This is part of the 10 Days of Teaching Toddlers Manners series.
I see these questions All. The. Time. “How can I get my 3 year old to clean up their toys?”, “My toddler leaves his DUPLOS everywhere! Help!!!”, “How can I get my child to clean up without huge tantrums and time outs?”. Have you ever experienced a toddler tantrum over cleaning up? *raises hand*. It’s hard not to. Mr. T is not perfect. We’ve had/have/will have our battles. But I began early teaching him about cleaning up.
The first time (or twelve) you tell your toddler (and I mean young toddlers like 15-18 months. You want this behavior ingrained) it’s time to clean up, you may get a look similar to this.
Don’t be alarmed. It’s normal. What I have found to be really helpful for the toddler years and teaching this valuable and life-saving skill (have you ever stepped on a LEGO at 3 am???) are the following.
1. LIMIT the number of toys out at any given time. If your toddler has access to all 457.8 toys they have accumulated by 18 months, then your floor will have access to them, too. By limiting their toys that are out you are helping them learn without either of you becoming overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what needs to be put away. I try to limit how many toys they have and keep the vast majority non-electronic, I think it encourages more imagination.
2. Your 18 month old will not clean up when you tell them to, you will have to guide them through it. Don’t do it for them, but show them the pieces and where they go. After you’ve imitated that a few times, put your hands over their hands and help them pick up pieces and put them away. Make it fun! Cheer and giggle when they get the piece where it goes, even when you are helping them. Positive reinforcement is huge for toddlers. (This process does take time, don’t do it if you’re in a hurry or it will end in tears, possibly for both of you) By the time your child is 2 to 2.5 they should be able to do a small amount (1 to 3 minutes) of independent clean up before they get distracted and want to do something else and you will need to redirect them to the task and help them finish. Remember to applaud and giggle and dance.
3. Make it a game! The older your child gets the more fun you can have with cleaning up. Remember Mary Poppins Spoonful of Sugar song? Doing something fun helps the “medicine” go down. Sing, dance, see who can clean up the fastest, etc.
We like our clean up song. I have been helping Mr. T learn to clean up for a while now. Some days are better than others, but that’s part of raising a strong-willed boy. There’s a clip below showing him putting away his blocks and singing “Clean up, Clean up, everybody clean up! Clean up, Clean up, put the toys away!”. I especially love him throwing the paint cup across the room since it does not “belong” in the block drawer and briefly saying “Frederick, help me clean up!”. It’s a process!
Remember to keep it lighthearted and fun. Teaching toddlers is a slow process. The days can be so long, but the years fly by. Enjoy this season of silly and tough days. Eventually your little one will be able to clean up. And don’t think that just because you make it fun it will always end without tears. Be prepared for stubborn moments, toys being taken away for a day, or even time out if you need to (your kiddo may get one, too!). What’s your best clean up time tip?