth the effort.
  • Have a consistent plan – If you find your kids do better cleaning up after each activity, make that the expectation. If it’s better to clean up at the end of the day, that’s good too. Find your plan, and then stick with it.
  • Everyone cleans – Everyone who gets to play, helps to clean.
  • Give warnings – Clean up time is a transition. Many children benefit from having a warning before transitions. With my own kids, this is, “we are done in five minutes, finish up,” and, “one minute, do your last thing.” It works best if you say the same things for each warning and mean the same amount of time. If sometimes when you say “five minutes,” you mean two because you are in a hurry or you mean 20 because you get distracted, your warnings aren’t very helpful.
  • Clean-up songs – Every preschool teacher, and most of the parents I know, sing “Clean up time. Time to clean. Everyone is helping.” That’s a start. Google “clean up songs,” there are hundreds.
  • Divide and conquer – Several children working together can distract each other. If this is the case, it may work best to assign each a specific job or area of the room to clean.
  • Set small goals – If there really are toys absolutely everywhere, it can be an overwhelming task to clean it all up. It may be helpful to start small and clean up the trains before snack and the legos after.
  • Positive choices – Giving children choices would be saying, “do you want to start with the blocks or balls?” or, “would you like to throw those in the dump truck or in the basket?” When a child makes a choices, they are that much closer to doing the behavior. For more information about how choices work in discipline, please read: https://parentingbydrrene.com/2012/10/01/how-choices-work-in-positive-discipline/.
  • Challenges – Can the child count all the blocks they put on the shelf? Can the child pick up more blocks than you? Can the child make neat stacks? Can the child put all the blocks away in two minutes? Ready, go!
  • Jobs – Jobs around clean up time might be the block supervisor, the doll organizer, or the art supply sorter. Give a title and a brief job description.
  • Read books about it – Children’s story books include:
  1. Pigsty by Teague
  2. Super, Completely and Totally the Messiest by Viorst
  3. The Messiest Room on the Planet by Kulling

Author: Dr. Rene Hackney

With a MA in school psychology and a PhD in developmental psychology, I founded and work as a parent educator at Parenting Playgroups. Somewhere in there I trained in the Developmental Clinic at Children's NMC and in the public schools. I have two beautiful, funny children who make me practice what I preach most everyday.

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