Cleaning Up With Preschoolers

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Today’s post is from a recent comment:

I have a 3 year old girl who refuses to clean up her messes and because I don’t like to punish her too hard, I do it for her, but lately my house is so cluttered with dirty laundry, her toys, and most of my husbands clean jeans, that I feel like I’m going to scream because of the mess.  Then he comes home and ends up mad at me for not cleaning while he’s at work or not having dinner made by the time he gets home, I want to scream.

cleaning up with preschoolers
Heather says:

Home-Ec 101 is generally not a site where I’m willing to give out parenting or marital advice. I’m not a licensed counselor or therapist and just trust me when I tell you are there are plenty of bumps on the road I travel.

However, I have four kids, including my stepdaughter, so I can tell you a little bit about preschoolers and three-year-olds in particular.

People like to complain about the terrible twos, but the threes were always much more difficult for me. However, you must remember your three-year-old is not being difficult on purpose. Does this make it easier to deal with? No, but you just have to walk away when you’re frustrated, because she isn’t purposely trying to make you upset, it’s just a developmental stage.

Does this mean you let her do what she wants, willy-nilly all day long? Heck no.

You have to set the boundaries, and this is true whether you are into structured play or not.

As a three-year-old she is going to progress from one activity to another abandoning the first (and its mess) and moving onto the second and third, without a care in the world. It’s your job to help her begin to learn that when we move from unshelving the books in the living room, to removing the couch cushions, to unloading the dog’s bowl in the kitchen, that we have to undo the damage we caused before wreaking more havoc.

Remember this little diddy from Barney?

Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere. Clean up clean up everybody do your share.

Yes, it’s obnoxious and perky, but some kids dig that. If you can’t get into a Barney song for clean up time, put on whatever music floats your boat. My 4yo knows every word to Sell Out.

Use a timer if YOU need reminding, because -and listen carefully, because I mean this- it is not her job to remember at this stage of her life. Yes, I know you have 8 million things going on. I am totally guilty of forgetting, too. I work from home, we homeschool, I know how easy it is to get distracted and in my distraction is when the mess occurs.

You’ll set that timer based on her attention span between activities, some pre-schoolers can play quietly for 15 minutes, some for longer, some for less. You may want to only do a quick clean up every hour or so. It’s up to you. What you’ll find is regularly putting away the toys and clutter takes the overwhelming, end of day tornado ripped through here, down to a quick pick up.

Additionally, getting out of the house helps keep the house from getting destroyed and can do wonders to improve your mood. A daily walk, trip to the park or library can help keep the mess down.

Getting the house under control -see that post-it note up there? Click it- will go a long way toward reducing the tension everyone feels in your home. (If you’re reading via email or RSS, here’s the weekly chore schedule.)

home organizing tips
Click the picture for more tips!

As far as having dinner prepared at a reasonable time (notice I didn’t say FOR your husband) I highly suggest giving menu planning a try. I have a series of posts on menu planning that you may find helpful. Give them a read.

Hang in there.

Do you have advice? Feel free to share in the comments, but be aware of the Home-Ec 101 comment policy as parenting is a particularly sensitive subject.

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14 thoughts on “Cleaning Up With Preschoolers”

  1. My three kids learned early on to put their things away when an activity was finished, if not the toy etc went into a bag marked “Do Not Open For ___ Days”. I then posted the number of days in the blank space, for the toddlers it was one day and when they got older the days would increase. They knew not to touch the bag until the days space was blank. They even got in the habit of telling their friends to help them clean up or the toy would go in the dreaded “bag”.

    As for meal planning, I would plan a weeks worth of menu’s and grocery list on Sunday night when everyone was in bed. The menu was posted on the refrig so everyone knew what was coming. If, as they got older, and had a meeting or sports event they had to mark the menu box so I knew how many to cook for (2 boys and a girl). That way I had only a weekly shopping to do. My friends used to check out the menus and ask if they could come for dinner on a certain night too. Jenn’s suggestion of a crock pot is an excellent one and can be used year round. Let the little ones help clean veggies, take them to the grocery store and let them pick out fruit (I’d show them two apples and let them pick the one they wanted). Wherever possible include them in the process of choosing and making decisions but provide guidelines.

    • @RubyB Exactly. As my good friend @carolinadreamz says, never ask a question where you don’t approve of the choices / answers. Always ask this or that, where both options are approved, but the child feels empowered.

      • @HeatherSolos@RubyB@carolinadreamz Oh my, Heather….I recognize how this is perfect for managing small children, but I had just been discussing political and media manipulation, and this is exactly one of the techniques used to steer decision-making into predetermined channels. Only this is used on whole adult populations. ::shudder:: Please everyone be aware that even adults aren’t immune to this tactic.

        • @KeterMagick@RubyB@carolinadreamz I just assumed that’s why we end up with the candidates we do. (Not that we’re going to get political over here)

          But since we’ve already sort of opened that can of worms…

          SOPA? I’m really tempted to make a post that stays at the top of even THIS site because it’s so important.

        • @HeatherSolos Check out the last line on the page of my new site… …it’s on EVERY page because this whole SOPA thing is so toxic. I have no idea whether this will help or not, but I figure it can’t hurt. I also include plenty of disclaimers on other pages just in case someone submits something that isn’t actually theirs. There’s no way any of us can know for sure when that happens. I’m going to be adding similar lines to every site I own. If you come up with a best practice on how to handle this, please let me know.

  2. Great ideas! Although we’re not HUGE on Barney, we too sing the clean up song. Dora also has one, and we just change some words to include our girls names. I also make it a “Challenge” for my oldest. I set it up like a game show, do an intro, tell her the rules and count while she cleans. Lastly, we let the kids get 3 toys out (including parts, if they’re playing with blocks then all the blocks as a whole count as 1 toy), and before they can get more out we have them pick up one whole toy, or a certain number of toys in order to get more out, that way our house isn’t trashed, especially since we keep toys in our living room and it’s right off our entrance in plain view when people visit.

  3. We started the clean-up song early, and my 2 year old will sing it as he cleans 🙂 Adorable! I also use short and clear sentances about my expectations. Like “first cleaning then play time.” I feel like a complete moron, but it works well. I also find that there is nothing wrong with a little reward ensentive. If I want him to do something I will offer a task that he loves as a reward.

    • @LizzardMom re: “I feel like a complete moron” you know, I wish more people were open about this. Now I know there are some people who genuinely are completely enthused about every single aspect of parenting.

      I’m not one of those people.

      I do things because I love my children dearly, not because I have any desire to do [whatever activity is on my nerves at that moment].

  4. @HeatherSolos Great advice – it’s all about making cleaning a habit when kids are still young. And starting it young so it becomes natural!

  5. Great comments from the parenting perspective, but here’s one for the husband part. I’m a part-time WAHM and had to go on a business trip during the week a few months ago. So, my husband had to take off work and care for the kids for 3 days. It was the first time he’d ever cared for them alone for more than a few hours. It greatly changed his attitude towards the household chores. In my case it worked because he was also unsuccessful at getting everything done every day, but even if yours succeeds then you can say, with sincerity, “That’s fantastic! Since you are so much better at getting X done than I am, I’d love it if you can take over that job” As long as you aren’t resentful that he’s better at some particular chore than you are, it’s a win-win. You just have to figure out how to get away from home for a few days haha!

  6. My sons old preschool had a clean up song that wasn’t so bad- We sang everything to ‘Frere Jacques” the clean up song went was: “time to clean up, time to clean up, put away, put away, everybody’s helping, everybody’s helping, time to work, time to work.” Something amazing happened when the teacher sang it- like she flipped a switch on a remote and they almost always started immediately cleaning.

  7. I haven”t heard this clean up song, but I think the guy Jenn means is Ralph’s World. We have some of his other stuff.All good suggestions for cleaning. I just started a chore chart today with my 3 year old. It’s a princesses one I found online as a free printable. I have found that cleaning up small bits more often seems to work better with my kids because they get overwhelmed when there is a lot to do (so do I). And meal planning has changed my life (thanks Heather for giving me the kick start a few years back and getting me in the habit). Search out quick recipes (there are lots of 30 minute or less meals – and most are not 30 minutes of you in the kitchen, that’s just how long it takes to get it on the table) and keep a list of them for menu planning. I plug those ones (or slow cooked meals) into days that I know are going to be busy. I meal plan right on my calendar so that I don’t plan some crazy roast for a day that we only have 20 minutes to get supper made and eaten. And if you’re cooking a meal that can be frozen, cook 2 and put one in the freezer. It’s not much extra work to do everything twice and your future self will thank you.


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