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With toddlers (and even teens) clean up time can be such a daunting time. After much time spent having fun, what kid ever willingly cleans up before moving on to the next activity?!

Here are some ideas for making clean up fun and effective!

  1. Use clean up time as a game:

By using basic conceptual vocabulary to identify toys left out you’re not only effectively eliminating a mess, but you’re helping to strengthen essential vocabulary concepts. For example, if your child has left out tons of cars/trucks during play time, you can use words associated with size (big, small), color, type (racecar, van, truck), attributes (car with flowers, lightning bolts, crane, trailer) to help them find the exact toys to put away. So, you can say to your little one: Ready? Find a big car and put it in the bin. Find a car with flowers on the front and put it in the bin. Find the small, yellow car and put it in the bin).

  • Create competition:

Children are smart and may realize what is going on with clean up games, so to change it up, set a timer and see if they can pick up all the toys in the time allotted. If there are multiple children cleaning up, reduce the amount of time since there are more hands-on-deck.

  • Divide and conquer:

In order to create another competitive edge to the clean-up routine, while working to include foundational vocabulary, awareness and functional application, tell the children: Okay. There we left out so many toys. Child A (name) you’re in charge of picking up all the dolls and putting them away. Child B (name) you’re in charge of picking up all the cars and putting them away. Child C (name) you’re in charge of picking up all of the Lego’s and putting them away. I am going to set a timer and see who can pick up all of their toys first. Ready, set go!

  • Yes/No game:

If you have the time, it may be fun to work in a functional Yes/No game to help clean up toys while also structuring in concrete learning time. So in the area where the toys are left you, you, as the parent or facilitator, could pick up a toy (cow figurine) and ask the children/specific child: Is this a zoo animal? If they respond No, reward them with positive praise (good job! It’s not a zoo animal, it’s a _______ animal.) Then provide them with the toy to put away in the correct spot. If the child responds incorrectly (yes, it is a zoo animal), teach them directly: Well, this isn’t a zoo animal but it’s a farm animal. Good try. And then provide them with the toy to put away.

  • Sorting:

If you have an organization system in place at home (bins, drawers) you can use clean up time to strengthen awareness to sorting, both physically and cognitively. When kids are putting items away their toys, ask them, “does this car go with the dolls? Why not? Where should it go?” You may not have to ask questions for each item, especially if there are several, but a range of 5-10 questions/items may suffice. In this way, if a child cannot answer your question about where it goes and why, you can use this moment as a teaching moment (e.g. “the doll doesn’t go with the car because only the cars go in this bin/drawer, see? Can you show me where the doll bin is? Good job!”)