How to teach your toddler to clean up and put their toys away – for the mom who’s sick of cleaning up after everyone.
I feel almost silly and pretentious writing articles like this. Like some sort of perfect housewife, soccer mom, hot-meal-is-always-ready-when-my-husband-gets-home types. It just doesn’t feel like me. (And don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking perfect moms. I strive to be that lady.)
The truth is I’m just a regular mom, trying to figure everything out the same as anyone else.
I don’t have a degree in child development (though I’ve toyed around with the idea over and over throughout the years), and aside from working at a preschool for a year before having my son, I don’t have any more experience than most other moms.
However, this IS one of the few things I know I’m rocking when it comes to parenthood. Maybe I’m just lucky, I don’t know. Maybe my son was destined to be a little neat-freak, regardless of my efforts.
Either way, I feel pretty darn proud of my clean little dude, and I feel compelled to share what I feel has been helpful in teaching my son to clean up after himself.
That’s not to say that my house is constantly clean, and my son is a little angel who picks up every single toy after playing with it. But most of the time all I have to do is ask once and he’ll put things away (or attempt to). Even better, it’s gotten to the point where he does it on his own sometimes!
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How To Teach Your Toddler To Clean Up
1. Lead By Example
I know, I know. This seems lame. It’s not a song or a game that I can teach you in two minutes that will magically result in your toddler being a little cleaning machine.
But it’s the number one most important thing you can do to instill good habits in your toddler. I’m sure you know that kids follow our lead. They’re far more likely to mimic your actions than they are to follow directions.
And at a young age, they won’t even understand the concept of cleaning if they don’t see adults doing it around them.
So clean often, and do it in front of your toddler! Set the expectation that your house is meant to be kept clean. I truly believe it’s important for a number of reasons. It shows your toddler what “normal” is (and remember, “normal” is whatever we make it out to be. You’re in the driver’s seat on that one.) It teaches our kids that our belongings are to be treated with respect, and they’re of value.
Clutter in your home creates clutter in your mind, and that goes for toddlers too.
They’re just as susceptible to feeling overwhelmed or experiencing anxiety when the house is messy as we are, if not more so.
Also, when you keep your home tidy most of the time, your toddler is much more likely to notice when something is out of place, and they’ll feel driven to put it away. So make cleaning a priority. Make it your “normal”.
2. Let Them Help, Every Time
Sometimes it takes every ounce of strength I have to allow my son to tediously complete a task that I know I could have done in all of three seconds. But I refuse to put out that flame!
Have you seen those viral articles on Facebook? The ones about letting our kids “help” without taking over? The idea is that by telling them not to help because we’re able to finish tasks quicker without them, we’re setting them up to hate helping out as they get older.
Now, I don’t know if I fully buy into that. It makes sense developmentally, that toddlers are all about helping Mama put the dishes away, but 12-year-olds aren’t thrilled at the prospect of spending the afternoon cleaning with Mom.
But I will say it’s important to encourage their good behavior. And while I know I could clean the house in half the time by myself, I’d much rather allow my son to “help,” even if it means it takes twice as long. The best way to learn is by doing! And on the off-chance these articles are on to something, I don’t want to risk it.
“Mom Can Do It Better/Faster”
Above all else, in our house (and many people’s homes), the expectation is that everyone pitches in to keep things in order. As a boy mom, I don’t want to fill my son’s head with the idea that the lady of the house cleans everything while the boys stay out of the way. I want him to feel capable.
Messes are not for Mom only, and we all pitch in. We respect our belongings, each other, and ourselves enough to keep things clean.
3. Cycle Through Different Toys
Unless you practice minimalism, your toddler probably has way more toys than they could possibly play with every day. I like cycling through different toys for several reasons. My son stays interested in his toys longer, and it’s the best (and easiest way) to keep things clean. I’m sure this is especially true for parents with more than one toddler running around.
They don’t need access to every single toy at all times. That just creates chaos.
4. Plastic. Bins.
I could go on and on about my love for plastic bins. It’s ironic, because I try to cut out plastic from our home as much as I can. At least I can say that I use these for years.
These are my favorite plastic bins for toys and sensory activities. I’ve only bought two sets and I still have a ton leftover. We have bins set up all over the house with different activities and toys. For random little toys that don’t seem to have a real “home,” I separate them by color, so we have a yellow bin, a red bin, a blue bin, etc.
It keeps activities and toys contained. I can’t imagine how our home would look if all the toys were thrown in drawers or on shelves. It would be complete chaos. If that sounds like your home, I urge you to invest in some bins right away!
It helps create this idea that one set of toys or a specific activity needs to be put away before playing with a new set. You’re done with your wooden blocks and you want to check out what’s in your green box? Let’s put the blocks away real quick.
And honestly, for the time being, my toddler still isn’t capable of opening these bins on his own yet. He has to ask me for “-elp” every time he wants to dive into a new activity, which makes it easy for me to step in and show him that we need to put away the other box(es) first.
This won’t last forever. One day he’ll be able to open them on his own. My goal is to help him understand the importance of a clean play space before that day comes. (Wish me luck).
5. Put Away Toys Before Opening Up New Activities
As I mentioned above, I think it’s very important to teach your toddler to put away toys and activities before diving into something new. Everyone already knows this. It isn’t news.
The problem is, no one is able to keep up with their toddlers every moment of every day. Who has time for that? That’s what it would take if I didn’t have things put away in plastic bins, with some toys out of reach until I cycle them back in.
You cannot have every toy within your toddler’s reach, every moment of every day. That’s just asking for trouble. So do whatever it is you need to do to keep some order in your house. Catch your toddler trying to play with a new toy, and encourage them to put the others away first, and add some bins to your life!
6. Make It Fun With Clean Up Games For Preschool Aged Kids
There are plenty of games for toddlers and preschoolers to make cleaning fun! I never went all out with printing out cards or going full-on Pinterest mom. Instead, I kept it simple.
Challenge your toddler to pick up all of his/her toys as fast as they can, or incorporate dancing and jumping into the cleanup process somehow. Hell, get them some sparkly stickers and put a sticker on their hand every time they clean up after themselves.
You can never go wrong with stickers and a super hyped up attitude!
7. Sing Clean Up Songs
Clean up songs are even better than games if you ask me. It takes zero prep!
You can make them up as you go, or look through Pinterest for ideas. The best thing I’ve found is to make them up along to the tune of a familiar song. No one has time to learn a brand new song, including the melody, let’s be real.
And you can always default to Barney’s clean up song. It may seem overused and lame to you, but it’s new to your toddler!
8. Encourage Them To Help
Find what they enjoy helping with, and encourage the behavior. For example, my son loves throwing things away. He’s not very interested in sweeping, but he likes watching me for now. I don’t push him to help me sweep, and instead focus on encouraging him to grow his love for throwing things away. Ha!
When he throws things away that aren’t meant to go in the trash, sometimes I don’t even correct him. Other times I try to explain that dishes go in the sink and aren’t considered trash. It all depends on his mood.
Do your best to foster the habits they’re currently interested in forming, and don’t worry about “teaching” them new skills so much as showing them new skills. When they show interest in it, encourage it!
9. Don’t Force It
If your toddler throws a fit or ignores you when you ask them to put their toys away, don’t punish them or dwell on it. Complete the task yourself and move on.
For older children, obviously, this would be horrible advice. But for toddlers, it’s not going to make them grow up to be bratty or entitled. We can’t hold them to the same standards as older kids. Remember, at this age, it’s all about encouraging and fostering a love and appreciation for their belongings and their home.
They won’t remember that you did the job for them when they had a meltdown, and they’ll likely jump in to help shortly after they finish their tantrum. It’s not worth it to push them to complete a task when they really don’t want to, and it will work against you in the long run.
10. Praise Them
They’re not puppies, and we’re not trying to “train” them, but rather guide them in the right direction and instill good habits that will benefit them throughout their lives.
It’s important to get in the habit of praising our kids often, especially when it comes to encouraging good behavior. You don’t have to go all out with the high-pitched excited shrieks (I catch myself doing that too often).
Just a simple “thank you,” or “you did a great job” is good. For a more Montessori approach, ask them how it makes them feel to have a clean space, and if they’re happy with the work they did.
They’ll want to continue doing things that make you proud, and they’ll want to do things that make them proud of themselves.
11. Be Consistent
Like many other things in life, consistency is key. Don’t give up! Even if you have a toddler who’s messy (and they all are) who refuses to contribute, just keep doing the best you can to keep the house in order and it will become second nature to them.
The more you involve your toddler in the house chores, the better they’ll get, and the more they’ll want to help. Find your own rhythm and play around with what sparks their curiosity.
I hope these tips help you teach your toddler how to clean up after themselves! It’s important to always keep in mind that toddlers crave independence. This is a fun age, where they want to do things for themselves. All we have to do is foster and encourage them to be independent and lead by example.
Does your toddler like helping you clean? What works for your family? Let me know in the comments below!
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