How to get pre-school kids to tidy up

Mess makes my head hurt. Plus, I like white floors, white sofas, spotless towels, unblemished walls and non-sticky everything. Guess I shouldn’t have had a kid then, huh? But I did, and we adore her, so we’re not sending her back – mess or no mess.

I figured that one way to moderate my anxiety would be a playroom. My little one’s own space, with a closable door, in which she and her mates could create mayhem.

However, this control-freakish decision did not allow for the following variables:

1. She has no interest in The System: the series of large transparent crates to which specific groups of related items are allocated.

2. She adores ‘crap’ she can use for imaginative play – that is, scraps of card, bits of string, the roll of brown board from inside the tinfoil, dead leaves and dying flowers, second-hand ice cream sticks from the park, cable ties, our pets’ manky catnip mice, paper crowns, Spur balloons (long gone pap) – and she refuses to discard any of this stuff. (I do it in secret.)

3. Her regular on-site playmate is a 10-year-old who can easily reach the stuff that’s deliberately packed up high for adult-supervised play.

4. The 10-year-old favours the stamp sets, paints, nail polish, and thousands of teensy-weensy loom bands I would never willingly expose to my 3-year-old.

5. Despite my best efforts, they both insist on consuming (demolishing? exploding? flinging?) snacks and water in this room while they play. So I ripped out the ill-fated carpets, replacing them with screed and a rug.

Bottom line? By the end of a fun-filled day, that lovely space becomes Armagedda-Playroom. And I begin to chew on my fingernails and pull out tufts of my hair.

‘Why not just insist that they clean up?’, you ask. Oh, I do. But this doesn’t work.

Option 1: The 10-year-old does it all, reasonably well, while the 3-year-old sabotages her by finding new things to yank out of the boxes and cupboards.

Option 2:  Our wonderful helper supervises clean-up and, in her frustration at the kids’ shoddy adherence to The System, just does it all herself.

Option 3: My 3-year-old starts (so that the 10-year-old can finish). But this flings The System into unimaginable chaos. And I chew my fingernails

So I did what all modern moms do. I Facebooked. And oh, the wisdom that emerged!

  • Get over your OCD tendencies, and buy her two toy baskets she has to put things into. Once a week, go through the baskets and put things in their proper place. – Georgi
  • When we have to tidy up a lot of pieces of something we divide up colours. I collect red and my little one collects blue. Or we see who can collect the most. Or even better, to help with counting, I say ‘Mommy’s going to collect two puzzle pieces. Now you collect two, and so on…’Melissa
  • Her toy boxes should be see-through. On the front, put a picture of the item that needs to be inside, like Lego, tea cups, Barbie clothes, etc. It works. – Jacky
  • She shouldn’t start a new game until the toys she was playing with have been put away. (I researched this one, and it’s great. The experts say that a small child shouldn’t have more than five toys out at any one time. Too many toys encourage short attention spans. They rush from one to the other and never play with anything properly.) – Lara
  • Name the shelves so she can identify where things go.Lori
  • Make it fun. Sing a song to tidy up. – Mel

It seems I need to start by chilling out. It’s possible that Georgi’s right and the surest road to insanity is obsessing about perfect tidiness in Armagedda-Playroom.

I also need to have realistic expectations of my 3-year-old. The instruction to ‘tidy the playroom’ is too broad. ‘Put all of your dolls in the cupboard’ may be better.

Also, saying, ‘Time to pack away’ may make less sense than a demonstration, accompanied by, ‘Look how I’m putting all of the crayons into this box. Want to help me to do that?’ (By the way, the research shows that if you spend too much time showing your little one how to perform a task, it’s too complicated for him/her.)

Plus, The System  clearly needs labels and pictures on those see-through crates. And I need to invest more time in supervising tidy-up-time myself, until she gets it.

So, thanks for your attention. I’m off to Armagedda-Playroom. Wish me luck.

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Tiffany Markman

Tiffany Markman

Tiffany Markman, copywriter, editor and mom to an almost-four-year-old, who tries to balance her workaholism with cuddles, books, caffeine & reining in her intrinsic kugelry. Follow her on twitter.

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