The Clean Up Challenge - DuPage Children's Museum

Wild Wonders  | Saturday, April 27

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The Clean Up Challenge

April 21, 2015

Whether at home, at school, or in our Museum, 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, caregivers, or Museum facilitators, getting children to clean up after an engaging play experience can be challenging.

We’ve all been there before. Maybe it’s been one of those mornings and you decide to take the pick-your-battle route and do it yourself. Or maybe you are behind schedule and, let’s be honest, it’s so much faster if you just do it yourself. In those moments try to remember that cleaning up is an important part of your child’s development and gives her a sense of responsibility and that if you are constantly picking up after your child at this age, she will learn to expect it always.


But why does it have to be so hard?!

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. If you really stop and think about this, 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.

Here are some things to think about and try…

  • Start Young. If your child is walking, then she is old enough to start learning to put the toys away when playtime is over. Talk your child through it. “Can you put that book on this shelf?” Demonstrate how it’s done as well. Toddlers love to help and often feel such pride in their accomplishments. If you make cleaning and picking up an expectation within the family, kids catch on quickly and accept that they are an important part of making the household run smoothly and neatly.
  • Have Realistic Expectations. Finding tasks that are within their capability is key. For 2- and 3-year-olds that might mean putting toys back where they belong or wiping off the table. You can also take the middle sections out of a Swiffer to create a toddler-size mop!
  • 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. Otherwise your child looks at cleaning up as putting away the fun.
  • Make it a habit. Fight the temptation to do it yourself. Teach your child to clean up after she is done with the task.


Teaching your children to clean up is yet another one of the big parenting milestones, like teaching them to sleep in their own bed or teaching them to accept boundaries. It is not easy, it can be emotionally exhausting, it requires consistency, and it won’t happen overnight; but I promise you, if you put in the work, in the end it will make your life easier and benefit your child too.