5 Tips for Teaching Your Toddler to Clean Up His Toys

Boy putting toys into a toy box

If your toddler is old enough to understand basic commands, he’s ready to start helping to clean up his toys. Yes. I’m serious. True, this might not actually help you at first (and might actually make the whole process more arduous for a while). But if you start now, by the time he’s two he’ll be cleaning up his toys almost all by himself. Trust me, it’s possible.

But the phenomenon of the two-year-old housekeeper doesn’t come about by itself. Tidiness is not on the typical toddler’s list of priorities. He must be taught. Here are some tips for drawing out your toddler’s inner neat freak.

1. Organize your toys

Before you begin teaching your child what to do, it’s important that there’s a little bit of order to the chaos. If you haven’t done so already, group your child’s toys into some (very) loose categories. They should be simple enough that your toddler can understand them, but specific enough that the toys don’t just get thrown into an enormous jumble in the toy bin, never to be seen again. So, “animals,” “cars,” and “musical instruments” are good categories (if you have lots of each of those things). But, “toys that light up,” or “stringed instruments” are not. If you’re feeling extra organized, you can label the bins or drawers with a picture of the kind of item that belongs in each of them. But your child will pick it up without that and, really, who has time for stuff like that?

2. Draw your child’s attention to the cleanup process

If you haven’t been expecting your child to take part in the cleanup process thus far, he probably has no idea whatsoever that it’s actually happening. So, step one is to get him interested in the whole idea by talking about what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Say, “It’s clean up time!” and begin putting away the toys. If you’re so inclined, it can be helpful to sing a cleanup song to make it clear that a new activity is happening and to make it more fun. I happen to hate (with a passion) the ubiquitous “clean up, clean up everybody everywhere” song, so I made up my own. But, to each his own. Anyway, point out the bins and what goes in them, and then begin putting the toys away. If he seems particularly interested, you can say something like, “Can you put this truck in the bin for trucks?” but the goal, initially, is just to let him know that this is something that happens, and that the toys have specifics spots.

3. Give your child specific directions

Once you’ve been cleaning up with your child for a week or so, it’s time for him to get involved. Start small. It’s the rare toddler who’s ready to go from totally oblivious to sorting all his toys into their separate bins. Begin by picking up one toy and handing it to your child. Have him come with you over to the appropriate bin and say something like, “This is a truck. It goes in the truck bin, can you put your truck in here?” Then, when he does it, give him lots and lots of praise. See if he’ll do it again. If he loses interest or gets frustrated, stop for now and clean up on your own, continuing to talk about what you’re doing. Once he sees that this is something that’s becoming part of your lives, you can give him a little more freedom (but not much). Tell him something like, “I see a car over there, where do you think that goes?” and then watch to make sure he puts it in the right place.