Experts Say: Clean Up That Mess

My pre-schooler often leaves the house in a mess at the end of the day. How can I encourage him to tidy up after he finishes playing?


Pre-schoolers, unlike adults, do not see it as a problem when their toys are scattered around the house. In fact, they seem to enjoy making a mess so much that tidying up after them seems like a futile process! However, encouraging them to help put their toys away after play is a good habit to instil and here are a few ways to encourage them.


Establish a routine

Inform your child when the process of tidying up will take place. Regularly remind them of the sequence of activity. For example, “remember we will play for another five minutes then it is time to tidy up”.  A helpful tip is to use the First-Then way of helping them understand what needs to be done and in what order things need to be done. For example, First play, then tidy up.


Start small

Encourage them by initially asking them to put away only some specific toys and not all of them (e.g., put away only the dinosaurs). This will make the act of tidying up less intimidating and more achievable. Slowly increase the number of toys they need to put away as your child gets more used to doing it.


Do it together

By doing it together, it makes the task more fun (as they get to interact with you while doing it), it shows them what a great help they are being to you, and it helps finish the task quicker (let’s face it, playing with the toys is way more fun than putting them away!)


Break it into parts

It helps to break one seemingly huge task into smaller parts. For example, putting away all the puzzle pieces first, followed by the Lego bricks, etc. Then together with your child, decide what order the toys will be put away. For example, ‘ let’s tidy Lego, then cars, dolls, then last the kitchen set.


Use phrases like, ‘help me with…’, ‘let’s do it together’, and ‘let’s cooperate’

Give them real reasons why the toys should be put away (e.g., so that people do not trip over them) and not simply because you asked them to. Help them see the reason behind the need for the activity.  Also, seek cooperation rather than mere compliance as this helps make the behaviour more sustained and natural.


Be specific

Give your child a specific object to put things in. Instead of just saying “tidy up” but rather say, “put the cars in the blue toy box and the kitchen set in the toy kitchen area”.


Incorporate tidying up throughout the day

Don’t make tidying up a once a day activity but rather encourage this throughout the day. For example, they can help put away their dirty dishes as part of tidying up after a meal or put away their dirty clothes into the laundry basket.



Question answered by:

Dr Penny Tok

Chartered Psychologist

Developmental and Educational

Dr Penny Tok Psychology Practice

Thanks for sharing!