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

Want Kids to Play with Their Toys?

Trains are boys best friends

As a parent, I know the familiar frustrations:

  • There are so many toys and activities in the house, and the kids are complaining they are bored.
  • You have to get dinner ready and want them to play with toys, but they are under-foot.
  • They finally find something to play with, and it lasts 6 minutes (you were banking on 20).


  • Introduce and then occasionally play with them WITH their toys – When they get a new toy, it can be helpful to play with them with it. Help arrange furniture in the dollhouse or build a lego structure next to theirs. The more you can get down on the floor with them and play, really engage and play, the better. Through playing with them, you are showing them new ways to use the toys and ways to interact. Through your attention you are letting them know the play itself is valuable.
  • Have a stash of toys you can start with them, and they can continue on their own – If your child is good at puzzles, set aside a few that you can start with them and then make trips away. If they love to color, sit to color a page and then take regular breaks while they continue to color.
  • Focus on open-ended toys – Open ended toys are toys that can be used in a wide variety of ways and are often simple. There isn’t a right or wrong way to use open-ended toys. This includes blocks, balls, lincoln logs, bowls, legos, boxes and dress-up clothes.
  • Buy the low-tech toys that “do nothing” – If you are buying a new doll, opt for the one that does nothing. If you buy the one that grows long hair or the one that speaks Spanish, that dictates to the child how to use the doll. It narrows the play. If you are buying a dollhouse, opt for the one that is quiet. If you buy the one that has a doorbell, tv sounds and barking dogs, it lessens creativity.
  • Think multi-age – This means to look for toys like dress-up clothes, art supplies or building blocks that children can use when they are three years old and when they are seven years old.
  • Give them things to do that are like what you are doing – Need them to play while you cook? Give them a kitchen set and put it nearby your kitchen or give them pots and pans with spoons and a bit of water so they can “cook with you.”
  • Provide accessories – If your children like to play dress-up, add shoes, hats and bags. If it’s the kitchen set, give lots of pots and pans, place settings and food.
  • Organize the toys with all their accessories – It is helpful to their play if all of a toys parts are stored together. When they go to play farm, it’s best for all the animals, tractors and people to be right there.
  • Organize the space, so the toys are within reach – To play with toys, children need to have open access to them. Choose low shelves and clear bins.
  • Give them regular practice at independent play – It is good for kids to have real downtime (not screens), and it’s even good for them to get bored. Every day, children should have time to themselves. If your child is not good at independent play, they need more practice.
  • Encourage them or challenge them to keep at it – It is helpful to give an encouraging word such as, “wow, look how tall that tower is,” or a challenge, “can you build it faster this time?” to keep the play going.
  • Limit screentime – The more they are on screens, the less they are playing with toys.

Too Many Toys?

Realizing your children may have too many toys is a common occurrence this time of year. It may be that grandparents over delivered at the holidays. It may be that your child has only opened half their presents and are already complaining that they are bored. Whatever the reason, here are a few good answers:

  • Storage – There are some toys that can more easily be stored than others. There are metal puzzle holders, storage boxes for manipulatives, suitcases for dolls and drawers for art supplies. In my own house, we store puzzles in a cabinet and board games in the garage. I try to ask if they’d like to play with either once a week to avoid ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
  • Rotation – The plan here is to take about half of your toys to storage, box them up to the attic or the garage. Then, once every month or two, rotate about half of that out of storage with toys that were still in the house. This allows children to focus on the toys that are available and play in deeper ways. It also gives your toys a longer life overall. A toy that has been ignored on the shelf for three months is boring, but a toy that reappears after three months of being gone is like new.
  • Relocation – Just moving toys around the house can be helpful. Once when I was cleaning the house, I moved the dollhouse from the basement to the dining room just to get it out of the way. The girls had not looked at it, let alone played with it, in months. When they noticed it in the dining room, it sparked a new interest.
  • Repurpose – Too many toy cars? Roll some in paint, and then roll them on poster board to make a cool painting. Draw a big map and glue on cars.
  • Donation – Gently used toys are often welcome at donation centers.
  • Friend Swap – Organize a swap with your moms club or neighborhood playgroup.
  • Sell – One of my friends swears by selling big toys on Craig’s List.

Too Many Toys?

I gave a lunch hour parenting workshop on Overindulgence at the OPM today. This included a discussion about having too many toys and the benefits of rotating them. Growing up (a child of the 70s) I had a book shelf, a table for coloring, a dollhouse, a bed and a dresser in my room. Admittedly, the dollhouse was stocked, but that was it for toys. I played for hours a day over years with that dollhouse. I did this in part because that’s all that was available.

The idea of less is more is truly the case with toys. Consider the child that has a collection of Groovy Girls, Polly Pockets, American Girls, Barbies, Littlest Pet Shop and Calico Critters. Likely, she doesn’t play with anything as long or as often as I played with that dollhouse. Part of the answer if you sense your child has too much, is to pack half of it up in storage, then once a month or so, rotate half of that back in. With fewer choices, your child will likely play more often and more creatively with what is available. It also allows you to bring a few toys back into rotation each month as “new” without having to buy anything. This increases the life and interest in any particular toy. A toy that has been out of sight a few months is new, a toy sitting unused on the shelf is boring.

You might also get renewed interest just by moving toys around the house. I thought my girls had lost interest in their dollhouse that was in the playroom. No one had touched it in months. While cleaning one day, I carried it to the dining room. My daughters saw it there, it sparked their interest and they played with it often over the next month.

If you have too many toys, it can also be a golden opportunity for teaching about giving to others. Help your older children to sort through and find the toys they really don’t play with anymore. Have them help clean and box the toys that are in great condition and go with you to donate them.

Ways to Encourage Independent Play

Mädchen spielt mit Puzzle

It can be difficult when your child seems to need a playmate all day. If you aren’t playing with them, they complain they are bored or just wander and whine. It is a good skill in life to be able to occupy your own time. Here are several ways to encourage independent play:

  • First, pinpoint any particular needy times and plan accordingly – If your child is an early riser and always in need of company at that time, or if they need to reconnect when parents first return home, don’t expect those to be times for independent play.
  • Set aside specific times TO PLAY – Some children worry that they won’t get anytime with you if they don’t follow your every move and ask to play constantly. Giving them a time they can count on may aleviate this worry. It helps some if this play is the same time every day (think the needy times), but it can be different as long as it is your priority.
  • Explain why you need the time – Even very young children may appreciate an explanation of what you will be doing. This can be as simple as, “mommy has a few calls to make. I need quiet for 10 minutes.”
  • Set-up for play – Preschool classrooms are set-up for play. There is a reading corner with bookshelves, beanbags and puppets. There is a kitchen area with a stove, sink, fridge, table, place settings and babies in cribs. These set-up areas encourage children in to play. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just think to make the play space inviting.
  • Create a space that builds on their interests – If your child is very into picture books, make a cozy reading corner that invites them in. Big beanbags, a low faceout book shelf, maybe a tape player for books on tape and a few related things like puppets. If your child loves trains, maybe a train table with lots of storage and a carpet with additional track.
  • Store toys and basic art supplies in view and within reach – Toys that are out of sight tend to be out of mind. If you prefer plastic bins, pick clear ones so kids can see what’s inside without dumping them out. Basic art supplies include crayons, paper, Play-doh or clay and water paints with brushes. If you are brave, this includes markers.
  • Store one type of thing per container – If you have bins or baskets, try to put just dress-up clothes in one and just balls in another. If you have a big toy box, add cardboard dividers so you have separate sections. When all kinds of toys are stored together, toys on the bottom are not played with and pieces tend to go missing more often.
  • Have specific areas for stored away toys – This means have a puzzle cabinet or a board game closet. While they may be out of sight, they are organized and together. Over time, your child will know where they are stored.
  • Start things with your child they can easily continue on their own – If your child is good at puzzles, maybe start a puzzle together and then take short trips away to “check on dinner” or, “change over the laundry.” Gradually make longer trips away.  When you do come back, each time comment, “you played so nicely by yourself,” or, “look, you got four more pieces done.”
  • Give your child things to do that are like what you are doing – If you are cooking, give them pots and pans with spoons and a bit of water, or let them “wash dishes” in the sink. If you are on the computer, give them their leap pad. They feel like they are doing something with you.
  • Set aside an independent play time each day – In the beginning independent play may go better if children are expecting it and they know how long it’s expected to last.
  • Provide more open ended toys – Closed ended toys have a built in end point. Open ended toys include dolls, blocks, kitchen and cooking sets, dress-up clothes and art supplies. Children use these toys in endless ways so the independent play may last longer.
  • Ask them their plan for play – If they often have trouble getting started ask them their plan or what they are going to play first. It may be easier for them to start once they have made a decision and have a focus.
  • Store some of your toys and then rotate – Many children have too many toys. When there are too many and toys just sit on the shelf, over time they become less interesting to children. The answer is to put half of the toys away in storage. When there are fewer choices, children tend to play longer and in deeper ways with the ones that are available. This also allows you to rotate toys which introduces toys as new without having to buy any. Rotating toys may be swapping half of what’s stored with half of what’s out every month or so.
  • Avoid filling their independent play time with TV and other screens – There can be a time for screens, but when you want your children to practice independent play, avoid them. Children watching screens are being otherwise occupied and not learning to play on their own.
  • Boredom is a good thing – Many parent worry about their children being bored when left to play alone. This boredom is what sparks creativity, allows children to explore their interests and leads to better quality independent play. It is good for kids to have real downtime. At a minimum think an hour a day of unstructured, just go play time. Time when they are in charge of what to do next.
  • Arrange playdates (if this is helpful) – Not really independent play, but once children are a bit older, they may want a friend to help spend their time playing away from you. You may have to have several playdates to find a mix of children that can play together nicely for long stretches. For others, the playdates are never really helpful. Some need more supervision on playdates, and there is no way you’d leave them alone. For more ideas about playdates, please read https://parentingbydrrene.com/2014/09/07/all-about-playdates/.
  • Give them more time – When children are bad at independent play, they often just need more practice.
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