How to Get the Toys Cleaned Up

The challenge:  Kids are so much better at taking the toys out than putting them away.  We parents want some relative order, we want to be able to walk around without risking foot pain or a twisted ankle, we want them to learn they are responsible for cleaning up after themselves, and we want to avoid temper tantrums and fits (both theirs and ours!).  Sometimes it’s just easier to do it ourselves, but then we get resentful and worry we are creating spoiled children.  What to do?

The Scene:  The kids enthusiastically dump out all the colored blocks and have a wonderful time creating their imaginative structures, but they *mysteriously* lose interest and energy when it’s time to clean up.

What doesn’t work:

1.  Threaten to give away all the blocks to some more deserving children if they don’t put them away before the ten minute timer goes off.  (We think to ourselves, the kids need to learn some discipline, and they need to know there are consequences when they don’t clean up.)

  • The kids do learn… to threaten others with less power than them.  Don’t be surprised if one of your child starts to threaten his sibling or his friend, “if you don’t let me play the King, I’m not inviting you over to my house any more.”  Doesn’t sound as nice coming out of his mouth, does it?

2.  Bribe them with candy:  I’ll give you a piece of chocolate if you get all the toys picked up.  (Sometimes we figure that she just needs a little motivation.  I don’t expect her to want to clean up on her own, and one piece of chocolate is no big deal.)

  • Don’t be surprised if she starts to demand a piece of chocolate every time you want her to clean up.
  • You are teaching her that she should help out in order to get a reward for herself… not because it helps the rest of the family, or contributes to a sense of order.

3.  Do it for them.  (It is so much easier, faster, and quieter when I just do it myself.  They’ll figure it out when they’re older.)

  • There’s nothing wrong with helping each other out.  But if you don’t expect your kids to help with clean up now, it will likely get harder to instill the habit as they get older, with their busier schedules and more sophisticated negotiating skills.  One mother reported that when she finally asked her child to help with clean up, he replied matter-of-factly, “No, Mommy, that’s your job!”

4.  Lecture them on the importance of cleanliness, taking responsibility, and the importance of keeping our belongings in order.  (We do have to teach them about the importance of cleaning up, after all.  They obviously don’t come to this on their own…)

  • As soon as you go into lecture mode, they tune you out.  (Have you noticed?)  Yes, they do need to learn.  The trouble is, a lecture generally serves more to build resentment or a tin ear.

What you can try:

1.  Make it a game:  Here are actual games from families facing the clean-up blues:

  • Making inanimate objects speak:  One mother pretended that the storage bag for the blocks was talking to her little ones:  “Oh, I am so, so hungry for some green blocks.  Would you mind terribly… I don’t have any feet, so I can’t get them myself!”  Her children gleefully collected the green blocks, and tossed them in the bag as she held it out, making appreciative munching sounds.  And then the bag was “so thirsty for some blue blocks!” and so on.  Her children liked this game so much, they asked to play it the next day!
  • Pretending to pay for her clean-up services:  My daughter was fascinated by monopoly money, and loved to negotiate her “fee” for cleaning up various parts of the room.  My role was to try to bargain her down — and then cave in and agree to some outrageous fee (“Okay, okay, $200 for you to put away the books, and $100 for the three markers.”).
  • Magic energy pills:  When my son said he was “too tired” to clean up the toys, I suggested he needed a “magic energy pill” which would give him the boost he needed to pick up the next three toys.  (In reality the “pills” were any little bit of food that would appeal to him — raisins, pretzels, chopped up bits of cheese.  I remember my babysitter giving my sister and me mint ‘pillows’ as energy pills when we faced a daunting clean up task.)  (Hmm, maybe that should be a separate strategy for clean up — get the babysitter to help out!)
  • Play beat the clock:  Set the timer to see if they can get all the toys away before the buzzer.  Everyone plays as a team!
  • Collect five toys for a ticket to go free!
  • Pick one category (laundry, books, red blocks), or a finite time, to clean up.  One of the challenges of major cleanups is that they can feel overwhelming.  Giving a choice of specific category or time frame limits it and makes it seem doable.
  • Put on lively music, and dance as you clean up.

2.  Preview:  When the kids are trying to decide between dumping out the giant box of legos or playing catch in the back yard, ask them if they will have the energy to clean up when they are done.  And since preschoolers often need help during clean up, this is a legitimate question to ask of yourself as well.  Most afternoons, my limit for messy activities (fingerpainting, play-dough, water colors) was one, after which I encouraged my kids to play with “dry” toys that were easier to clean up and put away!

3.  Provide a special place to store favorite creations and “projects in progress.”  Sometimes kids resist cleaning up because they can’t bear to destroy their creations after all their hard and creative work.  Can you put aside a shelf or cabinet for their creations, or rope off an area for a work-in-progress?

4.  Predicate the next activity on the clean-up:  “As soon as all the blocks are put away, we can (go to the park, have a snack, read a book…)”

5.  Give bite-sized information on what needs to be done and why:  “We need to put all the lego pieces away first, so we have space to do the puzzle.”  Or, “we need to put the blocks back in the cabinet so we can sweep up the dog hair.”  Or, “we need to put all the markers back in the cabinet so we can use the table to eat dinner.”

Do you have another way to get the toys picked up by your little ones?  Please send me your ideas so I can share them with more parents!


Julie King, Parent Educator and “How To Talk” trainer, has been educating and supporting parents and professionals since 1995.  Her most popular workshop, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, is based on the bestselling books by Faber and Mazlish. She offers dynamic lecture/presentations for schools and other parent organizations, and has led workshops for numerous schools, non-profits, and self-organized parent groups. She also maintains a private practice providing telephone consultations to individual parents and couples.  She is the mother of three. Visit, or contact her directly: or 415-939-3553.