Dad's picture

How to Get Kids to Clean Up After Themselves (with Video)

Children Cleaning UpI've looked around to find advice about how to get kids to clean their toys and messy rooms.  I found a lot of suggestion, which might work, but have the downside of taking a long time and have a very high parental involvement.  For me, the goal is to get the kids to clean up as quickly as possible -- and my kids are aged 2,4, and 6.  Here are my techniques:

No Games:  Make A Specific Clean-Up Activity

Clean-up time is clean-up time, not playing time or coloring time or reading time.  Some people advocate making clean-up time a game, but I disagree (although I'm sure it works fine for them).  The reason is that cleaning up isn't a fun game and I think children should learn to clean even when it isn't super-fun.  That doesn't mean it has to be a bad time, it's just clean-up time.

How we make it clean up time is we say something like "Ok, dinner is almost ready.  Let's clean up the living room."  Then we all tackle the living room and clean until it's done.  Only after clean-up is done is there an opportunity to do the next activity.

We have a little song that we sing (learned it from someone else) as we clean to keep our mind on cleaning.  It's very simply chanting, "Clean-up. Clean-up. Everybody Clean-up." over and over again.  Often we parents help, definitely if we've been playing with the children as well.

When is it clean-up time?

  • If the kids have one set of toys out then they must put them away before using other toys.
  • When they stop playing in a room the have to clean it up.
  • Before bed they have to tidy up their clothes.
  • After they finish their food they have to put dishes in the sink and wipe their place.
  • When guests are coming over we do an extra-good job of tidying up.
  • Ad hoc


In this 11 minute video I take clips of the kids (6 years, 4 years, 1.5 years old) helping clean up a pile of lumber. Besides being cute because you see little kids moving heavy things, it also shows that kids can work together on a big cleaning job.  You'll see how efficiently they work, help each other, keep each other motivated, and feel proud of cleaning. It's real work but they're not complaining even though it took over an hour.  I make it a democracy where reasonable, but provide enough leadership and motivation for the kids to keep going.


Give Everyone Specific Clean-up Tasks

When we're all tackling a room, sometimes a child get distracted and then the others notice that he's not doing his fair share.  The way we get around that is to delegate which types of mess each child is responsible for.  It's even good to let the children choose.  Example:

"Ok kids, we have to put away the lego and the cars!  Who is doing which one?"

Then each child knows exactly their share of the work, and when they are done.  If one finishes more quickly because the other doddles then everyone knows why and nobody argues.  It's important to make the tasks about equal so they don't argue about who got the larger task.  We also remind the distracted child that they should clean so we can do something else.

Reduce Chances for Mess

Toy Boxes:  A parent's dear friend.  Kids can haul out little storage boxes, about the size for filing, play with the toys from the box, then put them all back in the box.  We have a box for Lego, and box for train sets, a box for cars and other vehicles, etc.  The boxes go against the wall, or stacked, or on shelves.  To clean up all we do is throw everything into the right box.

Fewer Toys:  One great way to reduce the mess is to reduce the number of toys the kids have.  After a certain point, we decided not to get them any more toys:  You know they don't play with half of them!  Any broken toys get tossed.  If they want a new toy then they have to select an old toy to give away to a friend or the salvation army.  This goes for books too.  We love books, almost religiously, but I see that most books are about the same.  Now we buy no more books, but go to the library every week to pick out three books for each child for the week; of course you have to return the old books.

Partition the Toys:  A friend of ours gave us the great tip to partition and cycle the toys.  So if there are four boxes worth of toys then store two boxes and leave two boxes for the kids.  Every couple of weeks swap boxes.  The toys will seem more interesting because the kids haven't seen them for awhile, and the messes will be smaller.


Simply we just keep cleaning until it`s done.  The kids know what the standard is so the consequence is totally natural:  They`re stuck cleaning.  There is no need for any other punishment besides that since it is exactly scaleable: Messy kids clean more, slow cleaners clean longer, and tidy, fast cleaning kids get to play more.  It is also natural: The child doesn`t blame the parent since it`s obvious to them that their mess needs to be cleaned.

We also have a rule that any toys a parent find out-of-place are assumed to be garbage.  We aren't unfairly strict about this.  If we notice a crayon rolled under a chair we call to the kids, "Do you want these crayons thrown out?"  Usually  the child runs out and picks up the item they missed.  If they really don't care about it, I ask them to throw it out.  Regardless, the kids clean it.

Be a Relaxed Parent

I hesitate to suggest this to women, but allow yourself to live with a little chaos and you can relax a little more.  Young kids can`t make a perfect bed, fold a perfect shirt, wipe their place perfectly.  Hold them responsible for what they can handle, but realize that if you want more then you have to do it because they can`t.  If it's going to make you uptight just live with it.  If you you really need some clean areas then designate some parts of the house NO-TOY-ZONES.  Kids don't bring their toys into those places.  Our bedroom and office are the two NO-TOY-ZONES.  You can always retreat there if you need some tidiness.


Hope you liked the post. Please do me a favour ...


Kids learn a lot by example.

Bogusia's picture

Kids learn a lot by example.  If they see a clean house they will also learn to keep it clean.  I also like to show them the mistakes us grown-ups do.  For instance, when my husband leaves clothes in the living room, I point it out to them and have a good laugh at my husband in front of the kids (all in good fun, that is).  Then, when my kids leave clothes lying around, I laugh at them also: "Don't be like your daddy  Go put it away".  They then understand that making mistakes is OK, because daddy does it too - but that we have to fix our mistakes, just like adults do.  But if they saw that I was putting away clothes for my husband, then they would probably learn that "mommy" is the one in charge of that.  

Also, I find that creating habits is very important,especially when it comes to cleaning.  Just like you pointed out in your post, cleaning is not "fun", but doing it all the time, and keeping their area clean will become second nature to them, if it becomes a habit.  Someone once told me that it takes 21 days of doing something to become a habit.  Recently, we've been keeping our house extra clean all the time, since we are trying to sell our home.  And because of this, I think my kids have gotten into a habit to clean up after themselves.  I hope it sticks after we move to our new home.

Thanks for the post... the video was really cute.

Solid post all around. I

Dean Mehrkens's picture

Solid post all around. I especially liked to read about rotating toys. We swap out every toy in the house every 3 months, which is a long enough time that they forget what they have in storage so everything is like new. It has the added bonus of helping them part with their favorite broken toys, which would never "dissapear" otherwise. Its really helped keep our chore load down, which makes everybody happy.

Great tips here

Jk Allen's picture

Great tips here always!

My kids are naturally kids - messy. But if we ask my son (6) to clean up, he does an excellent job. Once he's done he feels proud of himself and a sense of accomplishment. He comes to get me and his mom to show off his work. Now he doesn't always clean up without being asked, but he does pretty well when we ask him.

Then there's my oldest (daughter, 7). He's really artist and a free thinker. She's flat out messy and dirty. If we ask her to clean up, it's usually a big task because she make such a big mess. And when she cleans up it takes forever, because it's painful to her.

And then I have my baby, my 2 year old. She thinks it's cool to clean at her age - but I'm sure she'll be a mix between her older siblings. 


We have a relaxed approach but we mean business when we mean business. 

Thanks for the tips - another one sent to my wife. Thanks for helping strengthening the Allen mommy/daddy team!


Have a great weekend!