Home » How I get my 3 year old to pick up his toys, Part 1

How I get my 3 year old to pick up his toys, Part 1

First off, if you’re looking for a Mary Poppins level of quick-fix, you won’t find it here. I love that movie, but talk about unrealistic expectations!

This topic will be a long one, because we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty, everything from toddler organization to ending the “I don’ wanna!” battle. And please don’t think that I somehow have this whole thing completely figured out… this is a work in progress, and I would love to hear your feedback.

In part 1, we’ll cover when to get started, as well as how to organize so that a toddler can learn to keep things organized. In part 2, we’ll tackle the actual process of cleaning up each day, and how to establish this as a habit.

How young should you start?

Although we’re definitely not perfect, at least 6 days out of 7, we do manage to get the house tidied up before going to bed. And when I say we, I mean that Valente actively puts his toys away, with some help from me. I’m that mean mom who refuses to play housemaid, because I want him to learn good habits from a young age. 🙂

In fact, I’ve been working with him on cleaning up since he was about 14 months old. That word “with” is significant—I never expected him to be able to put away every single toy perfectly at 18 months or even 2 years old. I did a lot of helping in the beginning, and a lot of hands-on showing while he figured out what I was instructing him to do. At first, I even used my hands to move his hands to pick up the block, the car, etc. And since Mr. Independent didn’t particularly like me doing that, it accelerated his learning. *wink*

Of course, his verbal and physical capabilities have grown exponentially since then, but I think the most important part of starting that young is that he knows—from before his earliest memories—that I expect him to clean up his toys. It’s not up for negotiation.

So that’s my first tip: start as young as possible.

At 12 months, cleaning up is more of a game than anything, but it’s building a foundation that you’ll be so thankful for as they grow up. But if your kids are older, don’t lose heart! You can start the process of teaching them to clean up at any age.

I worked in a daycare for a couple years, and all the teachers have the kids help clean up, from the Ones’ classroom all the way through Pre-K. Most of the kids who have been there for a while already know the drill, but it’s pretty obvious when a new kid comes in whether or not their parents have them tidy anything at home.

For those who start in the Pre-K classroom without knowing how to clean up, it can be a little bit of a challenge. But kids are quick to figure out expectations, so the first part of teaching your preschooler to clean up is to set your own expectations. If you believe that there will be a battle, you’ll get one. But if you believe that this is a helpful habit that your child simply must learn, they’ll figure out that you’re not negotiating this one, and they’ll learn how to clean up.

So my second tip: if you’re starting later, be persistent.

Some of the new kids in Pre-K take a couple weeks to learn the cleaning up process; others a few months. It’s very individual for each child. So don’t be discouraged, just keep going. Brace yourself ahead of time, and know that the first few attempts may not go so well. However, the more calm you can be about this process, the better it will go… because we all know how kids delight in pushing buttons, and if they realize that not cleaning up is a button they can push, you can bet they’ll put up a fight. But if they can’t push your buttons, they can’t push you around.

Keep your cool, because you’ve got this. They will learn to clean up.

Toddler-friendly organization

How do we manage the daily tidying, with a toddler in a studio apartment, and how did I even teach him where things go? Let’s start with the physical aspect of corralling toys, particularly in a small space.

  1. Make sure that your child can reach all of his or her toys. You may be thinking, Wait, what?! My darling child is going to dump out every single toy if I leave them all within reach! Yes, yes he will. Some Saturdays it looks like a Toys R Us semi-truck barreled through the wall and exploded in our living room. This is the double-edged sword of responsibility, and honestly, it’s exhausting to teach your toddler how to wield it wisely. But it pays spectacular dividends in the long run. If your child can reach all the toys, that means he can also put them away. I’ll share more on how to accomplish that in part 2.
  2. Evaluate the space you’re working with. Bearing in mind that you do, in fact, want the short one to be able to reach the toys, take a good look at your physical space. If your home is small (our studio apartment measures 436 square feet), you’ll have to get creative. My first objective when planning our living room layout was to maximize the open floor space for playing, so I shoved everything against the wall. I’m not overly fond of the aesthetics of putting shelves in front of the curtains, but it works best for practical purposes. Give yourself permission to rearrange however you need to make your space work. It doesn’t matter whether or not the room looks like the cover of a home décor magazine, as long as you find it both functional and lovely by your own preferences.
  3. Make sure you have adequate storage units. You want enough shelves, bins, etc., that every toy can have its own space. I currently use cubical storage shelves with a variety of bins, as well as the space under the sofa and chair. All of these are within easy reach for my son, and the top of the 8-cube shelf also makes a marvelous kitchen counter/tool bench/jungle gym/whatever Valente imagines. Here’s a storage shelf similar to the one I have, as well as the bins I got from Amazon. I also made bins from cardboard boxes, so that tutorial will show up here soon. 🙂
    Safety note: make sure you pick shelves that are sturdy enough to withstand toddler exuberance, and low enough they won’t tip over. If you have tall shelves or dressers, or heavy items like TVs, make sure you anchor them to the wall, in order to avoid terrifying situations where you suddenly realize your children might actually be monkeys. I have been impressed with these anchors, because they keep my bookshelf vertical even though it’s not leaning against a wall… including when my son tried to climb it.
  4. Decide on your limits, and keep them. Limits can be size or quantity related, whatever works for your family. I have found by trial and error that we can’t really accommodate toys that are physically larger than about 1x1x2 feet in dimension. For example, Valente’s dad bought him a toy fire truck that was so massive that there was no place I could put it that wasn’t in the walkway. It took over our tiny living room. So it went to live at the abuelos’ house, and I can walk around the living room again.
    We also have built-in quantity limits on cars, blocks, etc, because the bins are only so big. Once they start overflowing, it’s time to have Valente decide which ones he wants to donate. The one in, one out rule is helpful here. Of course, it can be more challenging around birthdays and Christmas, but it’s helpful to have a brief discussion ahead of time, so that your child knows they’ll need to say goodbye to some old toys in order to make room for the new ones. If they know it’s coming, it will be easier to accept.
    Yes, I know some parents recommend sneaking unused toys out to the donation bag in the garage without telling your child, in order to avoid conflict and tears. But that doesn’t empower your child to make generous choices—it just puts off a melt-down. And I’ve found that when I let Valente makes the decisions about what to give away, I’m surprised at how easily he lets some toys go.
    Of course, every now and then I have to make an executive decision, like when I got so sick of the overly-perky jingles from his baby walker. He was two and running just fine on his own, but he chose to sit and flip the switch over and over and over and over…. And that’s ok, too. We moms have to preserve our sanity, and we can teach our kids valuable lessons in respecting others’ needs, including parents. If that means the baby walker has to be donated to the nearest family shelter, then do it.
  5. Keep locations consistent. Even an 18 month old can learn where toys belong, and they’ll tell you if you put a toy somewhere it doesn’t go. By using a few different types of containers and keeping them in the same spot, always, it’s been a fairly painless task to teach Valente where his toys belong: wooden food in the wooden crates, cars in the striped bin, etc. It does take some repetition, but you might be surprised at how quickly they catch on. Bonus points for developmental activities—this is your basic sorting task at its finest!

Now that you have everything pretty much organized, it’s time to set your child loose. There is apparently nothing more irresistible to a toddler than a room that is neatly organized and full of accessible toys. I think it’s just one of those laws of nature: if you give a toddler a clean room, they’ll want to dump out every single bin.

And that’s where the real work begins. In part 2, we’ll cover the practical process of how to teach your toddler to clean up, and how to turn it into a habit. See you next week!

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