Tidy Tots: Teaching children the importance of cleaning up
There is a certain large purple dinosaur, who shall remain nameless, that really gets on my nerves. His cheesy co-stars sing and dance about life lessons in a setting that is straight out of the movie Stepford Wives. I know you know who or what I am referring to. His unflappable happiness is like a bad dream that reoccurs nightly. However, I will give him credit for one thing — the cleanup song.
This catchy tune is used by parents and preschool teachers everywhere and if there is one thing I have learned in my five years of parenting it is that preschool teachers know their stuff. How else are they able to contend with a room full of three-, four- or five-year-olds and actually love their job.
As I was conducting research for this article, I decided to ask a few of the teachers at my daughter’s preschool what are some of their tips to get the wee ones to clean up. This information, coupled with tips from the experts in the field (aka my mom friends), provided fantastic scientific data.
Sarah, a mom of one, makes cleaning up a race with her four-year-old by sorting by shape, size or color. They also have a counting race in English, Spanish or by 5s or 10s. Since humans are creatures of habit, Sarah’s tip is great because it can be used as part of a daily routine. Sorting and picking up toys in various categories not only gets the job done, but reinforces sorting skills for preschoolers.
Continuing on the race theme, Libby, mom of four, conducts what she calls "10 minute tidies." “We literally race around like crazy people for 10 minutes, all pitching in to clean up. My kids range in age from 3 to 14, so the older kids understand the time element and the younger kids just think it's fun to race around,” Libby says.
Many experts suggest starting these clean up habits when children are young, and if you are lucky some methods may remain in place even as your children grow. Julie, mother of two “almost” grown daughters, used a system of writing chores using dry-erase markers on her daughters’ bathroom mirror. “When they were little, it helped with their reading and writing skills, and they just thought it was cool to write on the mirror. Even now I write the chores on the mirror and they divide the tasks themselves,” Julie says.
You may be thinking to yourself, “these ideas are great but what if my child refuses to help, regardless of how fun I make it.” If you are looking for a reward system, they are abundant on the web. Mom bloggers, parenting sites and even Pinterest are full of ideas. We have used charts and jar methods in our house at various times. Many moms have suggested the child earn points/chips/marks toward an activity or event, as opposed to another toy that you have to eventually clean up. Other parents suggest rewarding with a gift card to a bookstore or somewhere you don’t go every day like Build-A-Bear.
“The key is to keep your expectations realistic and figure out what motivates your child,” says Ms. Craig, my daughter’s preschool teacher. “Younger children have shorter attention spans. So it may be more effective to have them clean up for five minutes, take a break for five minutes, then clean up for another set period of time. Just remember a room full of toys is very distracting for a child, breaking tasks into small chunks will help with effectiveness.”
On a recent cold, blustery day I found myself resorting to “make believe” play to get the clean up done. The story of Cinderella is a great one for this if your daughter is into princesses. Poor Cinderella spent a lot of time cleaning before she met her fairy godmother; however, when I suddenly found myself acting like Lady Tremaine I figured enough was enough and it was time to move on.
Cleaning up doesn’t have to be a part of the daily grind. Adding a little creativity to the way you enforce cleanup rules may actually allow your kids to willingly help. And when all else fails, you could always resort to threats and bribery. I'm sure that's what our parents did, and I'm sure it got the job done. I wonder what Barney would think about that.