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The Truth About Tidying with Toddlers

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I get it, the pressure to keep a tidy home is incredible. With all the beautiful and well-designed photos on social media, it’s easy to feel as if you are failing. It is easy to feel you have too much stuff, your coffee foam isn’t poured perfectly, and your child’s room isn’t nearly as tidy as all those amazing photos. First, let's start by acknowledging that many of those photos are staged. Yes, even those Montessori homes.

I know because I regularly take these photos in our Studios. I make sure the activities are all straight and tidy before I take the picture. This is not what it looks like when it is in use by the children. This is what it looks like when I take a picture to show the world what this shelf can look like. This is how the shelf looks before the children enter.

Why do we make the shelves orderly before the children enter? We do this because it is a welcome to the child. It is an invitation to work (read play). When they see the materials/toys carefully and consistently on the shelf they know just where to go to find it, and they know that it is available as a choice. When a child walks into our Studios or their bedroom or playroom at home, tidy shelves help them see their choices, invite them for independent exploration and play, and clearly show that everything has a place.

Making a choice from what is available is the first (and very important) step in independent play. When children are told what, when, and how to play with something, they do not reap the benefits of play. These benefits are well-documented in research these days.

But what about putting it away? We get this question a lot at the Studio. Parents and caregivers want to know when they should start teaching putting toys away and when they should expect that their child can do it. And even more, how to get them to do it. Every child is different in when and how they participate in this, but here are some guidelines to help you understand the process:

  • When to introduce the concept: as early as possible. This is done by telling your infant, “I see you are not playing with this rattle anymore, I’m going to put it back in the basket.” That’s it. Through your language you are introducing the idea. So if you didn’t start when your child was an infant, start now.

  • When do they start to help: once they are walking, their hands are freed up to hold things while they move. Usually around 14-20 months children are very agreeable with helping you with anything. They like to be your partner and often want to be a part of whatever you are doing. Some children don’t seem to slow down to help, and others may be easily distracted. Don’t worry. Keep introducing the idea and and offering to do it collaboratively. Say, “Let’s put the blocks away. I’m putting this blue one in the basket, which one are you putting in the basket?” Another way to keep the focus is to count the toys you are putting away, or make up a short song about all the objects.

  • When do they start helping: this depends on when you start introducing the idea and when they want to. We can not force a young child to be interested in something. If they are in a cooperative mood, they will help easily. If they have moved onto the next thing and lost interest, it is going to be hard to get them back to help. Here are few teacher tricks that might help:

  • When you see that they are done with an activity, stop them and work with them to put it away before they get their hands on the next toy

  • Use your body to position yourself between the child, and the path to run away

  • Get down on his level and make eye contact when talking with him, young children don’t often respond when you talk to them from above.

  • Keep it light. Don't be so serious about it, but also don’t get crazy silly. Just lightly put the toys away with an upbeat voice.

  • If you are getting overwhelmed, it’s probably too many toys. Put some away for a while. Children can get more creative with their play when they have to figure out more ways to play with fewer toys. Also, too many choices may be working against their ability to focus and repeat.

So the last part of this I want to address is; what should be the expectation? Here is the thing: it’s important to have tidy play-space, it’s important to include your child in the clean-up process, it’s important for your child to have free play, and it’s important that you not hover.

AHHHH so much to think about at one time! I recommend

  • if you are with your child during play, make the effort to work collaboratively to put the toys away as you go. Keeping the play area tidy.

  • If your child is playing on his own or near you and he moves from one activity to the next without putting anything away, let this go and don’t interrupt the free play and concentration. When he is all done, work together to tidy; the whole space if he is willing, just part if that’s all he can handle as playing can be tiring and he may need to help only putting one thing away to reinforce the concept and then right to a nap.

  • Lastly, when your child is in another space, sleeping, or out of the house, tidy his play area. Then when he returns, he sees the beauty of each toy in its place. Just the thing that draws you to all those amazing instagram pictures!

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