Toys Everywhere? Playroom a Mess? It's Okay!

We spend a lot of time with young children cleaning up.  Children take toys out and we can’t seem to move onto the next activity until every toy is put away.  When I ask early childhood educators to think about how many times per day they ask young children to clean up, they shake their heads, start counting and report that it is nearly constant.  They put everything away before circle time, going outside, eating… essentially before every new segment of the day begins.  When I ask the same question of parents, they roll their eyes and tell me that they are always asking their children to clean up.  They follow them around picking up toys left on the floor and express frustration that their children move onto another toy before putting the first away.  

Have you considered that it is hard for children to put toys away because they don’t feel done?  Do you ever put something down on the dining room table or on your desk thinking, “I will go back to it”?  I know exactly where it is and I intend to go back.  On occasion, someone will come along and move the items I put in a place that was handy.  I find that irritating.  I was going to go back.  I was distracted. Something else captured my attention but I was going to read something more carefully, continue to use something or solve a dilemma but no – now you’ve put it somewhere else and the “I will go back” spell is broken.  You have completed my action.  

Children who spend time building a structure, pretending with dramatic play toys or creating with craft items and walk away are not necessarily done.  We need to stop making them done.  When children play, they are observing, experimenting, problem solving and recording all they have learned for future use.  Children who spend a great deal of time with one toy – blocks, Legos, Play doh, cars – are trying to figure something out.  As adults, we cannot always know what they are trying to figure out but we need to give them the time to do it.  

Children are more willing to reply positively to our requests when they feel that that have some power.  Rather than saying, “Put it away” we should ask, “Are you done with this?”  If they say yes, they need to learn that being done means it goes back in its place.  If they say no, they need to have a safe place to put the item that does not catapult them back to ground zero where they started.  Their structure needs to remain standing.  Their action figures need to stay in the same positions.  Their puzzles need to remain incomplete.

Before you head to the comment section to criticize me for not teaching children to put things away, rest assured that’s not what I’m saying.  I am simply asking you to remember your table, your desk and that dilemma that was so confusing that you needed to step away and go back later.  You don’t put everything there – just the things that require more thought.  Your children can be taught to choose and do the same.

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  1. I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of this problem. I can relate to the being frustrated because someone moved my project, book, paper, etc. I believe it is important to ask, 'Are you done?' and provide them a place to put their unfinished projects, or have a space they are allowed to leave messy, but with limited space and a licensor who writes me up for "clutter" I am frustrated about how to provide this. We switch a sunroom from gross motor play to block/dramatic play (and no, we have no other space to put these two space-consuming activities) twice a day-----so the children must clean up. We lay cots out on the family room floor- so the children must clean up. We eat food at the same dining room table that puzzles and art are done at----so the children must clean up. I am open to suggestions. I run a licensed in-home childcare 24/7, in Vancouver, Wa.

    1. It would be great if you could look at your space and see if there are places that they could move unfinished projects to rather than putting them all away. We do sometimes slide things into a corner.

  2. Another sign of true respect for the child. We should always be giving the child the right to choose. It builds self confidence. Thank you for this. Cindy, you are a wise person.

  3. As someone who has trouble finishing up projects (or "cleaning up" as it were), my instinct is to drill this into my children. I like your approach of asking if they're done better--and letting them keep working later!

    1. Adults assume so much. When we make assumptions or exert our control where it isn't necessary, we deprive children of developing independence and decision making skills. Glad you liked the article!


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