Cleaning Up: How & Why to Teach Kids Responsibility

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Clean up time can cause tears for parents and children, but it does not have to be like pulling teeth.  When approached with savvy, clean up time can be fun and teach children problem solving skills, mathematical concepts, lessons in family life, citizenship skills, responsibility, self-motivation and more.  Keep reading for helpful tips, and the theories to support them, to help you establish and enjoy a consistent clean up time in your home.

1) schedule a Regular time EACH day

Experienced teachers know that clean up time is just as important as playtime, which is why it is part of each school day.  Choose a time each day to designate for cleaning up on your family calendar.  I recommend thirty minutes before you start your bedtime routine.  Then, if everyone is a helper, you can provide exciting incentives like an extra bedtime story or wrestle time afterwards.

Consistently observing clean up time makes it easier for children to transition from playing to cleaning, because children will come to anticipate the appropriate expectations of their abilities.

Kids will learn that:

  • They are expected to participate in helping jobs
  • The jobs required of them are reasonable
  • They can do their work
  • Work done quickly, ends quickly
  • It feels good to contribute to family life
  • Having an orderly play area helps them find their toys so they can play more

2)  Allow plenty of time

*The urge to play is hardwired into the brain of a child. Click here to learn more about why humans like to play.

Clean up time is just as important as playtime.  Children have a hard time keeping themselves from playing, because clean up time is just another form of play.  During free-play, children will dump items on the ground and mix up toys.  But, during clean up time kids will sort and place toys back into their original places.  This means that the dinosaur toys will likely be stomping about to find their dino-friends in the appropriate bin and that they will probably be making roaring noises as they go.

Rushing children through clean up time keeps them from practicing their sorting, organizational and imaginative skills.  A little play is natural and wonderful during clean up time.

3) It IS fun!

Adults are notorious for making work feel like work.  (Think of the desperate characters in the movie “Office Space.”)  Kids do not see life as work, yet, and although it is important to teach a child how to get a job done, clean up time doesn’t always have to feel like a job.

“When there is a job that must be done, add an element of fun, snap your fingers and– the job becomes a game…” -Mary Poppins

Take notes from your child’s preschool teacher.  Sing a fun song or play music from your phone.  Dance while you clean or make the job a game.  Who can find all the balls?  Can you slam dunk the stuffed animals back into the bin?  Who can pick up 10 toys first?  Give high-fives and be boisterous.  If you are having fun, then children will too.

4) Narrate

Example of Narration: “I see Raul is cleaning up the blocks so quickly.  I see Emma isn’t ready to be a helper yet.  It looks like Emma may need another minute.  Wow!  When we work together, clean up time goes by so quickly.  I see you chose to sort the red pieces first and then the green.  You are working hard.”

Narration is an essential communication tool, which is helpful for developing language and grammar skills as well as emotional intelligence.  How is it done?  Just state the obvious.  Make statements about what is happening around you, but not judgments.  Just because Emma, in the example to the side, is not cleaning up, this doesn’t make her a “bad girl” or “lazy”.  She is just not ready yet.

Stating that a child is not ready to help makes them feel understood so that they can motivate themselves.  Often, children protest with their actions and not their words, because they don’t know how to express in words what they are feeling.  When you state how you see children behaving, it helps them to put their feelings into perspective so that they can evaluate how to proceed.

5) Determine & communicate expectations

I expect that every child can clean up at least one toy each day by the age of twelve-months.  Babies are not exempt from the benefits of learning to tidy up.  Often, smaller children are tickled by the idea of being included in such an important routine.

If you plan to institute a new clean up regimen at home, sit everyone down to explain what you expect from them and then practice, practice, practice.  It may take a couple of weeks before everyone gets the hang of it.   Some children will participate in clean up time everyday and others will be more resistant on a consistent basis.  Do not let your resistant child off the hook.  After all, they too stand to gain from cleaning up and giving in too quickly will deprive them of the benefit of learning.   Instead, adjust your expectations.

When clean up time begins, tell your children how many toys they will need to clean up before being finished.  If the child elects to do more, fabulous!  But, children who do not complete the minimum expectation will not be allowed move on to the next activity until they do.  Frame the situation as a choice.  They can chose to finish and go do something else, or sit there and pout.  It is their decision.

Adjust the number of toys based upon the mood of the child by assessing each child, daily.  This might look like inviting a two-year to clean up more toys than a four-year old on any given day.

Also, if you are just starting out, keep the expectations low so that dread won’t set in next time you announce a clean up time. Perhaps begin with requiring three toys, and the next day move it to five toys.

“Mary, you will need to put all the blocks away or return all the kitchen toys to the kitchen.  Which toy center do you prefer to be in charge of cleaning?”

Assigning “toy centers” (e.g. legos, blocks, dolls or books) instead of a specific number of toys also works well.  Younger children who are resistant (perhaps hysterical) can be helped.  You can hold their little hands and pick up blocks with them while they cry.  It helps the child to see that they can do it, you support them and that crying will not release them from their duty to help.  They are, after all, a vital member of importance in their family.  All children can help and it feels good to do real work.

6) Team Family

Telling a young child to clean their room will likely leave you, and the child, very frustrated for many reasons.  This is primarily because kids want to clean up with you. Cleaning up alone can leave young children feeling very overwhelmed and often this expectation is not developmentally appropriate.

Children like to mimic the real work that you do and they will do a better job if they are able to mimic you cleaning up.   Clean up time is a time for parents and children to tidy up the home together.  The family is a team.

7) Break A big job up into smaller jobs

Another reason that parents will likely be unsuccessful when tell their young children to clean up their room is that kids only see the big problem (a big messy room) and they will not know where to start.  They are still developing the problem solving skills that help them to break a big job into smaller parts.

Instead of saying, “Clean up your play room.”  You can say, “You clean up the blocks and I’ll clean up the dolls.”  When the child finishes with blocks, then suggest a new task.  You can also make word or pictures lists of small jobs to help children tackle the big job of cleaning.

Parents need to remember to take the big job in stride as well.  If the whole house is messy, then you may just need to pick one area to clean up and save the rest for later. Some children will struggle with clean up time.  You will be the best judge of how much and when clean up time should happen in your home.  Just make sure you clean up each day.

8) Offer choice

“I see the play area is messy.  Would you like to be in charge of cleaning up the dolls, blocks or books?”

Instead of handing out assignments, you can offer one to three jobs to a child and let him or her pick their preferred task.  If the child can’t make up his mind, then choose for him.  Chances are that this will cause the child to jump up and select the option that you didn’t pick.

9) Cleaning up teaches children to solve problems

If you are tempted to give in to your stomping and pouting child, keep in mind that cleaning up teaches children how to solve problems in a way that free-play does not.  During free-play, the child dumps the blocks out of the bin, but during clean up time the child must figure out how all the blocks are supposed to fit back into the bin.  This can be challenging for young minds.

Children also need to practice how to pick up multiple items at once and will be challenged to create efficient methods to finish their jobs more quickly.  A little industrial engineering experience cannot be harmful even for a resistance child. Just remember, if you feel guilty about making your screaming child clean up, that this experience is teaching your child about perseverance– or what is popularly known as grit.

10) Family Responsibility

Involving your children in positive family work is important for creating a trusting and healthy family, both now and in the future.  When you offer your child the opportunity to engage in real work, it fulfills their desire to be industrious and relevant.  It also shows children that you believe in their potential and that they play an very important role in family life.

Published by

Intelligent Nest

Intelligent Nest, LLC strives to empower parents, from all backgrounds, using leading scientific and philosophical theories to help parents transform their homes into an Intelligent Nest. Through examining the bidirectional nature of the parent-child relationship, Intelligent Nest, LLC aims to equip parents with practical, research-based and non-judgmental solutions to inform their parenting decisions.

6 thoughts on “Cleaning Up: How & Why to Teach Kids Responsibility”

  1. Excellent advice! We already do a lot of this with our 2 year old son, but you have some other great ideas that I am going to start implementing as well! 🙂

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