One of my favorite methods for getting young children to clean up their space is to put a 4- or 5-minute song on and tell the children they have to have their space cleaned up by the end of the song. My mother-in-law came up with this idea for getting her preschool class to clean up, and she says it works like a charm.
But recently, a mom told me she has tried this method with her 4- and 6-year-old children, but they simply give up cleaning and start to dance when the music goes on. What else can she do?
I think the first step in this kind of situation is to make sure the children understand the point of this exercise. The mom will probably have to do the clean-up with the kids the first few times to make sure they comprehend the “game.”
Next, she should make sure the children know where to put things away. Every toy has to have a spot that is child-height and easy to access. Asking the children to sort things into multiple categories is also a recipe for disaster — use just a few bins, toy boxes or shelves and sort into broad categories.
Finally, if the children are not made to clean it up every day and the play space is truly a disaster, the mess may have reached unmanageable proportions for a 4- and 6-year-old. Adults will have to step in to assist.
If the mother has thought of all these things and the children still refuse to clean up, then I say it is time to show a little tough love. Pick up the toys that are not put away and explain to the children that those toys are going away for a week. If the children cannot respect their belongings, then they should not be able to play with them for a while. Please do not make the mistake of throwing away the toys in a fit of anger. That can be a scary, traumatic experience for small kids, leading them to develop unhealthy attachments to their belongings as they get older.
Getting children to clean up after themselves is such a frustrating and very common problem. What methods do you use with your kids?
Hilarious picture of children dancing (and presumably not cleaning up their room) courtesy of the Madison Public Library of Wisconsin.