The Clean Room Challenge: Helping Children Clean Up & Get Organized

A group of children putting toys away in their toy bin

Children and parents often disagree about what constitutes a “clean room.” These disagreements arise, in part, because of a child’s developmental growth. Young children are still learning organizational skills. Most can’t realistically be expected to keep a clean room without some adult support until they’re at least 9 to 12 years old. It’s also a matter of different priorities. From a child’s perspective, a perfectly spotless room doesn’t foster creative pretend play; to a child, a little (or a lot) of mess is a good thing. Temperament also plays a role. Some children naturally prefer a neat room, while others tolerate more clutter.

As parents, our role is to help children learn organizational skills that will help them be successful as adults. This often means finding a balance that allows for some independence (and mess), while encouraging ownership and accountability. Some families find that a structured approach—such as a daily to-do list, chore chart, or cleaning schedule – works for them. A more casual, “as the need arises,” approach works for others. Whichever style suits your family, remember that learning habits of cleanliness and responsibility takes time to develop and that these habits are best cultivated through example and positive learning moments.

How to Clean Your Room: Tips for Helping Children Clean Up & Get Rid of Clutter

Corral chaos. Step in if the mess has gotten out of hand. Break the task down into chunks to make it less overwhelming. Try explaining, for example, “First, you put all the dirty clothes in the laundry basket and I’ll pick up the stuffed animals. Then we’ll pick up the crayons.” Get rid of clutter by discussing that some objects can be saved, some donated, and some thrown away. Stress that your child can keep any items that she really loves; it’s okay to donate items that no longer fit or discard those that are broken or worn out. Help your child understand that her room will feel more peaceful once she gets rid of the things she no longer needs.

Rotate toys. Children form attachments to stuffed animals, books, toys, and even clothing. These items often have deep meaning. If your child has trouble getting rid of things, try creating a toy library instead. With your child’s help, pack some of the toys away. Save these to pull out in a few months at which time you’ll pack away other toys.

Make cleanup a breeze. Make it easier to put things away than to get them out. Instead of storing books on a book shelf, use a crate or plastic box for kid’s book storage. Store the books with the covers facing forward so that your child can flip through the books, pull out the one she wants, and toss it back in the box when she’s done. Store toys in labeled plastic bins, rather than a large toy box.

Start a routine. It’s so much easier to keep things clean as we go than to tackle a gigantic mess later. Young children don’t always naturally embrace this concept, but helping them establish a routine can help. Teach your child to spend 10 minutes in the morning making the bed and putting away dirty clothes. In the evening, take another 10 minutes to pick up toys and books. Set a timer, make up cleaning games, or put on a silly clean up song for kids to make it fun and ensure the job doesn’t drag on.

Create a collections museum. There’s something wonderfully whimsical about the child who must save every feather, rock, or shell he finds. Until, of course, the collection grows to overflowing proportions and threatens to engulf his entire room. Try creating a collections museum: a shelf, a series of labeled plastic boxes on a bookcase, or a small table. When the museum is full, help your child keep the room clean by discarding or giving away something before adding something new. Another option is to take photos or drawings of some of the items and gather these in a “memories notebook.”

Chore charts and cleaning schedules can help you and your children keep the dust bunnies at bay, but the most important tool in a parent’s “clean room” arsenal is probably a sense of humor. Messes are a part of life with children, especially when they’re engaged in the naturally-flowing, creative play that’s so essential for their growth. Try to be patient, knowing those messy moments will disappear all too soon.

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In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
A group of children putting toys away in their toy bin