To watch the video version on cleaning up, click here.
One of the big struggles I get asked about by parents is that children won’t clean up one toy before moving on to another toy. I get it- we want our kids to learn to be neat and to pick up after themselves. It would be lovely if we could all live in pristine houses where nothing is ever out of place. But that ship sailed the day you either brought a child into this world or decided to take over the care and control of one.
What Play Is Not…
Don’t get me wrong- children can clean up after themselves and be darn good at it too. But- and if you’ve listened to my episode on what play actually IS- you’ll remember this: it’s not clean. It’s not safe. It’s not quiet. And it’s not linear. It’s MESSY, loud, dangerous, and all over the damn place. The reason children won’t do this is because it’s not a developmentally appropriate expectation for a child under the age of about 8 or 9.
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Why Your Child Is Struggling
Toys are designed by adults, but they’re used by children. And generally the most valuable, most brain-building play is using objects for something other than what they were actually designed to do. They take a stick and it becomes a sword, or a horse, or a tent pole. They pick up a pine cone and pretend it’s food, or a projectile, or a pet. Play is interdisciplinary. So if you are forcing them to use an adult-designed toy for its adult-designed purpose and then clean it up and put it away before going and using another adult-designed toy another adult-designed purpose, you are hamstringing your child’s development. You are not allowing them the true power of play. You are forcing them into a very narrow definition of engagement that has no room for imagination, innovation, and discovery. Remember, one of the defining criteria of play is that it has no apparent purpose. So if you can easily identify the purpose of your child’s play, because they’re using an adult-designed toy exactly the way an adult intended, in isolation from all other toys…they aren’t actually playing, they’re entertaining themselves.
Play Time Takes Time
Children need long, uninterrupted chunks of playtime. It’s a unique brain state where a child is learning and processing at a MUCH FASTER rate than they typically would. It’s generally accepted that it can take a child up to an hour to get into this state. So, if an hour into their play you interrupt their play state to get them to do a quick-tidy, you’ve just broken that. You’ve cut off that state of flow, learning, and processing and now they’re going to bounce around from one toy to another for another hour and never actually learn anything. If your child is one of those kids that can’t seem to play for more than 20 minutes at a time it’s because they’ve never been given enough time to get into this state. They’re keeping their play very superficial because they anticipate being interrupted, having that state broken, and after a while, they forget how to do it. Especially if entertainment is being substituted for play. This is why independent play is so hard to teach!
A Few Suggestions for Play Time & Clean Up
First, if you have a playroom, use it…and close the door on it. In my house we’re super lucky, we have a playroom and Sunday night is playroom cleaning night. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have dedicated play space then do less frequent daily cleanups. Perhaps a clean up before lunch and before dinner, but in between those times you let them use their toys as they see fit- barring hurting anyone with them. Also, try to find space that your children can save what they’re doing for a pre-determined amount of time and promise they can come back to it tomorrow. I promise if you reduce the cleanup demands to transition times and preserve the nuts and bolts of what they’re doing when a transition arrives you’ll notice WAY fewer freak-outs around clean up time. And if your child is stuck in that entertainment loop- stop buying single-use toys. Or just- stop buying toys that require batteries- that’s generally a good indication of a single-use toy.
If you need some support on figuring out how to do this, or you’d like other tweaks like this to work better with your child’s brain- don’t be shy, come join us in the Parenting Posse Facebook group. And grab my scripts for crazy-making behaviour! They’re designed to work WITH your child’s brain and help you start discipline on the right foot. And in the Posse every year, generally around the 15th of November, we have our annual toy thread where parents are encouraged to share their child’s favourite non-battery operated toys to give each other some ideas of great toys that are actually worth the money and that children of various ages enjoy- so you won’t want to miss that!