How to Teach Your Child to Clean Up

Teach responsibility while making sure the job gets done

teach your child to clean up toys
Alex Hayden

Cleaning up after a fun day of play is probably tops on your preschooler’s “Things I Don’t Like to Do" list. But unless you want to spend your time tripping over the Little People and their school bus (and their farm and their zoo and their Ferris wheel), your preschooler needs to learn how to clean up toys. 

Cleaning up a mess they've made themselves is an important part of a young person’s development. It helps preschoolers develop a sense of responsibility. While it might be easier for you to do the cleaning up yourself, that's just a short-term solution.

How a child learns to clean up now sets the stage for how they will complete the chore as they get older. If you are constantly picking up after your child at this age, they’ll learn to always expect it. And then, as they get older they either won't know how or won't think it is something they need to concern themselves with, because mom and dad always do it. 

Cleaning up, while not necessarily fun, doesn't have to be an awful chore. Here’s how to make the task run smoothly.

Choose Your Words Carefully

Don’t just say “clean up.” It is easy for a preschooler to be overwhelmed by a big mess, often because they don’t know where to start. Instead, try “Put away your cars first and then move to the books.” By breaking the job down into little tasks, a seemingly endless chore becomes manageable. Remember, your child is new to the cleaning-up business. Cleaning up toys isn't something they inherently know how to do. You'll need to teach them. 

Explain Why Cleaning Up is Necessary

To you it's obvious, but to your preschooler, cleaning up is nothing more than putting away the fun. (And who wants to do that?) Explain that if toys aren't put away correctly someone could trip and hurt themselves, or pieces could get lost and then playing with this particular toy next time won't be quite so fun. With young children, it is important to make a connection that they can relate to. 

Create Kid-Friendly Storage for Toys 

Place removable picture labels on drawers and bins to help kids learn where everything goes. Have your child either draw or cut out of magazines pictures of specific items (blocks, puzzles, games) that go into each one. Under the picture, neatly write the name of the item (great word recognition for pre-readers). When everything has a rightful place, it makes it that much easier to put them away.

Pump Up the Tunes 

Blast Dan Zanes or The Wiggles while clean-up time is underway. It makes the job go faster and the peppy music will keep your child in a good mood. Or sing your own songs. "This is the way we pick up blocks, pick up blocks, pick up blocks. This is the way we pick up blocks, as we clean up your room!"

Make It a Game

Set the kitchen timer for 10 minutes and challenge your preschooler to “Beat the Clock.” Or ask, “Can you finish putting these puzzle pieces away before I put away the doll clothes?"

Don't "Fix" It

When your child's room or playroom is finally clean, don’t redo what isn’t perfect. Lumpy bed sheets? No need to smooth them. Mismatched dollhouse furniture? Ignore it. As long as the job was done properly, just leave it be. A four-year-old will never clean up as well as an adult.

If you redo what they've already worked so hard to complete, your little one might not be so inclined next time to do the job since you fix it anyway. In this case, the end result is not as important as the effort.

Reward a Job Well Done 

Keep a chart in the kitchen or another prominent place in the house. As soon as your preschooler finishes their task, give them a sticker to put on the chart. Usually, that is enough, but if cleaning up is an issue for your little one, consider letting them earn something bigger after a certain number of stickers.

Additionally, be sure to verbally compliment your child on their hard work. Draw their attention to how nice the room now looks and encourage them to take pride in what they've done.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Steps for giving directions.

  2. Kavan MG, Saxena S, Rafiq N. General parenting strategies: Practical suggestions for common child behavior issues. Am Fam Physician. 2018;15;97(10):642-648.

By Amanda Rock
Amanda Rock, mom of three, has spent more than a decade of her professional career writing and editing for parents and children.