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    Tidying up after kids is a headache for many parents. How can we encourage children to tidy up for themselves? AMEA Founder and Teacher JoJo offers some helpful tips.

    Is Playtime Really Done?

    Sometimes the act of children playing with toys is an expression of their creativity. For example, if a kid is told to put away their painting set halfway through making a painting it can interrupt the child’s creative process.

    I had a child excitedly tell me:

    “My mom didn’t ask me to put Lego away today because she had other taskes to do, so I finally had time to finish off my Space Ship”

    You see that children have their own ideas about when play or creativity is finished.

    In this situation, when parents finally address the tidying, they must make a big deal of first offering praise for the completed project, especially loud explicit praise along the lines of

    “This one is great, it looks just like a space ship in Star Wars”!

    You could even set up a display area at home, dedicated to what the children have made. However, it should be noted that the display area cannot be too large, because many children will want to show all their creations, good and no so good. By restricting the size of the area you can help or encourage the kids to decide themselves which ones they think should be celebrated.

    Ways to Help Kids to Tidy Up After Themselves

    1. Labelling

    Together with your kid or kids, sort all the toys into storable categories. For example, this one drawer is for Lego, this box is for cards and so on.

    Spend a day with them to draw labels and paste them onto each drawer or box. You can also use printed-out photos of the contents of each box or drawer as a label or visual reminder of which contents go in which container.

    Not only can the labelling process make the child feel very happy and proud of their achievements but they should also get positive memory reinforcement from a fun day spent playing with mom and/or dad. It also allows children to know clearly what are the expectations of what things are supposed to go where.

    Parents – we can’t just say “put your things away!” as it’s a very abstract concept for children.

    • Babies have very limited ability to classify objects
    • 1-3-year-old children will begin to “distinguish”, but there is little concept of “classification”
    • 3-5-year-old children are able to group according to shape, colour, etc

    Putting different toys in different colour or shape boxes is usually a good way to help children group toys as well. Parents can even make it into a game like making different colour cards or shapes, so the kids can pick one card and tidy up that corresponding toy box first.

    2. Tools

    Nobody really likes to clean up. So if there is a way to clean up quickly, why not use it? Things like Swoop Bags or the Lay n Go Lego play mat are a great way to keep collections of smaller bits from ending up all over the place. Tell your kid they can only play with the toys in or closely adjacent to the bag then together afterwards with a parent, the kid can help pile everything back onto the mat and draw the strings – easy.

    Some parents will still worry that this might feel too much like Lazy Cleaning, but it is still helping to acknowledge the mess as something that needs to be addressed and empowering the kid to have agency in the cleaning up process and thus the cleaning habit will still be formed.

    Swoop Bag in Action

    Swoop and other tidy bags can be a great help!

    3. Bargains

    Bargaining is an invaluable step in the early stages of developing good habits. Early on, parents can offer to join in the cleaning activity and divide the tasks – kids can clear up those types of toy and parents will do the other ones. The portion assigned to the child can then be slowly increased once they become confident in their own abilities and accustomed to the praise that should always follow.

    4. Rules

    • Toys should be played on the mat as much as possible
    • You can only take one box out at a time, each time you play. If you want to take the second box of toys, the first box MSUT be put away
    • Let the kids know about the tidying time and duration before playtime starts.

    The implementation of the set rules has these precautions:

    • The rules should be established before playing, and then the children must agree to them. Rules can be a good way to establish important boundaries and trust between you and your child or children
    • The rules should be adhered to as much as possible. Try not to improvise with new rules each time your child plays as this can create uncertainty in the child and the perception that rules are impermanent
    • Be firm with your rules. If this creates tension and crying, by all means, comfort and hug the child but resist any urge to do the tidying for them as this can lead to the perception that throwing a tantrum or crying can get the kid out of doing the task

    When a child refuses to tidy box 1 before playing with box 2, the parent can take away box 1 and prohibit further use of that box. Box 1 can be used again the following day but should be presented in the same state it was left previously, with the toys all scattered like before. Again if this creates tension or misery in the child, hugs and comfort can be given but the parent cannot allow the crying to be a solution and other comforts, like food, should not be offered in an attempt to stop the crying as this will be seen as a reward for unwanted behaviour.

    Consistent rules are why children can tidy up things in kindergarten and listen to the teacher, but don’t listen to parents at home.

    5. Time Limits

    Set a time limit for the tidying of toys. You can remind the kid when time is getting short. If time is up and the toys are still not tidied up, you can offer the choice:

    “Do you want to quickly finish tidying now yourself, or have Dad/Mum do it, but we have to take that toy way”

    Giving the child a choice will help them to feel respected – and as most kids will take the Quickly Do It Themselves option they may also feel that they have done well out of the last-minute bargain.