Monday, November 19, 2012

Toddlers and Cleaning Up

Many parents sincerely struggle with how to get their kids (specifically toddlers) to clean up after themselves at the end of a period of playing.  It is often a tough skill to teach and even those kids that at first think it is fun are likely to protest at some point in their lives.  I was a preschool teacher that dealt with the issue frequently with little ones.

Some Things for Parents and Guardians to Consider:

Your two or three year old is capable of A LOT more than you may realize, AND A LOT less capable than you might realize all at the same time.

A toddler is capable of picking up a toy and putting it in a bin, but may not be fully capable of sorting out one type of toy from another EVERY time.  Even if your child is good at sorting by colors and shapes, sorting by TYPE is actually somewhat different and also has to be practiced and learned.  Sorting skills can make cleaning up more challenging than you realize if different things go in different bins.  However your toddler CAN learn this and a two or three year old should be able to be expected to clean up after himself if he has first been taught how.

A toddler's attention span is small and they are easily overwhelmed.  Sometimes too many toys out can create a situation where a child can't understand where to begin. 

Transitions are often tough for this age-group.  Do you have trouble getting your child to switch from play time to bath time but then when it is time to get out of the path your child is again reluctant?  That is because your child has trouble with transitioning from one activity to the next (completely natural) not necessarily because he or she is fighting the bed-time routine.  The same is true for clean-up.  Going from play time to clean-up time poses a challenge simply in regard to the fact that it is a transition.

Some Techniques that are Likely to make A BIG DIFFERENCE:

Avoidance of Overwhelming Messes:

Own fewer toys.  Kids love real-world play so as much as you can allow them access to the real thing, do so.  Alice loved her kitchen toys and they have been useful in teaching her certain kitchen skills, but as she cooks and bakes more and more on her own, the toys simply become less and less relevant.  It won't be long before they are handed down to her cousin I'm sure.  You can also be choosy about the quality of the toy that comes in.  We DO NOT ALWAYS get the children's meal when we are out and instead frequently get two adult meals (for the three of us) and a side and share.  The children's meal becomes an occasional treat when the toy offered looks like it might actually be fun.  Instead of a toy drum set, use old pots and pans with wooden spoons.  Instead of a toy house or tent inside, occasionally get out all the blankets, rearrange your furniture and build one together for them to play in.  Fewer toys means less to store and less to make a mess with.  It also encourages other, more authentic activities anyway.

Clean up more frequently.  Instead of one big clean up right before you leave or at the end of the day before bed, have a clean-up session periodically throughout the day.  If you notice the play area starting to look like a mess, call for a clean up and then just let them start over again.

You might try a rule where he can only have one - maybe two kinds of toys out at a time.  If he is playing with his train and train set, those have to be put away before he can switch to blocks.  This way there is less to clean up and less sorting involved.  This rule helps in avoiding problems related to being overwhelmed by the mess that has been made.  If you adopt this rule, I suggest following the spirit of the rule, rather than the letter of the rule though.  Some toys combine quite nicely - especially as they move into more imaginary play.  For example, if a child has a train set out and wants to build a city around the tracks, blocks are a natural toy to use and mix with the tracks.  At two and the beginning of three, Alice was allowed one toy at a time.  As she moved through into the older half of three and into fours and fives, she was allowed two types of toys at a time, as long as both sets were being used.  If toys that were not being used were left laying out she was asked to stop her play to clean up the other toy.  Now that she is six, we are a lot more loose about the rule.  She can have ten types of toys out if they are all being used together (but she is also a lot more capable of cleaning up a lot more mess on her own too). 

Dealing with Transition Challenges:

Give a five and 3 minute warning before ending play time to help in transitioning.  "Okay you have five more minutes before it is time to clean up."  "Okay, now you have three more minutes."

Include it in a routine or two.  Have a pre-meal routine that includes tidying up the toys, washing hands and setting meal ware on the table.  Incorporate clean up into bed time and pre-leaving the house routines as well.  This way they learn to expect it every time.   

Teaching the Requisite Skills:

Make cleaning up something you do together.  This means you are modeling the proper behavior for your child.  At first, you might put away ten toys for your child's every one toy, but if he or she is picking up a few things, that is progress compared to not cleaning up at all.  Gradually, you can expect your child to pick up more and more of the toys.

If you have different bins for different toys, it saves hassles in many respects but creates a sorting problem for your child.  Realize that toddlers do not yet know how to read, so even if you have labeled everything you have not helped your child.  Use picture labels.  Take a photo of the dolls and doll stuff to put on the doll bin and a separate photo of a bunch of cars and piece of car track to put on the car bin.  Even still, be patient, because they are still having to use matching skills which are also new, but you are then giving your child a chance at getting it right.  If things don't exactly end up in the right bin every time, celebrate the effort your child made and move on.

It also Helps to Make a Game of It:

Kids learn from the games they play.  Learning should be fun and even chores can be rewarding with the right attitude.  Do you want to do drudgery?  I don't.

Sing a song, "Clean up Clean up everybody every where, Clean up clean up, everybody do your share". is a common one (just make up your own tune).  There is also, "Whistle While you Work" from Snow White and "Happy Working Song" from Enchanted.

See who can get the largest number of toys cleaned up in 60 seconds.

Can your child "beat the clock?" set a timer and celebrate together with cheers and dancing if it is done before the clock beeps.

Make it a learning practice game:  Okay, how long will it take to clean up all the red cars?  Can we do it in less time than the blue cars took?

If these methods don't work, THEN as a LAST RESORT

Generally, punitive styles do not really motivate kids with cleaning up.  Especially at the toddler stages - they simply do not have a good enough grasp of cause and effect yet.  For that reason, it is probably best to not push so hard you wind up in a fight about it.  At three, if the child stops cleaning up, you can probably also stop and say, "Oh, I can only clean up when you are cleaning too!  Bummer you won't be able to play unless this gets done, I guess we'll just sit here."

For older kids you can of course,  try the more punitive method of removing toys.  The best idea for doing this that I've seen is where a "Toy Void" is created.  You might have a big clear bin the child isn't allowed to get into (keep it out of reach but in sight).  Toys you have to clean up for your child that is a mature two, three, or four (or older) go into this bin.  In order to get the toys back, the child has to clean up his own toys, PLUS help with something extra.  For each time the child cleans up her own toys and does a little something extra he or she earns a toy back.  The idea that he can earn toys back from the toy void is far better than just giving the toys back after a set number of days, because it creates a situation where the child is learning that he or she has to rectify the problem that caused the toys to be lost in the first place.

With any of these methods consistency, patience, understanding and scaffolding skills are all key components.  Hopefully, your child will learn to clean up with you and clean up time can be its own form of fun too on most days.

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