At what age do you think children can put away their own toys? It's not so much about age as it is about ability. Once the child is able to pick up and release a block, they can start to put their blocks away. Once a child can walk, they can start to put their toys back on the shelves. Toddlers at around 18 months can provide a lot of help putting away, but by two or two and a half I find most toddlers can pack up and put away the majority of their toys and many toddlers actually enjoy it.
Here are a few tips that I've found useful in encouraging my toddler to put away his own toys:
- Start young. Pack away the toys once the child has finished playing with them from the start, from infancy. If the child can see the toys being put away, this will set the standard. The child will come to see packing up and putting away as the norm and a part of the process.
- As soon as the child is able, ask them to participate, invite the child to help you pack away the toys. You may need to be specific "can you help me put the blocks back in the red basket", "let's pick up all the cars".
- Use verbal prompts and cues for children from around 18 months to 2yrs+. Often my toddler will leave his work and move onto the next thing. But often all it takes is for me to ask him to put away his tray and he remembers and packs it up. He just needs a little prompting!
- Be consistent with your expectations, and if possible see that caregivers (at least at home) are consistent too.
- Use baskets and trays that are adequate in size. Toys and materials need to easily fit in the baskets and trays. Toddlers can struggle to pack things away neatly, the baskets and trays needs lot of room for the materials to fit, otherwise I find it frustrates the toddler.
- Set the child up for success. Make it easy for them to put their toys away. Make sure there is a place for everything and that the child knows where everything goes.
- Limit the number of toys or materials out. Just because the lacing set comes with 100 beads doesn't mean you need to put 100 beads on the tray. Only put out as many pieces as the child uses or can manage, then observe the child and see if they need more or less pieces.
- Demonstrate and role model the putting away process. When you present a new tray or material make sure the child knows how to pack it up and what is expected especially if it involves using new containers with different closures.
- Use child friendly containers. If the child needs to put away things like play-dough, make sure they are easy for the child to use independently.
- Put everything the child needs at the child's height. Does the child need cleaning cloths, a broom, can they reach their shelves, think about the packing up and putting away process, can the child reach everything they need?
- If you are doing a lot of art or cutting and pasting, consider putting a child size bin in the child's work area.
- Use neutral or positive language when encouraging or talking about clean up. Children naturally pick up on our cues, if we talk negatively about cleaning up, "oh no, this is such terrible/bad a mess" they will begin to see mess as a negative when usually it's a natural and expected part of the process. Packing up and putting away shouldn't be seen as a negative.
- If possible use a forward facing bookshelf for toddlers. It is important that toddlers are taught to respect books and put them away when finished. I have found forward facing bookshelves the easiest for toddlers to get books out and put away independently.
If your child goes to a Montessori school pay attention to how the children pack up and put away their materials. Often we think toddlers and preschoolers are just messy but Montessori classrooms can show us what children are capable of. If your child is tidy at school but isn't interested in packing up at home, have a talk to your child's teacher or guide, they may have some ideas to help.
I never force my children to put things away. Children including toddlers go through stages where sometimes they want to help and other times they don't. I continue to role model, to encourage, to continue to put their work away in front of them. It may be necessary to remove some toys or trays if a particular piece is being a problem. If this happens we can re-access how the toys are being stored or presented and make changes if necessary.
Of course all of this can be more difficult if you have a baby and a toddler or two toddlers at home but it is worth it to try when we can. I've seen at home and we've seen it in Montessori schools, that young children are capable of putting away their toys and materials at least some of the time.
I am not talking about achieving a high level of perfection here, but setting a realistic standard. My toddler (at 25 months) will put away his toys/materials about 50% of the time, he will put away an extra 25% with verbal prompting and perhaps some help, but around 25% I will end up putting them away, this feels age and developmentally appropriate.
I'd love to hear how you approach packing up and putting away, do you struggle with consistency or is it just me?