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What do you think of this "Toy Pick Up Fairy" idea?

by respaced on March 29, 2011

I work with a lot of moms with young children as a professional organizer, and I often find myself sharing ideas for teaching their children how to pick up their toys. Recently, someone introduced me to the idea of the “Toy Pick Up Fairy.”

The idea is this: You tell your children to clean up their space, because if they do not, the Toy Pick Up Fairy will come in the night and put any toys left out on the floor into time-out the next day. If the Toy Pick Up Fairy sees the same toys left out night after night, she might eventually take the toys and never give them back.

It has reportedly worked for some families. And at a surface level, I can see where it would be very effective. It also takes the pressure off the parents being the “bad guys” because the consequences for not putting the toys away lies with the Fairy, not the parents. It works, and it’s easy.

But then I started thinking about this idea further, and realized I had some misgivings about it. First of all, what motivation is there for the kids to put their toys away once they realize there is no Toy Pick Up Fairy? Is it best to motivate them to clean up out of fear? Or does it teach better life skills to motivate them to clean up so they have more space to play, feet don’t get hurt by stepping on toys and toys don’t get broken by being stepped on?

I do advocate putting toys in time-out for a day when children refuse to put them away after being asked, but I strongly discourage throwing toys away out of punishment. There has been some research that indicates that throwing away toys out of punishment or in anger can be traumatic for children. But what if the Toy Pick Up Fairy throws them away instead of Mom and Dad? Does that make it acceptable and non-traumatic?

I would love your opinions about the Toy Pick Up Fairy. Should I pass this idea on to the parents whom I work with? I honestly can’t make up my mind about it, so other perspectives would be appreciated! Write in the comment section below or email me at info@respacedpdx.com.

Image of fairy whisking away your child’s Legos in a bejeweled bag posted by Demented Pixie at Flickr.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous March 29, 2011 at 11:27 pm

I believe there are better ways to teach a child to pick up their toys than by suggesting a toy fairy will take them. The parents should be leading by example and through their example teaching their children to pick up toys, clothes or other activity before they move on to do something else – just as the parents should be doing too. Is the toy fairy going to take away the dirty dishes or pile of unwashed laundry too?
I don't believe using an imaginary toy fairy is the way to teach a trusting child.

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Messy Mom of Mesy Toddler March 30, 2011 at 2:14 am

I think its a short term solution at best. What happens when the kid figures out there are no fairies (sorry to those of you who still believe). Regardless, the picture of the fairy is hilarious!

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sharla March 30, 2011 at 2:34 am

Are you going to stop giving presents to your child after they learn there is no Santa Claus?
The point of the Pickup Fairy is to get your child in the habit of picking up toys with a "fun" connotation as opposed to a nagging lecture every night. Habits acquired in early childhood are hard to break.
I only wish the Pickup Fairy would throw away the dirty dishes & unwashed laundry!!

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sharla March 30, 2011 at 2:38 am

ps. I forgot to tell you the Pickup Fairy actually works (after they try trapping it by "throwing" every toy they own on the floor!!)

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Suzanne March 31, 2011 at 9:39 pm

I used a similar strategy to motivate my kids until they were about 5. It was the House Fairy, created by Pam Young (I think it was); a friend of the Marla Cilley aka FlyLady. The House Fairy motivated/reinforced/rewarded good behavior (she did not punish). Any negative consequences were only natural ones that us as parents taught.

If the fun and imaginative part for children intrigues you, maybe redesign the Fairy as mischievous and say that it will take your toys and hide them somewhere in the house? Depending on how the parent saw fit, sometimes those hiding spots could be fun or not-so-fun to discover, say if the item is not found right away (within in a few days).

I would be very hesistant to outright discard of any of the "hidden" items.

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MaryJo April 1, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Suzanne — interesting idea to use the House Fairy as positive motivation rather than negative motivation. It's funny how we as parents seem to have this impulse to convince our children that there is "magic" in the world (eg. the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, etc.) I wonder where this impulse comes from? Have parents always done that? But I suppose that is a topic for a blog other than this one!

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Lee April 16, 2011 at 8:23 pm

I like Pam Young's House Fairy, as methioned by Suzanne. Unfortunately, my children were grown by the time I heard about her.

The beauty of the House Fairy is that no one knows when she is coming. If the room is clean, she leave a small gift. If one child's room is not clean, that child doesn't get the small gift, even if the siblings do. My hope is that the gift is not clutter. An "experience" would be nice – a coupon for an ice cream cone at a local restaurant, a weekend bike ride with parents, etc. There is a link on FlyLady's web site.

Another suggestion from FlyLady is setting the timer to see if everything can be picked up before the timer goes off. It becomes a game to beat the timer.

Looking back, I think that the things that help kids clean up are good storage (labeled, easy to reach) and a limited number of toys. If there are too many toys, they can be rotated in and out of use, with the possibility of a toy being exchanged for one that is in storage. The one toy in, one toy out (discard, donate, sell) concept for newly purchased toys or toys that were gifts helps kids keep a number of toys that the can manage, not be overwhelmed with.

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