How Can I Get My Preschooler to Clean Up?

Tips from an early childhood educator to get young kids to pick up their toys

The preschool years are some of the most wonderful and scariest times for parents, especially if it’s the first child they are sending to school. I receive a lot of questions from parents, from “How do I handle separation anxiety?” to “What do I do if my child hasn’t seemed to make many friends?”

One of my favorite things to help with, though, is the old problem of cleanup. “My preschooler just won’t clean up her toys. She is constantly making a huge mess, and I spend my nights cleaning up books, blocks, trucks, you name it.” Parents are always perplexed when they walk into their child’s preschool classroom and watch how the teacher claps a few times, or flicks the light on and off, and suddenly, the class, including their child, springs into action and quickly and efficiently cleans up everything in a few minutes. Parents are even more amazed when the children do it without being asked four or five times and may even sing while they are doing it: “Clean up, clean up, everybody, everywhere!”

What in the world has gotten into their child? Why does he know exactly what to do in a classroom setting, but can’t figure it out in his own playroom? The answer is simple. It all comes down to something called executive functioning. When a child has executive functioning skills, she can easily access information, come up with a solution to the problem or task, and then carry out that solution.

Helping your child build executive functioning skills by giving her easy clues as to what you expect of her, solutions, and a tool kit (such as having a bin marked with a picture of a block), and giving her clues so she understands the routine involved with cleanup, sets her up for success. By limiting the number of toys teachers allow out in a classroom, they also eliminate sensory overload, which helps keeps kids’ executive functioning skills sharp. So, what can you do at home?

Setting up your child’s playroom like his classroom can help you both.   

  1. Get clear bins and label each one for easy clean up and organization. “My child can’t read,” you say? No worries. Find a picture of the items you would like to put back in each bin, print out the picture, and affix it to the front of each bin. Your child will see the picture of Legos or crayons and will have an easy time cleaning up.
  2. Talk to your child about how having too many toys out at once can make it hard to clean up. Set a limit as to how many toys can be played with at any one time and teach her how to use the visual clues on each bin to figure out where toys go.
  3. Model the right behavior. Work with your child to help him clean up if it seems overwhelming. If he is helping, that’s a good start. As he becomes older and more proficient, add more tasks. Let him see that you have confidence he can do more and can be successful. The process of organizing and cleaning up is a great start to building self-sufficiency and executive functioning skills.  

    Children aren’t that much different from us. If we have piles of paperwork on our desk with old coffee cups and stacks of bills, we too might find it difficult to know just where to start. Simplify your surroundings making tasks clear, setting clear expectations, and setting up success with some simple organizational tips.

  4. Make cleaning up fun. Encourage your child to sing her school clean up song. Be creative: Ask her to pick up by color or shape, or pick up everything that starts with a certain letter. The options are endless!

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