Tips for getting your toddler to help clean up

Sometimes, when raising a toddler, it can seem like everything is a fight. Kids can be stubborn, and they don’t like change. They are very good at making a mess, but not so enthusiastic when it comes to cleaning it up. However, there are some things you can do to make your toddler more likely to help clean up, and less likely to put up a fight about it.

Use positive and negative reinforcement

Rewards are a great way to motivate children to help clean up. You can offer them a prize, or a treat, or extra play time, or something else they might want. With rewards, you just have to be careful that you don’t reward every single thing they do, because they will start to expect the rewards and you will have to reward everything. Maybe give them a reward if they clean up without you having to remind them, or if they go above and beyond what you told them to clean up.

For some children, you may need to use negative reinforcement in addition to positive reinforcement. Inform your toddler that cleaning up after themselves is necessary, and if they don’t do it, something bad will happen — maybe a time-out, or a toy taken away for a little while, or no TV for a while. The rewards and punishments will obviously vary depending on the child. You, as the parent, know what works best for your son or daughter.

Stick to a routine

Children like a schedule. Try to always make clean-up time close to the same time each day, so your child can get used to it. It’s hard for them to get in the groove of cleaning up when you tell them to do it before bed one night, then after breakfast the next day, then in the afternoon three days after that. A strict routine will help them understand when it’s time to clean up, and that they are expected to participate.

Set clear goals

Toddler brains work differently from adult brains. You can’t just tell a toddler to “clean up,” and expect them to know what you want. You have to explain exactly what needs to be picked up, and (if necessary) where it needs to go.

Don’t overload them with too many instructions at once (“Clean up the books and the toys and the puzzles and the blocks”) but rather, give them one or two things to do, and then when they complete those tasks, give them more. If you give them too much to do at once, they are likely to get distracted and forget.

Label boxes and containers

Clearly-labeled containers will help your toddler know where to put things when cleaning up. They may be hesitant to pick up their toys because they don’t know where they are supposed to go. Since most toddlers can’t read, draw pictures on boxes and other containers to show your child where certain things go. For example, if you have trains and train tracks, draw a picture of a train on the box that you want your toddler to keep the pieces in.

Set a good example

One of the best ways to get your toddler to help clean up is to clean up yourself. Show them that they are not the only ones who have to clean up. You can clean up with them at first, and make it something you are doing together. Also take the opportunity to show them any time you are cleaning up other things — washing dishes, folding clothes, etc. It will help them see that you clean up your things, just like they are supposed to clean up their things.