This scene is all too familiar: You’ve spent the morning cleaning while you’re child is at preschool. But the minute they come home, all your hard work is dismantled within a matter of minutes. This blog post will challenge you to look at an alternative perspective.

Preschoolers are busy learning through play and exploration, but need help learning how to put away toys and clean up before they move on to another activity. If you’d like your child to learn to take responsibility for their belongings, tidying up toys will help them acquire pride and teach them to care of what they own. Other chores around the house let them contribute to the well-being of the family, which instills an important sense of belonging. Here is some guidance to help you through the process.

Children are born with a built-in desire to play—cleaning up, however, if they perceive it as a boring chore, is not. And there’s a few reasons for that:

  • Cleaning is boring (If you think it’s boring, they will think it’s boring)
  • Cleaning interrupts their play (If they think it’s different than playing)
  • There are not clear instructions on how to clean up (The term “cleaning up” is vague and doesn’t say what is expected)
  • The task is not developmentally appropriate for their age (They are unable to process vague statements into specific behavior)
  • Child expects parent to clean up their toys (If that is how it has always worked)

Set a Good Example

There’s no better time than the present to start setting a good example for your child. You can do this by letting your preschooler watch you clean up after yourself, as well as teach them how to take care of their own belongings.

It’s not easy to keep a tidy home when you have young children—it can look like endless snacking, messy clothes, toys everywhere. So rather than taking all the responsibility of keeping a spotless home on yourself, focus on talking your preschooler through the process together. For example: “Now that we are done with our snack, it’s time to clean up. You take your plate to the sink and I’ll give you a warm rag to wipe the table.” These are two tasks that, with guidance, your preschooler can learn. Other examples include:

  • “Used napkins go in the garbage. Let’s take them to the trash together, then next time you can do it yourself!
  • “Uh oh, I spilled some milk. Sometimes that happens when we’re in a hurry. Let’s clean it up with a washcloth. Let’s get a washcloth together and wipe up the spill.
  • “You left your shoes in the middle of the living room. Where do they go when they’re not on your feet? You put them there, and I’ll get out the blocks so we can play in the middle of the floor where your shoes used to be.”  

A Place For Everything

A great organizational tool for parents and young children is the use of bins or shallow cardboard boxes for toys. Not only does it help with finding the toys they are after (such as a bin for dinosaurs, superheros, baby dolls, and blocks), it can make cleaning up much easier for the child as well. Your child learns sorting skills, which is a step to learning to read, as a bonus!

The key to success is making the cleaning up process as easy and fun as possible for your preschooler. Putting toys away is part of the game. And if everything has a “home,” that is half the task done. Other tips include:

  • Store toys on open shelves that are low to the ground. Make sure your child can reach wherever the toys are stored. A small stool may be helpful.
  • If possible, use clear bins that your child can see through.
  • Draw images or use stickers to help your child identify what’s in the box, such as a dinosaur, racecars, horses. You can even take and print out pictures of the specific toys and glue them on the boxes.
  • The more you pack in a box, the harder it will be to find the toy they are after, resulting in a dumped-out bin. Consider using shallow storage containers with just a few items in each.

Timing Is Everything

Asking your child to clean up when they’re right in the middle of building a race track, is not the best time for a transition. Children need to build their attention and persistence skills, and having a vision they can make into reality is a big part of that. Alternately, just building and seeing what it turns out like builds their creativity. Look for natural breaks in their play for cleaning up. Breaks can include:

  • Switching locations, such as from indoors to outdoors.
  • Moving from one activity to the next. For example: painting to soft dough.
  • Having a snack or meal break.
  • Getting ready to leave the house.

Instead of one big, overwhelming cleanup at the end of the day, try two or three quick cleanups to make the job easier. Cleaning up one activity before beginning the next one teaches a lifelong skill of tidiness. Their future roommates and partner will thank you! It can also be helpful to give reminders that a transition time is coming soon, and that means cleaning up what they are doing: “It will be lunchtime in 5 minutes, so after 2 minutes I’ll let you know it will be time to clean up the cups and plates from your tea party before lunch.”

Getting Down To It

When it’s time to clean up, tell your child that part of playtime is cleaning up. Help guide them through the process. If they need to put toys away, show them where the toys go. Bring the storage container over if that helps. If it’s a messier job, such as cleaning up soft dough, ask that your child start to put the dough back in their containers and help your child secure the lids on.

Your preschooler may need another prompt or two to get the job going. Wait 5 to 10 seconds to see whether your child starts cleaning up. Watch for clues that they might need help getting started, such as searching around for something. If this is the case, help them get started and find ways to break the task into smaller parts.

Don’t Stress The Mess

Expect that preschoolers will need help learning to clean up. When you shift your perspective to thinking about teaching them the lifelong skill of caring for their belongings, you may find that it is a bit easier. As with most things, they will learn best through positive experiences and teaching. Be encouraging and offer praise throughout the process. And look for ways to make cleaning up fun and just part of the play. Adding upbeat music or a “Beat the Timer” game is an easy way to add excitement to cleaning up.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).  Parenting Now! is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now! please visit their website (https://parentingnow.org/) or contact us at info@parentingnow.org


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