Teaching toddlers about organizing

Parents often ask me what chores and responsibilities are applicable for toddlers. They want to start teaching their children about putting away their things, but they also don’t want to bestow unreasonable demands upon two, three, and four year olds.

Young children are eager to be independent, and helping your child learn skills that foster this independence as well as acquire valuable organizing concepts are a great place to start the teaching process. The following are a handful of suggestions for responsibilities that are appropriate for toddlers and some recommendations for teaching these skills:

  • Hanging up her coat. Put a couple 3M removable utility hooks on the back of the coat closet door at a low enough height that your daughter can reach the hook but high enough so her coat won’t drag on the ground. When your daughter comes inside the house, let her be responsible for putting her coat on her hook.
  • Wiping down the bathroom countertop. Get a small step stool for your child to use in the bathroom when he is brushing his teeth, combing his hair, and washing his hands. Have a stack of wash cloths or hand towels within reach that he can use to wipe his face, dry his hands, and then wipe up any spilled and splashed water from the counter top.
  • Making her bed each morning. Pulling up the sheet and pulling up the comforter are tasks that most kids can handle by two and a half.
  • Putting dirty clothes in the hamper. Have a hamper that your child can easily put clothes into and see the clothes inside the basket. After you assist your child in getting out of his clothes and into his pajamas, hand him his clothes and ask him to put them in the hamper. As your child gets older and can dress himself, simply monitor him to ensure that he continues with this responsibility.
  • Setting the table. By age three, most children will be able to set a table with minimum supervision. Place setting placemats are terrific for helping children learn where cups, plates, silverware, and napkins typically go on a table.
  • Returning toys to their storage locations. After playing with toys, toddlers should return them to their proper storage bins or shelves. As a result, storage shelves and bins need to be within your child’s reach. Label bins and lips of shelves with adhesive tags that have an illustration and title of what belongs in each space. Programs like Microsoft Word that include clip art are great for finding toy illustrations. It takes younger children significantly more time to pick up toys than older children, so be sure to leave time in your schedule for your child to pick up her toys before needing to move on to another activity.

At age two and three, most of these chores will need some level of supervision. The closer your child gets to elementary school age, however, the less supervision she will need to successfully carry out the task.

21 Comments for “Teaching toddlers about organizing”

  1. posted by Nicole : Three By Sea on

    Thanks for acknowledging that little ones ARE, in fact, capable of handling simple chores. I see and hear about so many parents (usually moms) running around to pick up after and organize all their kids’ things in the wake of the tornado their kids created. All I can think is, “Are you crazy? I’m not the maid.”
    My son is three and we’ve been working on things like putting toys away, dirty clothes in the basket, etc. since he was two. I believe the sooner these good habits are taught and instilled, the less time I have to spend doing it, not to mention my son is learning responsibility, autonomy, and good living habits.

  2. posted by Rachel on

    I wrote yesterday about getting my six-year-old son to help! My best advice about toddlers? Hand them a baby wipe and let them go to town on the coffee and end tables (if they aren’t glass). Mine will wipe down nearly everything in sight! Walls, tables, floor, steps, windows… it’s not perfect, but it’s a great lesson for her!

  3. posted by Leslie on

    We do many of the same things. The more you involve kiddos in clean-up/cooking/chores, I really feel like the more they’re into it. We also keep dishes down low and our 3-year old helps with unloading the dishwasher (I remove sharp utensils first). She also waters the houseplants and helps fold the laundry (mostly her own clothign; I try not to refold unless it’s really a mess–she is very proud of her work). Thanks for the ideas!!

  4. posted by Jen on

    This is all great advice. I admit I don’t do all of this (we’re too lazy to hang up our own coats each day, so I can’t expect my 5 yr old to do it either – they end up draped over the living room couch that we never use). But he does put his clothes in the hamper and clean up his toys by himself. He also will use the dustbuster underneath his seat at the kitchen table after dinner most nights (he enjoys this and volunteers to do it without being asked). The only thing that’s important to remember is that small kids are perfectly capable of doing these tasks, but are not capable of doing them perfectly. The blanket on the bed will not be straight, they will miss some crumbs when cleaning up, and there will be some stray toothpaste/water marks on the bathroom counter. Sometimes the sleeve of their jacket will sweep the floor a bit when it’s on the hook. So it requires some letting go on the parents’ part, because it’s more important that the kids learn to do these things at all than that they learn to do them just right at age 4 – it’s just fine that their beds are not made perfectly..

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jen — You hit the nail perfectly on the head with this:

    “small kids are perfectly capable of doing these tasks, but are not capable of doing them perfectly.”

    Yes!! A great point to add to the discussion.

  6. posted by Stacy on

    Along the lines of the coat, I take off my 17 month old’s shoes when we walk in the door and hand them to her. She carries them to the basket where we keep our everyday shoes and puts them in.

    My 4 yr old gathers recycling from our upstairs office and brings it down to the bin.

  7. posted by Anna on

    Yes! These are incredibly important concepts to introduce at that young age, otherwise you’ll get recalcitrant older kids who feel confused (and appear bratty) when asked to do tasks later. I know my parents didn’t model these concepts for me as a youngster, and when I was older and my mom would go on cleaning binges (there was a complicated hoarding situation in the house), I’d feel resentful and frustrated because I didn’t have the knowledge or experience needed to DO the cleaning in the first place.

    And so when I rebelled, it was because I was being asked to do something I didn’t have the confidence to do or the steps to do it properly – even though I was a smart kid and probably could have figured it out. (Lots of anxiety about cleaning in our household.)

    Long comment short – yes, by all means, start these concepts young and let the kids see you doing them, too, so they know it means they’re part of the family and that these are just normal ways of keeping house.

  8. posted by Aunt Cloud on

    As a messy daughter of perfectionist, super tidy parents, cleaning time for me was a time of being criticized, yelled at and being very anxious in general. As my parents told me, if I’m not doing a great job I might as well not do it at all. It took me years and years to acknoledge the fact that I enjoy a clean house, and the sky wouldn’t fall if I don’t deep-clean each week but wipe down, sweep and spritz when I have a few moments.

    Kid-wise, I found the cutest cleaning supplies – broom, dust-pan, duster, scrubbing brushes and more – in funky colours and designs, at the dollar store of all places. I got a polka-dotty set, but there were also striped, purple, pink, zebra and leopard-print sets. My kids were all over these and they love dusting with those.

  9. posted by Nana on

    My aunt taught preschool in a snowy city. Parents were amazed to learn that the kids could put on / take off their own boots, snowsuits, leggings. Aunt said they’d have had no time for fun if she’d had to spend the morning getting kids out of and into clothing.

  10. posted by DawnF on

    I think that quite often kids of all ages will give us what we (parents, teachers, etc.) expect – if we expect nothing, then that’s what we’ll get. If we expect them to have responsibilities (chores, completing homework, taking care of Fido, etc.), manners, compassion, etc. and we show them how to accomplish these things then we’ll get great results!

    Plus, not only should parents, teachers, grandparents, etc. show children how to do things and explain the importance they should be great examples themselves by doing it, too! Consistency and positive praise is crucial as well.

    Set high standards for your children from an early age – they (and society) will be better off because of it!! (and high standards does NOT mean perfection).

    Great topic today!

  11. posted by EngineerMom on

    I have an almost-3-year-old who has the following responsibilities:

    Setting his place at the table (DH and I prefer glass glassware and corel plates/bowls, and with our hardwood floor, I’m not comfortable with a little one handling those)

    Clearing his place, including dumping food in the trash and putting the plate and silverware into the sink.

    When we’re at a friend’s house, if he takes his socks off, they immediately go into his shoes by the friend’s front door. This has resulted in almost no lost socks in a year! At home, they immediately go into the hamper.

    At night, he puts his clothes into the hamper.

    We have hooks (front and back door) for his jacket, like in the article, and he’s pretty good about that one. We also have bins for mittens, hats, and scarves for everyone in the family right under the coat hooks.

    I’m not a very organized person around the house, but I’ve been trying to learn so I can help him grow up in less chaos than I did. My husband is pretty organized, which is helpful, but honestly, the hardest part is getting a system set up in the first place.

    Toy bins sound like a great idea, but we have several toys that are simply too large for bins (Little People airport, for example). How does one cope with such out-sized items? Our main play area is in the living room, and I’ve struggled trying to find a system that works and can handle the larger toys without moving them out of the living room, since that’s not an option right now.

  12. posted by Cluttered Mama on

    I have my 2 year old (almost 3, he’ll tell you) do a lot of these things. He even got inventive and started hanging his sneakers on the hooks by the door, which actually makes a lot of sense– you take them off and put them on right there in our house.

    Photo labels on toy storage are a godsend when it comes time to clean up (these are mine: http://clutteredhouse.blogspot.....-your.html)

    Tsh has a good Preschooler’s chore chart on Simple Mom too– a lot of these same types of things.

  13. posted by Jen on

    @DawnF – I completely agree that kids will pretty much live up to our expectations of them, and if they are not very high, then the kids will likely not exceed them. I think that this applies to some degree to school work also, though kids have aptitudes in different areas and need good teachers/parents to have success in this area.

    @EngineerMom – I still haven’t figured out what to do with the big toys, or the ones with lots of little pieces that we want to keep together rather than getting lost in a bin somewhere. I relegated as many as possible to our basement/playroom and that’s helped, and now that he’s 5 he has outgrown a lot of the big stuff. I just learned to live with the mess, to be honest. So that’s my recommendation to you – live with it for now and accept that your living area won’t be terribly organized in the short term. (I’m an engineer too and if people like us can’t figure this out, I’m not sure who can!)

  14. posted by Annabel on

    I’ve found a great way to keep together toys with lots of small pieces is to use a delicates laundry bag with a zip. Because it is a mesh bag, you can still see what’s inside and most kids are able to use the zip easily with practise.

    We also bought a drawstring lego playmat which converts into a bag; it is a godsend. It’s not this exact one but along the same lines http://www.gogoandco.com/cart/lego-toy-storage

  15. posted by KT on


    You are right on target, Erin! Take it from a teacher who spent over 20 years teaching Munchkins who(?) I have adored and admired.

    And send your pre-schooler to a top Montessori school. Ideal. They instill intrinsic motivation, independence, self-sufficiency, and are very organized.

    Little kids are so very often underestimated.

    When most people need help, they look around.

    I look down. Below us are the most awesome helpers you will ever encounter! And they LOVE it! Your smiling face is plenty of an reward.

    In Montessori the teacher guides the students; their is no need for incessant teacher prattle.

    The current trends wherein the teacher has to do everything, talk all day long ad nauseam is nonsense. Kids learn by doing, exploring.

    Oh and I cannot let this opportunity to escape…

    This is SO important. Adults and the media are teaching children to distrust the very people they need and that tend to be easily identifiable in an emergency. Think twice before allowing someone to bash teachers, police officers, clergy. These are the people children need to know are there to help them in an emergency.

    Set the kids straight about their resource people. But not to trust everyone in a uniform. The kids will catch on

    I cannot stress that enough. The kids will need these helpers and it is reassuring to know they are there.

    The kids need to learn to respect these helpers. The bad eggs are not any more represented than in any other occupation.

    Also if a child needs help, she is best off seeking out a female as they commit only a fraction of the crimes and rarely are violent and/or sexual predators. Fact.

    Teach kids how to evaluate strangers. Practice in line at a bookstore, a supermarket for instance.

    Kids are very good at reading people but they need your guidance.

    I had a second grader remark to other 2nd grade classmates that he was going to have Ms. B (namely me) put in jail (for who knows what).

    The kids, of course, ran up and told me. I was rather amused.

    I am very close to my students. I talk TO them and they naturally want to know about me personally.

    I said to the child “Pedro, you know what kind of job my brother has?”

    “Yes, Ms. B. He’s a judge”.

    “Well, you know what, Pedro? My brother can put your Daddy, your Mommy and YOU in jail!”

    That ended that. Never mind the irony in that the members of the family were all illegal aliens and semi-literate at best. (About half of my students were).

    But where is Pedro hearing such nonsense?

    At home.

    It would make me question why I am working 60 hours a week and spending a significant amount on my own money in order to raise other people’s kids. I went well beyond what most teachers do or are required to do.

    I would feel like a chump until I re-focused that I was there for all the kids, not just the knuckleheads with the mouthy parents. ;o) It is certainly not the child’s fault.

    Oh and while I am on the subject, think twice before confronting a teacher. Talk to her. There is a huge difference. We are there to help not because we hate kids.

    A parent might complain to me about me being too hard on her child. (Rather absurd in a way as I goof around with the kids all day long. Humor works wonders.)

    I’d tell the parent “Maria does almost no work all day long. Many teachers would let her goof off and she’d get no work done. It takes a great deal of effort, energy on my part to get her to work.

    “So I’ll give you a choice. I can let Maria do as she pleases as long as she is not bothering other kids.

    “Or I can ‘battle’ with her to get her to do her work in order to learn. Once she knows who is boss (me) I can let up on her.

    “So, Señora, which would you prefer?”

    “Oh, maestra, make her do her work”. 100% of the time they selected that option.

    And whatever you do, avoid going over her head and complaining to the principal if it can be avoided at all. Go directly to the teacher first in a non-confrontational manner.

    It will not get your child extra attention. The teacher will not make a special effort to work harder for your child.

    Do you have any idea just how hard it was for me NOT to pick on Pedro? Mother was up there constantly complaining about one imaginary problem after the other. But I resisted and it took a great deal of effort to treat him like the rest of his classmates.

    There are not god teachers and bad teachers. They run the gamut. Mediocre teachers having a good week. Superior teachers having a bad month. Unmotivated teachers having a terrific day. Think of a long spectrum. The teachers’ work and worth, is in any other sort of job, cannot be boiled down to a simplistic good v bad.

    Anyway for hs, I’d get my kids to a Jesuit school… so they learn just how to logic, how to think!


  16. posted by Jeanne on

    Little ones also love to help. For example, when he was three, my son used to sort forks, knives & spoons from the dishwasher silverware caddy into the tray from the drawer (I put both of them on the table & he stood on a chair so he could reach everything). He enjoyed it, and he was helping. I’d do the dishwasher & he’d do the silverware. It was fun for both of us.

  17. posted by Shawna on

    Not so much along the lines of cleanliness at the house, but just as important – cleanliness when out in public. My 2nd job is at a retail store and I cannot even begin to describe the frustration of having to pick up after everyone else’s children because they are too lazy to teach their children good manners.

    I had the most adorable little boy the other day wander up & start talking to me while I was cleaning up the toy aisle (THE most dreaded job at the store, I might add). It took me a moment to register that he was speaking to me since I had seen his mom a few feet away talking to one of our managers (they’re friends).

    He asked to play with a toy, and I replied with “yes, we can play with that, but first we need to put the toy you are playing with now away”. He nodded emphatically and I spent a good 15-20 minutes with him while I cleaned and he moved from toy to toy. I only had to remind him a couple of times to put the one toy back before picking up another, but he was very polite, well mannered, and respectful of the items.

    I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to come across children who have been given that responsibility and expected to uphold it. We were brought up in a “look don’t touch” while in stores – it is sometimes difficult not to hug the parents and thank them for doing such a good job at the end of an especially trying shift!

  18. posted by Anne on

    @Engineeringmom and @jen–The big Little People toys (ours are the garage and the castle!) were what led me to figure out a better storage system than baskets on the family room floor and big stuff lined up against the wall. I ended up finding a modular shelf system (sorry, I don’t remember the brand–this was 6 years ago) that had deeper/taller components to fit the widest/tallest Little People accessories on the bottom, a slightly narrower set of shelves that went on the top of the larger ones for canvas storage baske to hold all the other toys (one for cars & critters, Lincoln Logs, wooden train set, musical instruments, craptastic toys that are the kids’ favorites, etc), and several canvas, wheeled laundry baskets to corral the toys that didn’t fit nicely into the canvas storage boxes (big collections of Duplos, all the other Little People parts and pieces, enough wooden blocks to make a city/castle/space ship/creation of the hour). We had 3 kids in 5 1/2 years–the first 2 are 18 months apart and then almost 4 years between middle and youngest so we have a wide range of ages, abilities, and interests, but as they have gotten older (youngest now 4) the duplos got passed on to other families and that laundry basket is now home to the growing arsenal of Nerf guns and accessories (sigh). I have also found that some of the “little kid toys” think wooden train set or blocks get incorporated into the bigger kids’ games/projects still. Got to love toys that aren’t limited by batteries, software, operating systems or faddish logos/characters!

    Oh, and to tie this back into the actual post, yes we have had them clean up, do chores, and be responsible for various household tasks since they were toddlers–some days with better success than others!

  19. posted by Caron Kincaid on

    Oh dear – I think I have failed with this one! One problem I have is 3 stepkids who live my their mothers rules (which don’t match mine!), and that rubs off on my own. Anything that does get done is done unwillingly. And the sheer laziness at times astounds me – can’t put clothes in the hamper as they walk out of the bathroom??? Not a useful post I know, but any advice is warmly received!

  20. posted by Elaine on


    Since you asked – do you really want your husband’s ex raising your kids? That’s what is happening when you allow your stepkids’ disregard of your rules influence your own children.

    You and your husband might want to try instituting “House Rules” that apply to everyone who spends any amount of time in your house. It might help!

  21. posted by mili on

    KT said:

    Q U O T E :
    I had a second grader remark to other 2nd grade classmates that he was going to have Ms. B (namely me) put in jail (for who knows what).

    I said to the child “Pedro, you know what kind of job my brother has?”

    “Yes, Ms. B. He’s a judge”.

    “Well, you know what, Pedro? My brother can put your Daddy, your Mommy and YOU in jail!”

    That ended that. Never mind the irony in that the members of the family were all illegal aliens and semi-literate at best
    / Q U O T E

    Wow, what are you, five? Even if I heard this from a five-year old I’d be trying to curb it. Let alone from a [email protected] woman, LET ALONE one who (says she) is a teacher!!

    I mean, that is just a psycho thing to say. It makes you either completely dumb, or completely, criminally insensitive – either way, you don’t belong in the classroom. It sounds like lil’ Pedro got your number all right, even if his parents ARE ‘half-literate’ (not that you would know or accept it even if they were double PhDs, since you seem enough a judgmental harridan that their immigration status is the first, and only thing you rate about them). That’s why you had the urge to THREATEN him – because that’s just what this is to him, no matter how much you might try to dress it up as pedagogy.

    It’s too bad the parents’ association doesn’t know you’re off bragging online about harassing a vulnerable SECOND GRADER. If they did, I’m pretty sure they’d have all sorts of interesting things to say about letting you in proximity to their kids. I know I wouldn’t trust you to fill lunch trays at the cafeteria. After all, if a kid didn’t say ‘please’ in a way that was appropriately meek and deferent, you might just spit in his dinner to ‘end that’!

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