A common topic of discussion at nearly every toddler group I have been to (and there are many!) is how can we encourage our children to pick up after themselves?
Most parents seem to accept that children of this age don't do it naturally and that some special coaxing techniques must be employed if we are are to maintain order in our homes without spending all day following behind our child and picking up after them.
We want our children to develop life-long skills that help them to be organized and respectful of their things in the future. I might fail miserably — kids have amazing will-power — but here is what I'm trying:
Model the behavior. It’s tempting, especially with small children around, to wait until after the kids go to bed to pick up the house. However, children should watch and “help” you clean up so they can start to mimic your actions. Otherwise, they’re under the impression that a magical fairy appears and cleans up the toys, coloring books, and wooden spoons.
Explain the process. As you put away toys and project materials, talk through what you’re doing. “I’m putting the lids on these markers so they won’t dry out and you can use them next time you want to color.” “I’m putting these books on the bookshelf because it’s where they belong when you’re not reading them. The bookshelf protects the books from being damaged so you’ll have them the next time you want to read them.” I should admit that this narration is extremely tedious, but I’ve noticed my son incorporating words into his vocabulary like shelf and lid, so I at least know he’s listening.
Be positive. Look for ways to make the clean up process as interesting as the play. Put on fun, fast-paced music your child enjoys every time you pick up toys and dance while you work. Make up a cleaning song to sing or play a counting game. Voices shouldn’t be raised and threats shouldn’t be wagered.
Give your child time. Clean up for young children shouldn’t be rushed. If the child has an hour to play, budget the last 10 minutes of that playtime to picking up the toys. Let your child know that playing with toys involves taking the time to put them away. This is similar to dinner not being finished until the dishes are cleaned, the table is wiped off, and all of the ingredients returned to the pantry or refrigerator. Playtime includes putting away the toys.
Be consistent. This is the hardest part of the teaching process for me — making sure I always leave time for picking up toys. If we’re in a rush to get out the door to run an errand, it’s difficult to pause and make sure the toy is returned to it’s storage place before we leave the house. The consistency and repetitive action, however, are what instill the positive behavior. If a child doesn’t know there is the option to leave his toys strewn about the room, he won’t make that decision. (Well, at least in theory.)
Be minimalist. This is one we struggle with, particularly as well meaning relatives insist on buying the children gifts every time we turn our backs! Realistically, our children can't pick up if they don't know where everything belongs, and won't remember where everything belongs if there is too much. We regularly have a clear out for charity or for friends, or the local church/nursery group. Other than that, good ways to ensure that your children are not overwhelmed is to hide their toys. I have boxes labelled 'cars', 'music', 'lego'... etc... and all the toys not in use are hidden from view. This encourages the children to only play with one kind of toy at a time (as they are not distracted by other toys in their peripheral vision) and makes clean up very easy ('please put all your cars back in their box').
So there you have it. These are my techniques. Do you know of any others?