Clean Up Games for Kids

October 22, 2019
messy toys

Getting kids to pick up their stuff can be such a hassle.  When the kids were toddlers we sang the clean up song, clapped our hands, helped pick up the toys and everyone was happy.  Now that they are older I expect the kids to pick up their own stuff.  Some days I can tell them to clean up and they just get it done – no problem.  Other days it’s an uphill battle.  I’ve learned to help my kids by playing clean-up games with them while they pick up.

Why won’t kids pick up their toys?

Over the years we have come up with several strategies and games to help the kids not be as bored with the picking up process.  But first, why do kids dislike putting away their toys so much?

  • They don’t want to stop playing
  • Playing is more fun than picking up
  • They put a lot of effort into setting up their play area and want to continue the game tomorrow
  • They don’t see it as messy

Strategies for getting kids to pick up

Now, I don’t have it in me to set up chore charts and give out stickers and prizes for picking up.  I’ve tried and am horrible at being consistent so it’s not a good system for me.  I am also not going to threaten to take away their toys if they don’t pick them up.  As a kid when we refused to pick up my dad would run around the house with a cardboard box throwing all our toys in it.  We all knew the box would sit in the basement for a few days and then reappear.  The one time my mom threw all my toys out the window into the front yard did get my attention though!

My focus has been on distracting the kids.  Finding ways to turn picking up into a game.  I do the same thing to myself – when I tell myself to just pitch 5 things.  I play games against the clock when folding laundry and other menial chores.  Please tell me I’m not the only one!

Clean Up Games for Kids

For all of these clean-up games I have found that it works best if each kid has their own task or separate zone to clean.  If they are too close sometimes things get a little too competitive.

Beat the Timer

For beat the timer I’ll give the child a specific task to accomplish and assign it a time value.  “Pick up all the magna-tiles in 2 minutes and you win”.  What do they win? Nothing – just the satisfaction of beating the timer.  It works, so I don’t question it.  After you play the game long enough it’s easy to estimate how long a specific chore will take.  I always err on the side of extra time – I want them to win.  It’s more fun for them if they win.  And all I care about is getting the toys picked up.

Clean to the Song

This is a good game if you have a lot of picking up to do.  It is especially good for cleaning the basement playroom after a long weekend of unsupervised play! I will play a song and tell them to pick up a specific type of toy.  If they finish before the song is over they get a “break”.  I might play “let it go” and say pick up all the play food.  If all the play food is picked up before the song is over they can dance or jump on the trampoline or roll on the floor for all I care.  But, as soon as that song is over I play another.  Now I might play “feel it still” and tell them to pick up all the hot wheels.  We continue in this fashion until everything is picked up.

Math Games

This actually started as color games when they were little.  Pick up four red toys and put them away.  Now we’ve moved on to math equations.  Pick up 7 +2 things.  They shout out the number and pick up 9 things.  It can make the process a little longer but they are having fun and the work is getting done.  We play this one a lot for magna tiles or hot wheels cars.

Take Photos and/or write a story

Sometimes the kids really don’t want to pick up because they want to resume play tomorrow or they built something really cool that they don’t want to destroy.  Most of the time I will just let them leave these things out.  But sometimes they have to be picked up.  I do my best to save small creations on the shelf, but large magna tile castles just won’t survive.  I have cleaners who help me out twice a month and the night before they clean is the only time I force them to take down these large constructions or their playmobil “setups” in their rooms.  I can appreciate how much effort and imagination went into building them.  So, as a compromise I will take photos of whatever they have made or setup.  I make a big deal out of it – getting every angle, having them check to see if the photos are good etc.  And if they want I will write down the story of where the imaginative play left off.  “The dragon was attacking the castle and the knights were escaping in the boat but one pirate stayed behind to fight the dragon”.  They never ever ask to see the photos again or look at the story but they feel validated and will often be okay destroying their building after this.

Make a destruction video

Some nights when the castles need to be destroyed (after I’ve taken photos) I take a video of my son destroying his creation.  He really gets into it.  Sometimes he uses a dragon or dinosaur, drives a remote control car into, pretends he’s a wrecking ball.  Whatever.  But he at least willing takes down his creation.  Turning the demolition into part of the game makes it fun – not just sad and work.  Once the building is destroyed he has to put all the components away neatly before I will allow him to watch the video.  That is key – otherwise he’d sit there and watch it over and over again instead of cleaning.

Well, that’s how we handle clean up arguments around here.  We don’t play games every time we clean up.  I save them for when the kids need a little extra motivation.  If you have any other fun cleaning up games or strategies please share them in the comments.  I always need new ideas!

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