Parenting Advisor - Work, Learning, and Fun at Clean-up Time

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Work, Learning, and Fun at Clean-up Time

Most people don’t like cleaning up. It is work. Children don’t like it either. They would rather play. It is more fun to get toys out than put them away.

Parents would like children to clean up their own toys. But often parents end up cleaning up the toys. Parents might think there is a quick and easy way to do this. They can just put all the toys in one big toy box. It is quick. They might want to teach the children to do this, too.

But let’s think about that. Think about someone cleaning up your things that way. What would happen if someone put your dishes and clothes and shoes and mail and books in one big box together? Then you couldn’t find anything. Your books might be torn. Your dishes might be broken. Your dirty and clean clothes would be mixed up. Your clean clothes wouldn’t be clean anymore. There might be bills in the pile. They might not get paid in time. They could get lost. It would be a bigger mess than before!

Now think about the children’s toys. What happens when balls and blocks and books and doll clothes and puzzle pieces are all together? Children can’t play with any of the toys very well. Children would need to look through everything to find what they want. Trucks and books don’t go together. One puzzle piece and a doll blanket don’t go together. Many toys could be ruined. And children do not learn much that way.

How can clean-up time work better? How can it be better for parents and children?

Studies show that…

Play is important.

  • Young children play the most. They are learning all the time. They pretend. They play with toys. They play with words. They play with music and dance.
  • But play is important at all ages. Even adults can learn well with play. Play helps people be creative. Play helps people think in new ways. And it is fun! Play takes some of the stress out of learning.
  • But play can be messy. Someone will need to clean up after play is done.

Some people think play is extra.

  • Some think that play is just for free time. They think it is not serious or important.
  • Some say play is a reward after work is done.
  • But play can be the most important part of the day.

Toys are connected to play. So, some people think toys are not important.

  • Some people think toys are just for fun. And they think all toys are the same.
  • Toys look messier when people think they are not important.
  • That means some people think that all toys can be thrown together.

But toys are important for learning. They help children learn in different ways. So, children should have different types of toys.

  • Children learn when they play.
  • Toys help them learn. Different types of toys help them learn different things.
  • Children should have several different types of toys.
    • Toys to feel and touch.
    • Toys for pretend play.
    • Toys for building.
    • Art and craft supplies.
    • Books and music.
    • Toys for riding and active play.
  • Each type of toy should have its own space.

Children can learn during clean-up time.

  • Children can sort toys. They can learn which toys go together. This is called categorization.
  • They can learn colors. One child could pick up red blocks. Another child could pick up blue blocks. Or one child could put away trucks. Another child could put away doll clothes.
  • Children could learn numbers. “How many parts of the train set can you put in this bin?”
  • They learn about how things fit together. “Try turning the bigger piece sideways first. Then the smaller pieces will fit around it in the bin.”

Clean-up can be a gentle end to playtime.

  • Children do not like to stop playing.
  • Clean-up can sometimes be playful.
  • Children can plan the next playtime while they clean up.

Next steps for parents…

Both parents and children can benefit from having good places for toys. Those places should fit the toys. A well-known saying is “a place for everything and everything in its place.” That saying works well for toys.

Some kinds of toy storage are helpful for play and clean-up.

  • Riding toys and other big toys need big spaces. Sports toys should belong outside or in a big space.
  • Shelves and boxes or bins are good for many smaller toys. Children can see them. They can pull boxes or bins out when they want them. They can put them back on the shelves when they are done. That is easier than piling them on top of each other.
  • Labels on boxes or bins help children (and adults!) with sorting. Pictures or drawings help children who don’t read. Or clear bins let children see what is inside.
  • It is good to put the same type of toys together. Blocks should go in one bin or box. Play dishes and play food should go together. Dolls and doll clothes could go together.

Make a special place for art and craft supplies.

  • Some parents are afraid of art and craft items. They think children might make a real mess.
  • But art is important for children. It helps them be creative.
  • Parents can put all the art and craft things together. Then parents can put that box or bin in a special place. That should be a place where only parents can reach.
  • The rule can be that art and craft supplies are an activity for children and parents together. Then parents can make sure the children use them safely.
  • Parents then need to remember to get out the art supplies regularly!

Moving from play to clean-up can be hard.

  • Children want to keep playing. It is their work! They believe they are doing important things. Children can control their world when they play. That feeling of power ends when their play ends.
  • Parents can give children some control when they clean up, too.
  • Parents can give children time markers. They can say that there are 10 more minutes to play. Then they can say 5 more minutes. Or with very young children they can say, “You can keep playing until I count to 20.”
  • There is another way to help children move to clean-up time. Parents can enter into the play with the children. Then parents could make clean-up part of the pretend play. Parents and children could clean up while they are playing.
  • Parents can also give children choices. For example, they can ask children what they want to clean up first. Or parents can ask children if they want to listen to music while they clean up.
  • Sometimes children are in the middle of something. They don’t want to end it. Maybe they are playing a game. Or maybe they were building or making something. Parents could ask if they want to save the game or the thing they were building. The children could come back to it later. Maybe that would be later that day or the next day. The children would clean up everything else. But they could put the game or the thing they were building or making in a safe place.
  • These methods show that parents have respect for the children. Parents can show that they know that the children’s activities are important.

Cleaning up is something children need to learn.

  • Children do not know how to clean up by themselves.
  • Parents can help children learn how to clean up. One of the best ways to teach children is to show them. Children will copy their parents.
  • Children like to do things with their parents. It can be fun to work together.

Clean-up can be fun!

  • Parents could use a special clean-up song or music. Children would know it is clean-up time. They could sing or dance along while they clean up.
  • Children (and parents) could wear special hats or other clothes (like an apron) for clean-up time. They could be silly clothes. Or they could be different every time.
  • Children and parents could pretend to be different animals while cleaning up. They could be clean-up monkeys or elephants.
  • Parents could set a timer during clean-up time. Children could see how quickly they could clean up. They could compare their time to the last clean-up time.

Goals for parents…

Get ready for clean-up.

  • Look at your children’s toys. Make lists of the kinds of toys that need spaces.
  • Choose what storage materials you need. Maybe you need to find or buy some boxes or bins. Maybe you need to find or buy some shelves. Make sure the shelves are safe. Young children might try to climb on the shelves.
  • Set up your storage space.

Plan for moving from play to clean-up.

  • Choose how to use time markers. What will work best for your children?
  • Explain to your children when and how they can save playthings for later.

Make three goals for cleaning up with your children and making clean-up fun.

Make clean-up time a time for learning and fun!

5 Tricks to Get Kids to CLEAN UP! — WhatsUpMoms

Additional readings:

More ideas about cleaning up — how and why:


Bjerke, H. (2011). Children as ‘differently equal’ responsible beings: Norwegian children’s views of responsibility. Childhood, 18(1) 67–80. doi:10.1177/0907568210371987

Brendtro, L., Mitchell, M, & Long, N. (2010, Winter). The reclaiming saga: The second century of the child. Reclaiming Children and Youth,18(4), 3-7.

Kok, A. J., Kong, T. Y., & Bernard-Opitz, V. (2002). A comparison of the effects of structured play and facilitated play approached on preschoolers with autism. Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, 6(2), 181–186.

Malone, D. M. (1999). Contextual factors informing play-based program planning. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 46(3), 307–324.

Mcguigan, T. (2018). The importance of play in the CS classroom. (Parents and Teachers). beanz Magazine, 6(3), 28(2).

O’Gorman Hughes, C. A., & Carter, M. (2002). Toys and materials as setting events for the social interaction of preschool children with special needs. Educational Psychology, 22(4), 429–444.

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