“Oh, look! Here! Bear, ball, blocks!” 21-month-old Maya cheerfully chants, announcing each new toy as she picks them up to bring to the corresponding basket. Like most toddlers, Maya is happy to be a helper. Her mother, Patricia Chraiteh, from Toronto, has been encouraging her to put her playthings back since Maya was about a year old, using short, specific commands, such as “Bring me Dora,” or “Let’s collect our blocks.”
Around 12 months is a good time to start tidying up toys together, says Michele Kambolis, a registered child and family therapist and founder of Harbourside Counseling Centre in Vancouver. “If your child has the motor skills to pick things up and can understand what you’re asking, the earlier she does it, the better. It’s so much harder to teach good habits later.”
Saving yourself the frustration of having to clean up after your kids later isn’t the only reason to encourage your toddler to keep her toys organized. The mindfulness of the activity develops an important area of the brain (the mid-prefrontal cortex) that’s associated with attention span, problem-solving, and mood and body regulation—just don’t expect it to be the fastest way to clean her room. But with a little patience and consistent practise, she will eventually make it a habit of her own.
Make it fun
Toronto mom Toni Brem Mullen uses a song to signal cleanup time for her two-and-a-half-year-old son, Charlie, or her husband sometimes stages it as a race with Charlie’s four-year-old brother, Oliver. Keeping it pleasant is key. If it’s important for your child to hold on to a certain toy he just can’t bear to put away, that’s OK, says Kambolis. “Because toddlers see toys as extensions of themselves, it really is a developmental milestone for them to let go of something and put it away.”
Offer positive reinforcement
Reward your little helper with high-fives and hugs, and reiterate how nice it is that everyone can walk around and not have hurt feet, and that the toys will be easy to find. Some kids may respond better to sticker charts in order for the behaviour to become a habit. Instead of threatening time outs, try using a preferred activity as motivation for finishing the task, such as a trip to the park after all the puzzles are put away.
Some days your little one will be too cranky to clean. And it’s OK to not always have time to get everything put away; instead, work together for two minutes on some of the mess rather than falling into the habit of doing everything yourself. Don’t be discouraged if your toddler doesn’t find cleaning naturally rewarding, says Kambolis. “As long as you stick to this path, sooner or later she will clean up independently. When that time comes depends on her temperament.”
For Mullen, her littlest one is turning out to take longer to get into a routine. “Oliver has always been an old soul who could consistently be reasoned with,” she says. “Charlie is much more of a free spirit, so for now we make it a game. And you’d never hear an expert recommend it, but I can pretty much get him to do anything for a lollipop.”