First I want to start this blog by saying that if you are reading this to find a way to prevent your children from making messes, this is not the blog for you. I've dedicated many, many hours to training my children so that they can be kids and make a big, healthy mess and not be overwhelmed by the idea of turning around and cleaning it up. That is my goal. Not the prevention of toys in the living room (there are toys in my living room now, actually), but the training of little people to be responsible for their messes, starting simple and starting young. I think most mothers hold the belief that children should cut loose and play and make messes as part of a healthy childhood, and I am definitely among that group. In this blog I'm going to mainly talk about cleaning up *their* things - toys, etc. Chores and such are a different blog altogether, and a subject I'm still learning a lot about.
I usually start around walking age or just before. It depends on the child. Most parents do this in some form. We have always had a basket of baby toys in the living room when there is a baby in our home. The first thing I do is just involve the little toddler in dropping toys in the basket and work up from there. At first, I may plop them down by the basket of toys and give them a pile to put in the basket while I talk and guide. "Here you go! Put it in here like Mommy!" With second, third (or however many you have!) children, big siblings can be an amazing help with this. They usually *love* to praise the baby.
If the little one doesn't mimic my action I put a toy in their hand and help them drop it in and make a big show of praising them and asking if they can do it again. We usually sing The Cleanup Song from Barney and I know it sounds cheesy, but it makes them enjoy it so much more! It's a fun game and that's it. No pressure, no punishment. And I don't extend this exercise for long periods of time. You want to start gently.
Later we may move up to running toys to the basket and making it a race or any other sort of game that has them picking up. The trick here is to just do this casually and somewhat regularly. Don't make it a big ceremony or you will hate it and they will hate it. Praise them a lot! Overdo it, tell them how well they are doing, how big a help they are, how they are getting faster and becoming a "super speedy cleaner" or anything else that makes them feel that pride and confidence.
Eventually you can ask them to pick up the toys that go in the basket and they can do it easily. At that point I will usually push the toys together into something of a group or pile and let them transfer them. Before long, they will be able to run around and collect the toys as well and they won't need any help from you. Do not feel overly rushed to get through these early stages - they are such little people still yet! We're just laying groundwork and shaping good habits.
At some point, when they are able to understand rewards - offer one for their work. I usually say something like, "Would you like some m&ms? Okay, clean up your toys and I'll give you (whatever number)! You are such a fast cleaner, you can do it really fast, I bet!" Little boys, especially, tend to respond to such a challenge pretty favorably. And sometimes they don't feel that favorable - sometimes they don't want to clean up their few little toys, but often with a reward they will do it anyway.
That is a little overview of how we start, but the more daunting job is teaching them to clean their room (dun, dun, DUUUNNNN!).
This training takes time from Mom, no question. It will be less work at first to do it yourself, so it takes some patience and dedication to take the time to teach them, but it is so worth it!
When I was a kid, I would stand in the doorway of my messy room and feel completely overwhelmed. I saw piles of things that I couldn't mentally see as groups of like objects. It took me a long while to see it and break it down into tasks. Because of that memory I've tried to find a way to work my kids up to the ability to see a room full of toys and see a room full of groups of objects. Make sense? Not really? I'll explain.
Note: If you did not start during the toddler years and your child is well able to put toys in a basket, this next phase is where you will want to start with regards to cleaning their own room. As the kids get more and more competent with simple gathering and dumping of toys in a basket, we move to sorting through a messy room. I usually declare that we are going to clean their room and go in with them and quickly divide the things in the floor by the location of where they belong. In my daughter's room, for example, we'll have a pile of baby doll accessories that go in a specific bin, a pile of play food and dishes that go in another location, a pile of books, a pile of dolls, a pile of stuffed animals, etc. Just divide it by its home location.
Then I point to a pile and ask them where it goes and to put it there. Try to be as enthusiastic as possible and offer lots of praise. This is a big job to a small person. You will definitely want to work WITH them at first and slowly work up to less and less help from you.
I do a lot of enthusiastic talking and encouraging. "Look, you just cleaned that WHOLE part of your floor! Wow, doesn't your room look better already? It's so nice to have a clean room! Look how much room you have to play!"
Soon you can help them sort their toys (which truly takes very little time from Mom) and leave the room and periodically check on them to keep them on task.
Another tip is to grab anything that doesn't belong in their room and put it by the door or even toss it into the hallway to handle afterward - that becomes its own "pile" to handle last. With small children, sending them on an out-of-the-room mission to put something away is just tempting them with distraction and opportunities to dawdle.
I have never had to teach the kids to sort the toys into piles themselves. It is kind of a pointless thing for them to do - the purpose of sorting the toys for them to put away is not in the sorting, it is to teach them to know where everything goes and to look at a messy room and see groups objects and be able to mentally divide them.
When they have fully mastered the task of putting away the groups of things correctly (always make them put the toys where they go or you are wasting your time), you can move on to putting things away from one pile. Sometimes this stage isn't even necessary for your child and you can just use it when they have an exceptionally big mess. Just shove everything into one pile and they will be able to put each thing in its place because they have the training to know where it all goes. Before long, no sorting and no piles are necessary and they can clean their room quickly on their own.
I know that this sounds like an exhaustive amount of effort, but it reads a lot harder than it is. Each of these stages take time, and you don't have to rush through them.
My little girl is almost three and we are right between the groups of piles stage and the one big pile stage. If the mess is small, she flies around cleaning it herself with no problem. If it is bigger, she will get overwhelmed so I come in and help her by showing her to pick up all the big things first and then I will put a few things in groups for her. I definitely still help her with the cleaning if maybe she has had company or something and it is just a huge, overwhelming task. My five year old almost never needs help with his room, other than some help with his bed, and a checking over to make sure he was thorough. Again, though, they are still young and I still help them when they have had a friend over to play and the room looks like a war zone, which definitely happens at my house - I don't know about yours. :)
I also want to dedicate a moment to positive reinforcement and dealing with resistance to cleaning. If your child is overly resistant, consider a few things:
One - Are you asking too much of their age? Make sure your expectations are reasonable. Every kid is different and their ability to move through the stages of cleaning will vary.
Two - Are you making them clean up their messes too frequently? Announcing a cleanup every couple of hours for their room will make them burn out quickly. Quick blitz-cleaning of common areas ("Okay guys, I need you to clean up any toys you may have left in the living room, dining room, or hallway!") is a good thing to do, but I have found that obsessing over the state of their room kills their motivation very quickly.
And three - Are they motivated? Sometimes you do just have to make them do their work, but often it's good to break out some positive reinforcement, particularly when they are little. My kids know that if they want to play a game on the iPad, they might as well not even ask if their room isn't clean. That motivates them like nothing else. If you feel that offering a reward for cleaning their room is unnecessary, consider how you potty-train them - with praise and rewards. And then you wean them off of the rewards. You definitely don't need to offer rewards every time, but it is great to pull out something special now and then when you can see that they need a bit of extra motivation.
In summary, work with a goal in mind. My goals are two-fold:
One - Not for them to always have a clean room, but for them to always have the ability to clean their room when asked and the training to take on a task and see it in steps.
Two - For them to see the benefits of neatness and help them to LIKE their room better when it is clean.
Okay, and maybe there is also the fact that I really don't want to clean up after them forever. That may be one of my goals too. :-P
Now if someone can write a blog on how to teach a two year old to stop picking their nose? I'll be all over that.