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“Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere, clean up, clean up, everybody do your share.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if that song just worked?

Why is it so hard to convince kids to clean up?

This week, I talked to a mom who described a problem that’s all too familiar:

When it’s time to clean up, he just doesn’t want to do it. He asks for help, and we try to join in and share responsibility. As soon as we start helping, he picks up one or two things, then complains: “It’s too hard. It’s too much. I can’t do it.”

First of all, why is it so hard for kids to clean up?

Who knows? Depending on your mess and your child’s unique personality, here are some ideas:

  • The mess is visually overwhelming, and the task seems impossible
  • All that decision-making and problem-solving is a big stretch (where does this puzzle piece go, and what should I do with this sock?)
  • Picking up all the little pieces takes a lot of dexterity and fine-motor coordination, especially for little things that don’t scoop easily
  • It just takes too long and there are more fun things we could be doing
  • “You’re not the boss of me!” Some kids resist tidying up because they don’t like being “bossed around

As a grown-up, you have a lot of great skills you just take for granted. You can cool down when you get frustrated. You can problem-solve and prioritize. Our children are still growing into all those abilities, so when you see panic and defiance, your child might be telling you: “I’m in over my head!”

So, what can do we do avoid power struggles and complaining about cleaning up?

If you can’t persuade your child to do it, you might be left with the choice between leaving it on the floor and cleaning it up yourself… but what if we could just make the whole thing a lot easier or more fun?

Speeding up the clean-up process (and slowing down the loss of your sanity)

  1. ROLL IT UP. Use the play surface as a clean-up tool. Whoever invented this “Play and Go” thingamajig that doubles as a play area and as a drawstring bag has probably made a gazillion dollars. This mat also seems like it would prevent a lot of misery (so much easier to roll it up than to pick up every individual piece.)
    *PRO TIP* If your kids don’t understand why they should keep their toys on a designated mat or blanket at first, give them a demo! Show them how easy it is to clean up a handful of toys using the play surface, and compare to the usual way, before the mess starts to take over the room again.
  2. PARE IT DOWN. Minimize opportunities for dumping. Get selective about the toys that are available, and try not to use big containers. You might not need to make every Hot Wheels car or doll outfit available at the same time. If a bin is already full of other toys, your child might end up spreading ten toys around the room while they’re looking for that one doll shoe or pair of goofy sunglasses.

    *BONUS: setting up your play area with just a few toys will actually make it easier for your children to decide what to do, and find what they want.

    **EVEN BETTER: when the current set of toys gets “stale”, you can switch them for another set of “fresh” ones, and the kids will fall in love with them all over again. Woo hoo!

Letting children lead the clean-up process: more surprisingly fun ways to team up

If your children are wonderfully capable but also incredibly independent, it’s sometimes hard to convince them to JUST CLEAN UP BECAUSE I SAID SO. Here are two techniques you can use to give your determined child a chance to exercise those leadership skills.

  1.  MONKEY-SEE MONKEY-DO. This trick is amazing for keeping your child engaged and focused as you clean up together. If your child often gets distracted, or starts to complain while you do your best to model those clean-up skills, you can turn the tables and let them be the model!
    Here’s how to play: invite your child to clean up an object in an interesting way. Maybe she will hop from one puzzle to another, or attempt to pick up that stuffed animal with her little toes. Maybe he will decide to walk backwards, or just make explosive sound-effects when the blocks land in the bin. Next, it’s your turn! Imitate their silly movements, and keep the game going back and forth. Some attempts might be a little awkward, but the most important thing is that it’s fun.

  2. ON YOUR MARK, GET SET, BOOGIE! Sometimes the hardest part is just getting started. One of the best ways to avoid the push-back when you remind your child to clean up is… don’t remind them. Let something else do the dirty work! When you set a timer or use technology to give that final cue, you get to stay out of the line of fire. For some reason, children are less likely to argue with a timer than a person, especially when it’s a timer they have set for themselves. There are so many options for setting up reminders (Amazon Echo or Google Home could be a perfect option), but even a simple kitchen timer or a favourite song can be an effective way to get the ball rolling!

Quicker and simpler clean-ups = happier clean-ups

Most kids will never jump for joy when asked to clean up, and doing boring things is definitely part of the growing-up process, but these steps will help you make the process much easier, especially if your children are still learning how to scoop up tricky pieces, make choices about where things go, or take on big projects one piece at a time.

Now go try it, and tell us how it goes in the Creative Connected Behaviour Support Facebook group!