8 Tips for Teaching Your Child to Clean Up

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By: Jessica Drake-Simmons, M.S. CCC-SLP, Speech-Language Pathologist

“We have 1 more minute to play and then it will be time to clean up.”  I know what is about to happen and it won’t be pretty.  My shoulders tense.  The minute is up.  It’s time to break the news to my favorite little friend who is joyfully playing with his very favorite toy.  “NOOOOOO!!!!!!”  he screams as he collapses to the floor clinging to his dump truck  with all of his strength.

Does this sound familiar to you, or is it just me?  If it is this stressful, is it even important for my little darling to clean up his toys?   How can I prevent disaster from striking the many times a day that my little human tornado is expected to clean up?

First of all, teaching your children to clean up their toys is important.  It is key in preparing them to be independent, responsible and organized individuals. Teaching your child to clean up may be the more difficult choice for this moment in time because it won’t always be easy and it may not look pretty.  But, in the future, having a child who is able to independently care for their belongings will take the responsibility off of you and provide you with extra time in your day.  That sounds good, right?  So keep reading!

I am sure there are one or two twinkly eyed kids out there who gleefully and obediently do what they are asked to without a problem.  I haven’t met them yet.  So for those kids who have on opinion about how they would like their world to run, here are some strategies to make this learning opportunity successful for your little human tornado:

  1. Provide a warning. Let your child know that it is nearing the time to be finished playing with his toys.  This could be done by letting them know there is a certain amount of play time remaining:  (e.g., “You have 2 more minutes to play and then it will be time to clean up.”)  For some kids, using a visual timer can be helpful.  An alternate warning could be letting them know how many more times they can participate in an activity before its time to clean up (e.g., “Two more races and then we will put the cars away.  This is our last race and then we will clean up.”
  2. Provide a choice. We all like to make choices in our lives and children are no different.  However, it is important to remember that cleaning up is not a choice but there can be some choices in how they participate.  (e.g., “Do you want to put the blocks or the cars away?” “Do you want me to help or do it by yourself?”)
  3. Provide a reward. Some kids are very resistant to cleaning up.  Participating in this task is very challenging for them.  For other kids, this is an easy task.  A reward can range from something big like a favorite snack to simple verbal praise like, “Great job!  You are the best car picker-upper I know!”
  4. Help facilitate success. Meet your child where his abilities are and then gradually increase the demand.  Maybe a good place to start is having him put his shirt in the laundry basket, bringing his plate to the sink or throwing out his tissue.  Or, maybe the car box needs to be held right in front of him and he is only required to put 1, 2 or 3 cars away.  Maybe you need to hold his hand and help him release the car into the box.  That’s okay!  That’s a great place to start!  Repeated experiences of success produce long term learning, so help your kids succeed as regularly as possible!
  5. Be consistent. Every time they play, they are expected to participate in cleaning up to the best of their ability.
  6. Help them figure out a plan. A child may not know exactly what you mean when you say “clean up your room”.  Or, they may feel overwhelmed and have difficulty initiating and organizing a plan. Take a picture of the room when it is clean to show them what it should look like.  Apps like Skitch and Doodle Buddy can be used to have your child draw on the picture and generate a plan.  Help your child make a re-usable checklist with the steps needed to clean the area.  There are many great apps for this.  Or, an alternative low-tech option would be to laminate a list and use a wet-erase marker to cross off completed tasks.
    Jessica Drake-SimmonsFamily Room
  7. Provide a place for everything. You can help your child control the chaos by making sure there’s a designated storage area where containers for toys, school supplies and belongings can be kept.  Labeling these containers, folders or designated shelf spaces with written words or pictures for non-readers can help your child independently stay organized.
    Supplies ShelvesBins
  8. Make it FUN!! Songs and games can  turn the grueling task into part of the fun of playing!

Songs:

  • Sing a simple repetitive song which repeats the direction “blocks away, blocks away, time to put the blocks away”
  • Play a favorite song and have your child race to get everything put away before the song is over.
  • Barney sings a tried and true tune that young kids love to sing during clean up time: 

Races:

  • Race your child to see who can finish their portion of cleaning up first
  • Set a sand timer, kitchen timer or play a song to challenge your child to complete the task before the time is up
  • See who can be the first one to pick up 10 items
  • Count how many seconds or minutes it takes your child to finish the task

Did you know that cleaning up can be the perfect opportunity to address speech and language goals!?

Teaching your child to clean up instills responsibility and respect for their belongings.  As a speech-language pathologist, there are so many additional skills that I am even more focused on when it comes to cleaning up.  Teaching these skills while putting toys away is much more purposeful and meaningful than learning it off of a flashcard.  So many cognitive and language skills can be targeted during the functional activity of cleaning up including: matching, identifying vocabulary, labeling vocabulary, following directions, categorization, prepositions (in, on, under, next to, behind, above, top, middle, bottom) and descriptive concepts (colors, sizes).  Cleaning up is also the perfect opportunity to facilitate the development of executive functioning skills such as: sequencing steps, task planning, increasing attention span and executing self-control.

Check out which chores are age appropriate for your kids at The Happy Housewife.

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