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My toddler won’t clean up – Good Parenting

Headshot2011Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

My toddler won’t clean up

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Why is it so much harder for my 3-year-old to put toys away than to take them out?

Stepping on Tiny Pieces of Plastic


Don’t miss last week’s column about Leaving a Play Date Gracefully.

Dear Stepping,

Clean-up time can indeed be difficult for a 3-year-old. Not sure if you wanted the developmental perspective or some advice to get more cooperation to put things away. I’ll give you both.

Before age 5, a child is very concrete in his thinking, but deeply imaginative at the same time. His thinking is heavily influenced by the real objects before him. Putting toys away goes against his near-constant drive to be learning about the world and to have an effect on it. A child at play uses his toys to work out problems, to practice what he has seen other people do, and to gain skills. For example, something as seemingly simple as pushing his baby doll in a toy stroller involves him taking on a role – the Daddy, developing a scene – walking through the park, and following a plot – going to meet friends for a play date. If you try to interrupt before the storyline is played out, naturally your child will resist putting away the objects he is using.

You might experience a similar “zone” of intense concentration if you were deeply concentrating on, say, throwing a clay pot on a wheel. You would literally be “immersed” in the project. Cleaning up is much the same as you being told you must stop. Right now. You would need some time to extricate yourself from what you are doing, and would probably protest if you weren’t yet satisfied with the project.

Now for some clean-up advice. Have a positive attitude. Institute a pleasant routine for clean-up time. Make-believe is a nice component – you become a crane scooping up toys in your arms to be dumped in the toy chest. Or sing a silly song while the two of you work (this one goes to the tune of “Wheels on the Bus”) – “The little plastic blocks go in the box, in the box, in the box. The little plastic blocks go in the box, and soon the floor is clear!” If your clean-up time takes longer than your three-year-old has patience for, either you are mis-timing it (he hasn’t worked through his plot, or he is now too hungry or tired to be much help), or there are too many toys for him to deal with. If the latter is the case, take some time yourself to reduce the number of objects available to him during play time. More than two puzzles, for example, would be too many pieces for him to put back in place. After you thin out the playthings, organize them within easy reach of your child.

Let’s scale an analogy between a child and a grown-up: the reaction of a 3-year-old to being told he is responsible for a playroom floor covered in toys is the same as that of a homeowner discovering the ruins of his home after a weather disaster. “It’s too much! Where do I begin?” The grown-up is looking at weeks of displacement, months of rebuilding, and years of emotional healing. Your 3-year-old may need you to be the Red Cross. For a few minutes.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Dr. Debbie


Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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