by Alix Tonsgard

The reality of all things fun and play-like is that there will be a mess to clean up. If you are like most parents or caregivers, getting children to clean up after an engaging play experience can be challenging.

From a developmental perspective, tasks like cleaning up require a certain amount of self-regulation skills, which take years of practice, not to mention cognitive development, before fully developing. A child who stops playing when prompted by an adult and cleans up his toys is regulating his thoughts, emotions, and behavior. That takes a lot of work, and is a major accomplishment for a young child. Over time children develop the capacity to internalize rules and expectations and will act automatically, however, certain things such as cleaning up will always require some degree of intentional regulation which needs to be taught and practiced time and time again.

There are however, things that play in your favor. Letting young children wield a mop or do such tasks as help wash windows tends to fill them with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Inevitably there will be some clean up task they are more interested in than others, but here are some things you can try at home to get your little ones involved in the clean up process…

  • Start young. If your child is walking, then she is old enough to start learning to put the toys away. Talk your child through it and demonstrate how it’s done.
  • Have realistic expectations. Finding tasks that are within their capability is key.
  • Be specific. Just saying, “clean up” is an overwhelming statement, but “put all of the cars in the blue car box” is easily understood.
  • Explain why cleaning is necessary.
  • Make it a habit. Fight the temptation to do it yourself.

Do you have any tips you would like to share or stories about cleaning up? We would love to hear them! Find my blog at

Alix Tonsgard is an early learning specialist at the DuPage Children’s Museum.