Clean Up! - The Art of Getting Preschoolers to Put Their Things Away

Clean up!  It sounds like a simple request.  In an average preschool class, one or two children will be champions at cleaning up.  They like things in order and enjoy putting items in their place.  The rest of the class is usually not so inclined.  When they are asked to clean up, they walk in circles for a few minutes and then go back to playing with toys rather than putting them in their place.  You can observe the same behavior at home.  If you are lucky, one of your children likes to put things away while the others seem to be ignoring your request or, at the very least, procrastinating until they are threatened with punitive damages.  There are cute songs about cleaning up.  There are books, poems and TV show sketches.  Preschool age children usually like to please people; yet, when you ask children to clean up it seems as if you weren’t speaking aloud. 

What is it about those two words that seem so impossible to a preschooler?  The problem is that those two words represent an abstract command of at least five steps.  When you ask young children to clean up, you are asking them to:
  1. Go get something on the floor.
  2. Remember where that item belongs.
  3. Put the item where it belongs.
  4. Come back.
  5. Get another item and repeat.
It is developmentally appropriate for a 4-5 year old to be able to follow a 3 step direction that is given in concrete detail.  It is not realistic to expect any preschooler to remember the many steps involved in the request to clean up and to be able to execute them all without being reminded what comes next.  If you want preschool children to successfully clean up, you need to break the activity down into its individual tasks.  The next time you want your child to clean up, ask your child to:

1.    Pick up a specific item (Say “Please pick up the yellow lego.”)   
2.    Only after the child has picked up the item, ask where it goes (Say “Where does that belong? Where should we put it to keep it safe?”).  Most children will tell you or point to the correct storage place.  If not, show the child where the item should be put.
3.    Only after the child identifies the correct storage place, ask that the item be put there (Say “Put the lego in the drawer.”)
4.    When that step is complete, ask the child to come back and pick up another item that you specify
When teaching a class full of preschoolers, you can use the same method by inviting each child to pick up an item and put it away.  After those two steps are complete, you will need to ask each child to pick up another item and put it away.  You will need to use this method of specifying individual tasks many times before the words “clean up” come to mean the group of actions in the correct order.  Remember to only ask that your child follow the directions for cleaning up without offering what will happen after clean up is complete.  When you tell children that they will be able to go outside after cleaning up, for example, they will want to do what is more important to them – going out.  They will not be patient with the adults’ need to put things in their place.

Remembering that commands consisting of multiple tasks are too complex for a preschooler to execute successfully can help to alleviate frustration in many situations.  Think about how many steps are involved in the request to get dressed or get ready for bed.  Break down these requests into their individual parts to experience far more success with your preschoolers.  Be sure to remember to congratulate them when they do as you ask in a simplified and age appropriate manner.

Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
All Rights Reserved
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