Joey, age two, is being dropped off at child care by his mom. Mom stands at the door watching in amazement as Joey struggles to hang his coat on a hook. At home he just drops everything on the floor. Christina, age four, is being picked up by her dad. She refuses to leave until she has every puzzle piece in its place and puts the puzzle on the shelf. At home she whines helplessly and says, "I can't." Putting away is one of many things children will do at school but resist doing at home. Here are some reasons.
- Children tend to comply with whatever is expected of the group so that they can feel accepted.
- Teachers can be neutral. They are not emotionally invested in whether or not a child puts things away.
- Teachers spend the time needed to teach the child how to put things away, then follow through until the task is finished.
- Teachers are not distracted by house-hold chores, TV, or talking on the phone. Their attention is always on the children.
- Teachers remember to thank the child for taking responsibility.
There is no right or wrong to these reasons; it's more a matter of priorities and perspective. For teachers, putting away toys is a way to instill a sense of responsibility in children at the most basic level. It's all part of the learning process that takes place throughout the child's day. For you, getting a child to put things away may be too time consuming or stressful. If you lack the time, skill, or strategies, the entire process can deteriorate into barking out orders and handing out punishment. As much as you like the idea of kids cleaning up, you may not think it's worth the aggravation.
But It Can Be Done
If you really want to teach your child to put away his toys, you can do it. It takes time, attention, and effort. The key word is "teach." Putting away toys is a learning process like any other; there are steps forward and backward. You can't just tell a young child what to do, walk away, and expect it to get done. So decide whether you really want to make this commitment of time and stick with it. Below are some suggestions to help you get started.
Suggestions for Teaching Your Child to Put Away His Toys
1. Organize. Organize your child's toys so there is a suitable container for every toy. Keep similar toys on the same shelf or corner of the room.
2. Model appropriate behavior. Show your toddler how to put his toys in a basket and on a shelf. Put your hand over his and go through the motions until he takes over. Make it a game by taking turns, each of you putting away a certain color, shape, or type of toy.
3. Give information. It looks like the truck is still on the floor or I see blocks under the chair. Use a neutral voice and allow some time; kids can't respond instantly.
4. Use contingencies. When your crayons are put away, you can get out your blocks. Too many toys at once become overwhelming.
5. Give five-minute warnings. In five minutes, it will be time to clean up. Show her on the clock.
6. Take time. If your child says, "I can't," reply "There's no hurry. Take your time. I'll sit here with you until you're ready." Stay with him and, if necessary, repeat the contingency. Don't hold a conversation or let him play until the toy is put away.
7. Stay calm. Losing your patience, becoming emotional, or threatening punishment will disrupt the learning process and damage your relationship with your child.
8. Say Thanks. Always thank your child for helping.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.