Getting Kids to Put Toys Away

Child who won't clean up. Getting your children to put their toys away.
Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

Some things are inherently challenging: climbing tall mountains, losing the last five pounds, sleeping when you have a head cold, and getting your children to put their toys away!

Research suggests that children flourish in an orderly environment, and yet they seem to consistently resist the tasks required to maintain one. This puts a parent in the tough position of feeling like a nag, or a maid, or both.

If you struggle with this issue, remember that children live in the “now” and the “not now.” Whatever toy they are engaged with is all they think about. When they switch from one activity to another, they forget about the previous one. Their brain literally moves on. The instruction to “clean up” requires that children go back and re-engage with abandoned toys, but not for the purpose of play. This does not come naturally.

Nonetheless, it is important that children learn the self-discipline of caring for their belongings. Be prepared to invest in developing this skill, just as you would take time to teach a child to brush his teeth or a teenager to drive a car.

Not exactly sure what to do? Here are a few ideas…

♣ Use the Right Words

I’m not a fan of the phrase “clean up” because this can mean anything to a child, including “shove items under a cabinet or into a bin so that the room looks nice.” Cleaning up often results in a disorganized jumble. Instead, use words that are very specific, such as “restore the toys to order,” or “reset the toys into their homes.”

♣ Make It Easy

Children are easily discouraged. It only takes a few seconds of struggling to reach a shelf or to remove a lid for a child to dissolve into meltdown. It is critical that we ask children to perform tasks of which they are capable. To this end:

  • Bring containers to within a child’s reach and instruct them to put items inside. You can always put the bins up on shelves later, if necessary.
  • Establish clearly defined locations (with word or picture labels) so a child knows where each item should go.
  • Ensure there is sufficient space in a storage location to accommodate the toys. Trying to stuff items into an overcrowded space is difficult and frustrating.
  • Maintain realistic expectations about sorting ability. Barbie™ clothes don’t need to be sorted by type and Legos™ don’t need to be sorted by color. If a child expresses a desire for this, then by all means, make it possible! Otherwise, keep the categories to a minimum.
  • Avoid hangers, and ensure that hooks and racks are low enough for a child to reach.

In addition, make an effort to periodically circulate toys out of the space (donate or trash) to avoid overcrowding and burdensome complexity.

♣ Make It Playful

Some children are motivated by a game or a challenge. There are many approaches to try, but remember to avoid competition between siblings. The challenge is to have victory over the mess, not each other. Here are just a few phrases to try:

“I see four things where they don’t belong. Can you find them and put them back?”

“How many toys can we put away before this song ends?”

“Who can clean up while… fill in something unexpected, such as ‘wearing gloves’ or ‘walking backward’ or ‘marching’…?” 

“I’ll find something for you to put away, and then you find something for me to put away.” 

“Let’s have Jane put away everything smaller than an apple and Mike put away the larger items.”

♣ Supervise While They Learn

Many parents get discouraged because they tell their children to pick up the toys, and they come back 10 minutes later to find nothing has been done. Children are easily distracted, so even the well intentioned can get sidetracked. I suggest that parents stay in the space while the process is going on, especially if you are just beginning to instill an organizing routine.

  • When children are toddlers and preschoolers, provide both direction and assistance: lifting, opening, carrying, answering questions, reminding, etc.
  • As children move into elementary school, shift to providing accountability. Sometimes the best thing a parent can do is just take a book or paperwork into the room and be “present” when it is time to put things away.

Eventually, older children can be expected to manage this task independently. If bad habits creep in, return to providing supervision as needed.

♣ Be Consistent

As with so many aspects of parenting, the “secret sauce” is consistency. All it takes to encourage a child to resist, argue, or complain is to let them skip a task for a day or two. Instead, make resetting the play space part of the regular routine, with once a day being the minimum.

♣Let Consequences Guide Behavior

Some of the most effective motivators of behavior are natural consequences. As parents, we can take advantage of this fact by allowing logical and predictable results to guide children’s choices. As you introduce new expectations, be sure to outline in advance what the consequences for disobedience will be.

=> Positive Reinforcements for Cooperation:

  • Stars on a chart
  • High five
  • Marbles in a jar with a reward when the jar is full
  • Hug
  • Periodic (and unexpected) treats
  • Words of affirmation for a job well done
  • Extra story or game when pick-up has gone quickly
  • “Bragging” (within the child’s earshot) about his/her talent for organizing

=> Natural Outcomes of Resistance:

  • Unwillingness to look for, fix or replace items broken or lost from lack of care
  • Removal of toys that a child refuses to properly put away
  • Words of disappointment for a job poorly done
  • Prohibition of new item acquisition

One caution: avoid getting into a negotiation or discussion about restoring order. If a child resists or refuses, simply express disappointment that she has made this choice, remove her from the space, and then carry through with the age-appropriate consequences that were previously explained. Do not engage if the child throws a tantrum. You are the parent, and as such have the right to set and enforce the rules in a way that works best in your household.

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Establishing and maintaining order can be the classic example of “short term pain, long term gain.” A little extra effort now will pay big rewards for your children as they enter adulthood.

What have you found to be least and/or most effective in encouraging your children to care for their things?