Taking care of your things and learning how to clean up after yourself is a skill that children typically can do themselves around the ages of 3 or 4. Here are some tips for supporting your child as they learn and practice this new skill.

Getting started

Throughout the day, toddlers love getting out all their toys. This turns into a big mess quickly. The next time your child is ready to move on to a new activity, tell them: “We clean up when we’re done with what we’re playing with.” When you have a specific place where toys live, it is easier for your toddler to put them away when they are done with them. In a shared space, like the living room or dining room, your child can learn to respect others in the family by keeping it tidy for the next person who uses it. A place that everyone uses in the house and not just your child’s room (although that can come later) is a great place to concentrate on this skill. This shows your child that the whole family uses this space and you need to keep it clean to be able to use it. That means putting our things away when we’re finished with them.

Teaching responsibility at an early age is a life skill that will help them once they start attending school and beyond. A value many families live by is to always “leave the place we are using better than when we found it.”

Set a good example

Children learn from watching family members. If they see that you are cleaning up, then they will want to clean up, too. When you work on a hobby, read a book, or even when you eat lunch together, your child will see you putting items back where they belong when you are finished with them. This is a powerful example to set. Toddlers want to be grown up and “do it myself” more than just about anything. You can tap into this natural motivation by helping them learn to pick up after themselves, just like you do.

When teaching your child about cleaning up, start by setting a good example of what cleaning up looks like. This means when you spill something, you get a towel and wipe it up. You can hand a toddler a towel just as well when they knock something over. You will need to assist them, but let them try first. Show your child that messes happen; it is part of life, and when messes happen, we just clean them up. Show your child what you are doing step by step. Reassure your child that messes are a part of having fun but that cleaning up is important. Keep a positive attitude when you are cleaning up. If your child feels your positive attitude, then they will learn it is just part of what we do to clean up after ourselves.

Set your child up for success

You can set your child up for success, by giving them enough time to put away their toys and setting expectations that are achievable.

When you need to transition to a new activity, give your child “notice” before it is time to clean up. For example: “Leora, playtime will be 5 more minutes. Then, we need to put your blocks away.” Get them invested or excited about what is coming next. “After we put away the blocks, it will be time for lunch.” Give a three-minute warning that clean up time is coming, then a 1-minute warning. Remember, younger children between the ages of 2-3 will need your help cleaning up but gradually you will not need to help anymore. This goes for your warnings as well. As your child gets older, the fewer warnings you will need to give them to let them know it’s clean up time.

When it is time to clean up, allow your child to pick what they want to clean up first. Give choices whenever possible. For example, “Do you want to pick up the red blocks for the blue blocks first?” Be their cheerleader when they pick up their toys by giving lots of positive comments. Help them to feel proud of themselves when they pick up their toys like a “big kid.” Once they start to get older, continue to give them positive feedback when they are cleaning up. Eventually, you may only need to thank them after they have finished.

Cleaning up can be a time consuming process to learn. The key is to be consistent in your expectations for your child and for yourself. You and your child are learning this together.  Continue to show them that it’s OK to make a mess but we try to always clean it up before moving on to the next activity. Cleaning up together is always better!

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Kalina Glover Moresi, and Claire Davis. 

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