Encouraging young children to clean up their toys

A common topic of discussion among the parents in my son’s playgroup is:

How do we teach our children to put away their toys?

Our children are only one year old, which means we don’t yet have much of a problem, but we’re eager to ensure we don’t have problems later. We want our children to develop life-long skills that help them to be organized and respectful of their things in the future. We might fail miserably — kids have amazing will-power — but here is what we’re trying:

  • Model the behavior. It’s tempting, especially with small children around, to wait until after the kids go to bed to pick up the house. However, children should watch and “help” you clean up so they can start to mimic your actions. Otherwise, they’re under the impression that a magical fairy appears and cleans up the toys, coloring books, and wooden spoons.
  • Explain the process. As you put away toys and project materials, talk through what you’re doing. “I’m putting the lids on these markers so they won’t dry out and you can use them next time you want to color.” “I’m putting these books on the bookshelf because it’s where they belong when you’re not reading them. The bookshelf protects the books from being damaged so you’ll have them the next time you want to read them.” I should admit that this narration is extremely tedious, but I’ve noticed my son incorporating words into his vocabulary like shelf and cap, so I at least know he’s listening.
  • Be positive. Look for ways to make the clean up process as interesting as the play. Put on fun, fast-paced music your child enjoys every time you pick up toys and dance while you work. Make up a cleaning song to sing or play a counting game. Voices shouldn’t be raised and threats shouldn’t be wagered.
  • Give your child time. Clean up for young children shouldn’t be rushed. If the child has an hour to play, budget the last 10 minutes of that playtime to picking up the toys. Let your child know that playing with toys involves taking the time to put them away. This is similar to dinner not being finished until the dishes are cleaned, the table is wiped off, and all of the ingredients returned to the pantry or refrigerator. Playtime includes putting away the toys.
  • Be consistent. This is the hardest part of the teaching process for me — making sure I always leave time for picking up toys. If we’re in a rush to get out the door to run an errand, it’s difficult to pause and make sure the toy is returned to it’s storage place before we leave the house. The consistency and repetitive action, however, are what instill the positive behavior. If a child doesn’t know there is the option to leave his toys strewn about the room, he won’t make that decision. (Well, at least in theory.)

Versions of this can be used with older children. When I was teaching high school, I’d let the students know when they had three minutes left in the period so they could gather up their materials and be ready to leave when the bell sounded. When the students were working in groups, I’d have them race to see which group could clean up their workstation the quickest. I’d award imaginary points to students when they found something of mine left in the classroom: “5,000 points to Gryffindor!” But, I never gave real rewards (no points, no gold stars, no treats), since I believe that cleaning up is a sign of respecting materials the school provided and an expected behavior of all the students.

What techniques have you used with your children or students to encourage them to pick up their toys? Share your tips in the comments.

26 Comments for “Encouraging young children to clean up their toys”

  1. posted by Kathy on

    We have had lots of recent success with a two part strategy:
    1. We decluttered the kids bedrooms and play area (there was simply too much stuff for anyone to take care of!).
    2. We have a soundtrack of songs the boys love. When song 1 comes on, it is time to get dressed. Song 2 means it’s time to brush teeth. Song 3 (the longest song) is for clean-up. Now every morning after play, I simply put on the music, and the boys do their jobs willingly with no intervention from me (they are ages 7 & 4). I love it!

  2. posted by Heather on

    With my four-year-old, we’ve had some “cap not back on the marker” incidents, which lead to dried out markers. Not being able to use his beloved red marker made him realize the cause and effect and is now sue to really push the caps on tight. Amazing how that can work!

  3. posted by Mark on

    I’m curious, does anybody have any decent tips on doing away with toys? It seems like everytime I’m ready to go through them and get rid of/donate toys they no longer play with they suddenly become toys that the children can’t part with.

  4. posted by Heather on

    Mark — just had that very same situation. A friend’s daughter’s birthday was approaching and I agreed to give her a huge Elmo stuffed animal that my little guy hadn’t touched in months. Of course, when I agreed to this, he was inseperable from Elmo. I kept reminding him about the party and he was ready to part with Elmo then. Good luck. I was ready for a total melt-down, which thankfully didn’t happen.

  5. posted by Monique in TX on

    When my sister and I were very small (3 and 5), we lived on a military base in Germany. Knowing that it was crucial for us to know our names and address in case we ever got separated from our parents in a country where we didn’t speak the language, my mother made a game of us reciting these over and over as we scooped up Legos, picked up doll dresses, etc. Forty some-odd years later I can still tell you that our building and apartment number was 43-E3.

  6. posted by CM on

    My kid is only 3. What works for us is simply to clean up together, because he’s still in the stage where he likes to help me. Also, having boxes, bins, and large jars for his toys helps — that way it’s obvious where things go, but nothing needs to be put away very neatly or carefully, you can just toss it in. Finally, this won’t work for everyone, but we recently moved into a house big enough for him to have his own small playroom and all his toys live in there, which is a huge help. I haven’t really made a rule about cleaning up, but if I notice toys lying around other parts of the house, I’ll just ask him to bring them up to the playroom.

    As for getting rid of toys, again my kid is young enough that maybe this is easier, but I’ll just put a toy away in a drawer without saying anything to him. After a while, if he never looks for it, I’ll get rid of it (either give it away or if he’s outgrown it, pack it up in a box and stick it in the baby’s room).

  7. posted by Dorothy on

    Two themes are key:

    First, if a child is old enough to take out a toy to play with it, he’s old enough to put it away. Period.

    Second, the organization scheme must be logical enough and simple enough for him to use.

    Once you have these two ideas firmly in mind, the behavior becomes a matter of firm repetition.

  8. posted by henave on

    2 things that have worked for us:
    * During the training phase, it was helpful to schedule clean up right before a fun activity (like going outside, TV or whatever they like). The fun activity is contingent upon the cleaning up.
    * Ideally, I would like for them to be able to sell their toys and reap the profits at a yard sale. We don’t do yard sales, so I offer them yard sale prices for toys they donate to Goodwill (or wherever)…and I do mean yard sale prices. This cleared out a plethora of toy clutter and they are on the donating bandwagon now.

  9. posted by Kelley on

    I would really like to hear more tips for older kids…my two boys, almost 9 and almost 11 can’t seem to get ready in the morning or pick up without bugging each other or goofing off!

    I might try @Kathy’s suggestion with the songs, though my two would probably disagree on the songs to use or what each one meant!

  10. posted by chacha1 on

    @ Kelley, have you tried assigning shifts for your boys? e.g. One gets the bathroom while the other one is to pick up his/their room and get the day’s supplies packed, then the second boy gets the bathroom while the first does his share of picking up and organizing.

  11. posted by narkhn on

    Another great way to de-clutter is renting out one of those PODS units and store the stuff that you dont use on a regular basis in the storage unit. If you dont have to go back to the POD for awhile, than its probably a good idea to get rid of it. I came up with this method when I was relocating.

  12. posted by *pol on

    My boys are 13 and 9. I have the same problem as Mark that just when they haven’t played for things in 6 months and I’m ready to “relocate” them… suddenly they are back on the favourites list! I do tell them if htey are broken or missing too many parts then they are auotmatically tossed. Before Christmas and Birthdays I ask the kids to give a full box to charity. But sometimes it’s not easy to get a full box.
    Cleaning up is the hardest part because there are SO MANY toys that don’t have homes, but they love them. No matter how many times I repeat that if it doesn’t have a home it must not be that important, it’s not sinking in. I’m at my wit’s end with it and want to toss the lot somedays!
    — Honestly I need to make my office (the last uncontrolled stronghold of clutter) the model of efficiency before I can do such a heavy handed thing —

  13. posted by Dawn F on

    Dorothy nailed it absolutely and completely!!

    Plus, the younger you start teaching a child to clean up, the easier it will be. It’s hard to “teach an old dog new tricks” if they have spent the majority of their childhood tossing things around at free will. If you start a young child (even as young as 2) to put their toy back in the basket or put the book on the shelf it will become second nature over time and won’t have to be forced when the bad habit has already been established (such as in an older child).

    Also, it’s obviously easier to pick up and organize toys if their bedroom, playroom and/or house doesn’t look like a toy store – filled to capacity and overflowing with every toy, gadget, stuffed animal and book imaginable. In my opinion, parents should be responsible themselves when buying toys, etc. and they should encourage family and friends to not go overboard or better yet purchase gifts such as tickets for trips to the zoo, movies and other adventures/outings.

  14. posted by Karen on

    When the kids were small, I would limit how many toys they could have out at the same time. That way the amount we would pick up together was not overwhelming.

    Didn’t stick, though. The only way I get them to pick their stuff up as teenagers is withhold car keys.

  15. posted by Kelley on

    @chacha1 – thanks for the tip. We have tried it, but it seems without constant supervision (which we REALLY don’t want to get in the habit of–or perhaps continue the habit of) they really don’t pay much attention. Funny thing is, we’ve managed to get them to pay attention to so many OTHER things…this seems to be a stronghold for them.

  16. posted by Laura on

    Our 2 year old daughter does pretty well with toy cleanup – here’s what we do (and what we plan to do with our newborn boy):
    – Started early: As soon as she started playing with toys, we did clean up every night before bed. When she was really little (i.e., 5 months), “clean up” was Mommy and Daddy putting the toys away while she was held.
    – Limit number of toys: We have the youngest cousins and get TONS of hand-me-down toys. I put a bunch of them in boxes and hide them in a closet, then rotate. We still have way more toys out than she needs but keeping the numbers down makes life easier.
    – Clean up every night: We try to do this every night after dinner…but we sometimes give her a pass rather than push back her bedtime. Even starting 10 minutes later makes her whine and less willing to do cleanup.
    – Clean up song: We have a song that we learned at Kindermusic (kiddy music class) that we sing for cleanup.

    It seems to be working for us so far!

  17. posted by J on

    Erin, you are so sensible! All very good strategies, for both young children and students.

  18. posted by Cathie on

    Kelley, When our kids were in grade school, they responded better when they were allowed more self-supervision. Our older daughter did well when I showed her how to do something a couple of times, and then she wanted to show she could do it herself: scrub the bathroom sink, shake the entry hall rugs, or tidy up the pillows, throws and books in the livingroom. Our younger daughter did well with a checklist. I broke down her room-cleaning chore into categories such as hair things, books, make bed, dolls, school stuff, etc. When she had a list and could tackle one category at a time, she wasn’t as overwhelmed with the whole big mess.

    We also interjected humor into the program by allowing uber-dramatic moans and groans about how “awful” this mess is, and they liked to show off their work afterward when I came around with my “inspection finger” and cackled how I couldn’t find a bit of mess left. Of course, you have to praise all their efforts even if the results aren’t perfect. The “finger” was a rubber halloween witch finger with a long blue fingernail. I still have it around here somewhere. It might be rotten; it’s about 20 years old at least. But if you see one this season, I recommend you buy it.

  19. posted by Steve on

    Wow…talk about hitting these poor kids with an adult point of view! These are kids, the ONLY way to get them to clean up (and to get them to stick with this routine as they get older) is to make it FUN! If you batter them with ‘consequences’ which the child really doesn’t understand, it won’t work. I mean, are you excited to trudge off to your job on a daily basis if you don’t enjoy it? Do you scream, ‘woweee….I can’t WAIT to sit through four hours of meetings and powerpoint presentations this morning’?!

    Turn cleaning up into a game, make it fun, lots of praise and smiles! There’s even a ‘clean-up’ song that we sing:


    If you’re not careful, your kids will rebel against YOUR uncluttered lifestyle as they get older – I know because I did exactly that. As far as I was concerned, ultra-neatness was what my boring stiff parents wanted, not what I and my brother wanted.

    Have fun with your kids, let them get dirty, let them get untidy, have fun with them!

    If you’re not prepared for mess, spills, stains, dirt, scrapes and bumps, maybe you should ask if kids are simple ‘clutter’ that you don’t want in your house.

    Yes, it may be a harsh point of view but I think as a rational being you should approach investing in having children as you would approach investing your time and money in anything else.

  20. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Steve — Did you even read the article? What consequences are you referring to??

  21. posted by WilliamB on

    1. I’m surprised no one’s mentioned job charts yet. Magnet board, check list, star stickers, etc. Try several and see what works for the kids in question.

    2. Use bins, boxes, or drawers so that things can be dumped in and tucked away. For some kids, putting a photo of what goes in the bin helps them remember where the thing’s “home” is.

    3. Having seen a child who couldn’t crawl pull down toys to play with (he rolled over to the shelf), I do not believe that “old enough to play is old enough to put away.” But yes, start them young with picking up.

    And Steve? We’re talking about what to do after the dirtiness, untidyness, mess, spills, stains, dirt, scrapes, and bumps have been thoroughly enjoyed.

  22. posted by Jen on

    My 4-year old has done a reasonably good job with getting rid of older toys. I have found it helps if he knows where the toys are going – we have given some away to his baby cousin (5 months old now), that’s a favorite place for his toys to go. We have also donated some to his daycare (the “baby school”), and some other random friends who have younger kids. I’ve even thrown away some of the broken toys, usually the kind of crap that you get at birthday parties and fast food restaurants, with his help to go through some of it and pick out which ones he really doesn’t need. I just involved him in the process and asked his opinion and he was surprisingly willing to let go. I’m sure it helped that he has about 6,543,205 other toys in the house though 😉

  23. posted by Sandy on

    Great tips! This is something we really need to work on — my boys can trash the playroom in no time flat, but getting them to clean it back up can take hours! I already decluttered a lot of unplayed-with toys, but we’re at the age with lots of toys with small parts (Legos, etc.) and those things are lethal!

  24. posted by ecuadoriana on

    Relate it all to what they are interested in. My three yr old grandson is obsessed with anything to do with construction: tools, vehicles, buildings, tool belts & hard hats, the works! So, when he got a bit sassy with me one night about not wanting to put his legos away, that he wanted ME to do it, I reminded him that real construction workers NEVER make their grandmothers put away their tools & building materials, he had to laugh at himself and he promptly put them all away.

    I’ve mentioned this to several friends who struggle to get their kids to put their toys away. Every kid seems to be obsessed with something: race cars, trains, dinosaurs, dolls, etc. Just relate putting the toys away with the real life equivalent: Train conductors put their own trains into the station at the end of the trip, race car drivers have to practice parking their cars in the garage, dinosaurs need to sleep to conserve energy (and paleontologists need to put all the bones away safely in the museum), babies need to be tucked into bed…

    It takes work, but it works in the end! consistency!!!

  25. posted by Heather on

    We sometimes have problems too, but not often anymore. We go through my girls shared bedroom a few times a year and let them pick things out to give to kids who don’t have as much as they do. They like feeling like they are helping another kid. Then when they are at Grandma’s – I do another sweep and put things back. If they don’t ask about it within 2 months, those things go to Goodwill also. My oldest is 5 now and is a great helper. She will clean up without even being asked. We started a “reward” system. When she does work or helps out, in addition to the things she is to do regularly she earns money. We don’t actually give her the cash (yet), but we keep track of what she’s earned. This weekend she got a new game for her leapster. And we make a big deal. Last week she cleaned up the office/craft room, by herself and without being asked, and actually did a pretty awesome job! So she earned double bucks, which is how she had enough to buy her game.

    I do think personality has something to do with it too. My 3 year old has no interest in being neat, but I’m hoping it’s just her age!

  26. posted by Ren on

    Great ideas! But I would love more detail. To be honest I don’t know where to put things up myself. I’m just not good at it. Cathie you mentioned a checklist. Does anyone know how I can get something that explains in detail where things usually get stored? I admit I was one of those people who had things mysteriously taken care of so now I am lost! Everyone always says just train children with the right habits.
    What are the habits in more detail?
    Thanks so very much!

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