Toddler behaviour

Tidy toddlers

Tidying helps toddlers build social and cognitive skills

Can toddlers clean up? As with most questions, there’s a short answer and a long answer to this one.

The short answer is no, says Jayne Kellam, early childhood education program officer at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ont. “Asking toddlers to do chores is not a reasonable request.”

The long answer, though, is yes — provided you are inviting them to explore and “help” you, rather than expecting them to be independently responsible for certain tasks. In fact, in this context, many toddlers, 29-month-old Mallory, for instance, are thrilled to be of service. Her mom, Kelly Arns, says, “Mallory loves to help with a broom, unload the dishwasher and ‘fold’ laundry with me. Her stack of folded facecloths usually looks like it just fell out of the basket. But she’s so proud.”

Xander, 18 months, is a willing helper too. “When my husband takes out the garbage, he always makes sure to fill a small bag for Xander so he can carry it alongside his daddy,” says Ange Schellenberg. “They also clean up toys together at the end of the night, and usually make it a race or a throw-it-in-the-basket game.”

Xander’s and Mallory’s parents have exactly the right approach, says Shawna Scale, director of family support services for East York East Toronto Family Resources.

“Imitating adults is an important step for toddlers in their learning,” she says. “And it’s an excellent opportunity to interact together.”

So at this age, it’s not so much about having toddlers actually clean up. It’s more about providing an interesting experience. But it also, says Scale, “sets the foundation for establishing routines and begins to establish expectations for behaviour.”

What does a toddler learn from handing you the dustpan or popping his socks in the drawer? Scale has a long list:

• functionality of objects (what a broom and dustpan are used for)
• social roles and skills (taking turns and helping others)
• cognition, language and pre-literacy (as you talk together about what you are doing, provide step-by-step instructions and, perhaps, incorporate rhymes or songs)
• independence and sense of self (especially when he gets verbal praise and appreciation from parents)
• bonding and sharing with parents

With her own son, two-year-old Matthew, Scale sings the cleanup song from his daycare (see Matthew’s Cleanup Song) when it’s time to put away the toys. She finds it not only engages him in helping to clean up, but makes the transition from playtime to the next activity easier.

Kelly Arns admits that she has to redo a lot of Mallory’s “work.” “But I look at it this way,” she says. “She thinks she’s helping, she’s having fun and building self-esteem and, at the same time, I’m able to get my work done. Plus I know where she is while I’m doing it!”

Matthew’s cleanup song

Sing this to any favourite tune that fits — the chorus of “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” comes to mind — substituting your child’s name in the last line, if desired.

Clean up, clean up,
everybody, everywhere!
Clean up, clean up,
everyone do your share.