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How to get the kids to clean up - without asking!

Otis toddler putting clothes in laundry basket at How we Montessori

Children between the ages of two and four years old are in the sensitive period for order. They often respond well to routine, consistency, and repetition. They also respond well to order in their environment. Where there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place. Where they can find what they are looking for and easily return things to where they belong. I have found toddlers to be very responsive to putting things away and cleaning up - but how do you turn that into a life long habit?

Include pack up and clean up as part of every lesson. When teachers in a Montessori classroom present a lesson, packing away the materials is always included. The same can be applied at home. Introducing playdough for the first time? Show the child how to put it back in the container, put the lid on, put in back on the shelves (or cupboard, wherever it is kept) at the end. Showing your child how to peel a carrot? Put the peel in the compost and wash the used dishes afterward. My aim here is to make the clean up and pack away a part of the activity not separate -  and for it to become automatic to the child!

There are a couple of things to keep in mind. Clean up and put away always needs to be easy for the child. The child can't put the playdough away if the container is too hard for them to use or close. Children can't put their materials away if the room is so cluttered they can't remember where it goes. 

Our expectations need to be realistic and age appropriate. To form habits generally the earlier you start the better. As soon as the toddler learns to undress, have them put their clothes directly in the laundry hamper. As soon as they are able to take their shoes off, have them put their shoes in the shoe basket (or shelves, assuming they are walking) everytime. 

Role Model. Your child is absorbing everything in their environment, including everything you do. Do you put your books away, leave your shoes out? Your actions can helps to reinforce the positive behaviour! 

For older children who don't need a lesson or demonstration for the activity (this is the age my children are now at), set expectations and make clean up/put away a part of the activity, make it automatic and turn it into a habit. As soon as my kids get home from school they unpack their lunch boxes and put the lunch boxes in the dishwasher. If they do it every day for long enough it becomes natural. Although again we need to realistic. 

How about some examples, these are not one-off activities, these are examples of what toddler can do in the home every time the need arises. Toddlers to preschoolers can;

  • Put apple core or banana peel in the compost after eating.
  • Put clothes in the laundry hamper after taking them off for a bath. 
  • Put hair brush and toothbrush on a tray or cup when finished. 
  • Put used tissues in the bin (straight after using it). 
  • Put shoes away after taking them off.
  • Return a puzzle (or other toys) to the shelf when finished using it.
  • Hang apron (or tea towel) up after using it. 
  • Put all train track pieces (or other toys) in the basket and put the basket away when finished playing. 
  • Pull up blanket (or sheets) when getting out of bed in the morning. 
  • Wipe up a spilled drink with a cloth. 
  • Hang up bag or coat  (or raincoat/umbrella) on a hook when getting home. 
  • Put books back in basket or bookshelf when finished reading it. 
  • Put bath toys away (in basket or bucket) before getting out of the bath. 
  • Hang up bath robe or bath towel straight after using it. 
  • Return used cup to tray or sink. 

Older children can;

  • Take used dishes to sink or put in dish washer when they are finished eating or leave the table.
  • Replace toilet rolls when they use the last of the toilet paper. 
  • Replace bin liners when taking out the garbage. 
  • Empty school lunch boxes and put them in the dishwasher (or on sink) as soon as they get home from school. 
  • Hang towels up when getting home from swimming or the beach. 

Some other articles you might enjoy reading on cleaning up and that focus on establishing the right environment (conducive to order) include;

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

Why Shelves Work Better Than a Toy Box.

Putting things away and tidying up - what a toddler can do.

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