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Get Very Young Children to Clean Up WIthout Threats, Yelling or Time-Outs.

Getting kids to clean up properly is one of the hardest jobs a childcare teacher or provider of any kind faces. Sometimes it seems like just when the room is starting to look better, two of the youngest kids get bored and start taking toys out again!

I've had my share of frustrating situations over a 40+ year career as an early childhood professional and I'm still facing new challenges almost daily.

I recently heard about some situations where childcare teachers threatened, pushed, and bullied children as young as two for failing to clean up. Unless something changes radically in the way we care for our youngest children, I'm afraid this type of violent behavior toward young children will increase and those children will more readily resort to violence as adults since that's what they learned.

You can read my past articles about alternatives to the 3 B's, blame, bias and bullying if you follow the links provided.

Remember, children learn by observation and repetition.

I hope that's not too scary of a thought for you. If you're reading this, you're problably one of our best. If I'm preaching to the choir, maybe you would like to share this article with someone who needs support.

If you're in any way responsible for the care of young children, here are my best tips and tricks for getting them to clean up and LIKE it (or at least tolerate it.)

To be honest, it's not just one thing that makes a difference I find that when I employ several of these tactics, it sets the mood for a smooth transition

Prepare like this....

Create shadows on shelving. Well-marked and categorized containers with visual cues such as photos, drawings, and words all help. Color matching can help too.

In my mixed-age classroom, I have a set of three colored stacking turtles that have three colored shadows I made by tracing and coloring the turtle shapes. Those turtles almost always get put away.

I also have shadows drawn on contact paper that helps with the wooden blocks. In the housekeeping area, I have shadows for plates and several other items. Guess which items are always in place?

This method requires a lot of prep but it's worth it because it will improve the quality of your day! Lamination is great, especially if you rotate toys because you can store the shadows in the bin with the toys and attach them well when you get them out again.

Since I know my group of children well, I can tell when there are too many toys out. When there are, I cut down on the sheer numbers and store some of them. This is not something I threaten them with although I will mention that it's going to get easier to clean up tomorrow! Some types of toys just don't work well for some kids and it's really not their fault, just their level of development.

My Favorite Tips

Give a 5-minute warning and use a visual timer.

Once it goes off notice those who help and broadcast what they're doing right.

Help the more resistant helpers to join but don't do it for them.

Sing a clean-up song. Here's one by Sweet Honey and The Rock that's a lot of fun.

Talk about the next fun thing. Hopefully your'e cleaning up in order to play outside, have a meal or do something else that's fun. Make sure to give them long enough play times and encourage them to clean up as they go. This air of positivity and hope can go a long way.

Avoid using catch-all toyboxes. Setting things out in a clear and orderly way with shadows works so much better. Then they can think of the room as a huge puzzle to be completed!

If it takes too long, make a note to adjust things when the kids are gone instead of getting too upset with them. It’s easy to have too many books, duplos or vehicles out at one time. Consider rotating toys.

Try games. You put away the red blocks and I'll do the blue. It's usually getting started that's harder for them then finishing a job. I'm the same way when I think about it.

Beat the clock! That's where that visual timer can be really useful. Just beating the clock can be enough fun, no reward needed.


Use a magic wand to magically speed the kids up (you’ll have to demonstrate this one)

Try the Bewitched method. Wiggle your nose and there you go! If you’re too young to remember Samantha Stevens, the good witch of suburbia, look it up on youtube!

What about that one child who refuses to help when you know they're able? It doesn't really seem fair to the other kids or to the teachers. I would never tell a child that I was sad that they're not helping nor would I threaten them in any way.

I do however have a couple of logical consequesnces up my sleeve for when they really dig in their heels.

The piles

Let’s say that you know a child is able to help but they aren’t. Try saying this. When you're done cleaning up, then we can.........

If they continue to dig their heels in you can make them a pile of just a few toys and wait them out. You might have to get another person to help.

If it takes so long that it's time to eat or sleep, let them do those important things but always be sure to get back to finishing the job when they're over.

The Odd Duck

Occassionally I've met a child who can't start cleaning until all the toys have been dumped or all the blocks have been taken off the shelf. Then they comply. It took me a while to figure that one out!


It often helps a lot to talk to the child's parents or confer with someone else if you are the parent. Find out what goes on in other situations. The more you know, the better.

I hope this makes things a little bit smoother for you.

Do you have ideas to share? Put them in the comments section below, we'd love to hear them. Have a great week!

Want to make a positive difference in the world? Get ideas for hitting, lying, sharing, saying sorry, and more. My 22-page slideshow has words and answers that are developmentally appropriate. And they work. It's called How To Get Your Kids To Listen Without Yelling Or Time-Outs (9.99 value), but you can have the whole thing for free when you join us here.

Thanks so much for stopping by! Nanci

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human dev from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI and is the founder of early childhood rocks, a non-profit org dedicated to creating change through early childhood education.

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