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How to Encourage Your Child to Clean Up - And Why It Is Important

Otis Cleaning up, toys in baskets

Do your kids pick up and put away their toys? Mine do… most of the time. My kids absolutely make crazy and wild messes but cleaning up and putting away is a priority. Why? 

  • We value and respect our materials and our toys. When we respect something we take care of it. We appreciate it. We look after it. When toys are put away they are less likely to get lost or broken or damaged (or stepped on!). 
  • We value our environment and our home. We respect the people we share our environment with. We look after our spaces and ensure they are functional (a bedroom isn't functional if we can't move around it). We respect that others live and work in our environments. 
  • We value order. We value being able to find our toys. Ever had a child get frustrated because they can't find a toy and need it now? We like to know where our toys are and where to find them. We work better when we can find our things!
  • Teaches natural consequences. This is so key! If we pick up our toys our spaces are in order, we have clean work and play areas and we can find our things. Not packing up also teaches natural consequences, if we don't pick up, the place is a mess and there is no clear space. However continually picking up after your child, especially in older children 3 years on, does not teach natural consequences. If parents always clean up after the child, the child only learns that they can make a mess and it will magically be clean the next day. 
  • Teaches responsibility. Children can begin to have ownership over their own areas such as their bedroom, especially as the child ages. In our home the child's responsibilities increases with their age. You may not expect a child of three to take responsibility for their mess or area but what about at five, six, seven, at eight? At some stage we need to accept that our children will benefit from taking responsibility for their actions.
  • Children learn good life skills. Tidying, sorting and organising are really good life skills to have. We can help our children by teaching these skills when they are young. 

So how can we help and encourage our children to clean up after themselves?

  • Provide an orderly, beautiful environment to begin with. If a room or space is cluttered, if the child is overwhelmed with toys, there is little hope of them cleaning up and putting away. Children need to know where their toys go, where to put them. This needs to be clear and obvious. Set the child up for success, make it easy for them to clean up! 
  • Be consistent with our expectations. Children need to know what our expectations are - so they can meet them. The school environment is a good example of this. The children very clearly know what is expected and this is why they pick up after themselves at school. At home children need to know what the boundaries are, if they need to clean up after each activity, at the end of the day, or if they can leave their things out, what needs to be packed up? As as example… in our home our children are allowed leave their blocks out, they often have large creations they want to work on over many days, however the blocks need to be kept on a (large) rug, the rug defines the area and the children know this. 
  • Be a good role model. It's difficult to expect our children to clean up if we don't (to some level) clean up after ourselves. We need to show our children that we value our things and our environment. If our children see us packing up they are likely to do so too.  
  • Clean up together. Especially with young children but I will still do this with my eight year old. Often their mess is just overwhelming. They might like company. Show them they are not on their own - support them. Cleaning up together can be more fun, takes less time and often encourages a reluctant child to participate.  
  • Start when they are young. I don't expect young children to clean up after themselves, however a toddler will often love helping, packing up blocks if you do it together in a fun way. With a young child we can teach through demonstrating that putting away the activity is a part of the activity. If we make it routine from an early age, cleaning up is not such a big deal. However for a child who never has had to clean up after themselves it can be really difficult. 
  • Make it routine, make it a habit. 
  • Break down the task. If the child is overwhelmed help them with clean up. This is especially important with older children, 3 years on when their mess might be more complex. Show them where to start, 'perhaps we will pick up the blankets first, then we can put the cars in this basket' or 'can you pick up the cars and I will pick up the dolls' or 'cars go in the red basket, play silks go in the round basket…'.

Please know I am not writing about perfection. It is about teaching and creating good habits and living in beautiful spaces. We need to decide what level of order is important for us and be consistent with our children. My point above about natural consequences is really important as is empowering our children and giving them the skills they need.

You might also enjoy my recent post on Why Shelves Work Better Than a Toy Box

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