As children get older, their stuff changes. Pieces get smaller. Duplo changes to Lego. Wooden trucks are replaced with remote-control helicopters. Eventually there are fewer toys and more devices and chargers.
But when it’s on the floor, it’s all clutter, and getting kids to put away their stuff is exhausting. Some of us have the luxury of closing the door on the toy room. But most kids insist on dragging their things through the house and littering your sacred living spaces with unsightly plastic. If you have ever stepped on a sharp piece of lego in the dark, you’ll know what I mean.
So how do I get my kids to put away their stuff?
- Declutter. Get rid of toys they don’t use, and things that make a mess. More toys doesn’t equal more play, and if anything the opposite is true. Create a curated space that inspires rather than overwhelms. Having full, messy cupboards also means nowhere to put all the stuff on your surfaces. Clear your cupboards and play areas of broken toys and anything they don’t play with.
- Get organised. Have plenty of space in the cupboards rather than cram everything in. Assign zones for each category. Label every area and tub so that things are easy to put away. Set them up for success. Don’t expect them to sort Lego into 100 different categories after their session – one big tub is good enough. If your kids can read, use words and have them help you make the labels. If they can’t, use pictures instead. Get inspiration from their playgroup or childcare. Those places are usually very organised. There are also some good ideas online. Get in touch if you need help.
- Have them pack up one game before starting a new one. Limiting how much can be out at one time keeps mayhem to a minimum. For little kids you could keep some things out of reach. No easy access to play dough, for example.
- Explain why packing up is necessary. Talk about taking care of their things so that they are not stepped on and broken. So that their play space is calm and welcoming. So they can find things again. So their favourite items go to their homes. Kids love personifying inanimate objects. Play them a fun video like this to get their cogs turning.
- Play packup music. Put on a tune they love and make it a fun ritual. It’s the equivalent to the workout playlist I use when I go for a run – uplifting and motivational.
- Be specific. Yelling “kids! put away your stuff” can be pretty meaningless. And a long list of instructions won’t be retained. Chunk it down and tell them to put all the dolls in the dollhouse. When that’s done, give them a different job. Divide and conquer if there is more than one child.
- Give them agency. My kids react a lot more favourably if they have a choice about something. “Do you want to pack up the dolls or the craft first?” or “would you like five more minutes before packing up?” goes down heaps better than “you have to pack up!”.
- Withhold something. No need to be punitive about it, but saying in a positive tone “yay let’s go to the park – as soon as these toys are put away!” can work wonders. Turning off the WiFi to get older kids to put away their stuff is also an option.
- Set a timer. Watching the kids rush against the clock as though they are in a game show while you enjoy your cuppa, is a beautiful thing. Especially if it means they get the job done.
- Put leftover toys in jail, or if you prefer the good-cop bad-cop game, have a toy fairy do it during the night. Is the toy fairy the tooth fairy’s nasty sister? I’ll leave the details up to you but you can have fun with it. Everything left out is locked away for a day or a week. Sorry Mr Potato Head, you need to be sacrificed to make a point.
- Sell some of their toys. Next level up on the previous point and a bit drastic I’ll admit. But I guarantee you’ll only need to do it once!
Getting kids to put away their stuff is not easy, but tidying up is a valuable life skill. And teaching them early means we all reap the benefits.
Ready, set, tidy!