From blocks to books, to stickers to stuffies (SO MANY STUFFIES!), life with a toddler is never boring. But with all that fun comes a lot of cleanup. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re putting away toys just as your toddler dumps out a new box of toys to play with—the work of a parent is never done!

Thankfully, by the time toddlers are 3- or 4-years old (although there can be very helpful 2-year olds), they are capable of helping put their toys away. The trick is to make the task manageable for them and not overwhelming. Here are some tips to help teach your kids to clean up their messes.


  • Set a good example by explaining what you are doing while you clean around the house.
  • Use toy boxes without lids for your child to easily access.
  • Pick certain times of the day to clean up: Before transitioning to a new activity; before mealtime; or before leaving the house.

As morning snack time approaches, give your toddler a 5-minute warning (visual timers are very helpful in these instances) that playtime is almost over and that she is going to need to clean up very soon. When the timer goes off, calmly tell your child to start picking up, and be as specific as possible: “It’s time to stop coloring, could you please put your markers in the box for me?”

If possible, keep the job small or break it into manageable chunks. Upsets can ensue when the task seems too big. Give a choice: “Do you want to put away the bear or the elephant?” You are giving a choice between two things that need to be put away, and your child will feel like she is in control.

If, after 10-15 seconds, they aren’t winding down their play and starting to clean up, acknowledge their feelings and make the request again. Let them know what’s next: “I know you would rather keep coloring, but it’s time to put the markers away. When we’re done putting away the markers we can have lunch. We’re having mac and cheese—your favorite!”

Cleaning Can Be Fun

Some toddlers love to be helpers—others need a little encouragement, and that’s OK. Be sure to offer lots of praise when your toddler helps put their toys away. Other ways to make cleanup time fun include:

  • Make a game out of it by, such as racing the timer to get all the toys away before the buzzer goes off.
  • Put on some fun music while you clean up. Music also works as a great “cleaning time” cue.
  • Have them use tongs to pick up small toys.
  • Have them pick up by category. For instance, all the balls, blocks, or dolls.

Over time, you can use fewer prompts and decrease the amount you need to help.

Happy Helpers

You might think it’s easier to just clean up after your child yourself—for sure it’s quicker! But cleaning up is an important life skill that will serve your children well as they move to school. If your toddler struggles with listening to you when you ask them to clean up, guide them through the steps. If there is still resistance, a logical consequence would be to remove the toys for play for a set amount of time: “Mark, if you can’t put away your blocks, then they are going away for the rest of the day.”

A child’s job is to learn through play. It’s vital that they use their imaginations, manipulate toys, get messy, and problem solve. The goal is to find a balance between allowing your children to play freely and your comfort level with how tidy you want your house to be!


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

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