The Toy Disaster Zone

A friend of mine emailed me this question the other day.

Do you have any brilliant ideas on getting kids to clean up?  Like, just clean up their own messes, especially toys?

Here is our repetitive scenario that’s getting extremely old and frustrating:

Today I went downstairs after just last night and this morning of the kids playing (our family room is L shaped and the “toy room” is the bottom of the L, so having toys scattered all through the family room is just unacceptable to me) and nearly every toy had been pulled off the shelf, dumped out, probably only played with for 1 minute, and left to scatter across the floor.     I told them they had to get all the toys picked up before they could play.

This is how we usually do clean up:  They choose a reasonable amount of time, I set the timer, and whatever is still on the floor gets put in a garbage bag.  So today they chose 30 minutes, I set the timer and could just hear them playing the whole time.  I went down and nothing had been done.  It would have taken 4 or 5 garbage bags to collect everything so now they are just banned to the basement until it’s done, and they’ll probably just play down there until bed time.   The threat of a garbage bag used to work, but this scene is happening more and more.

Obviously this isn’t working.  I hate getting angry and worked up because my plan doesn’t work.   We do have a “one toy out at a time” rule, but I don’t even know how to enforce that unless i’m always supervising play time, which is impossible.   Help, I need ideas!

Here’s my answer:

First of all, while I may have some ideas, keep in mind that I have never been great at expecting my kids to pick up all of their toys immediately. I seem to have a very high tolerance for toy clutter—except when I have people coming to my house . . . or I visit a house where toy clutter is not acceptable . . . then I feel frustrated and guilty that I don’t keep my house picked up . . . but that’s another story!

Having said that, here’s my thoughts.

You’ve realized what I was already going to say—that your “one toy at time rule” is not enforceable as it is currently set up. In order for a rule to work for little kids, it needs to be enforced consistently every time there is an infraction. And you have to have a tangible consequence when the rule is broken. But when you have a toy room away from your main area where you are “working” all the time as a mom, enforcing that rule really is impossible. (Of course, there may be others who have figured this out–I’d love to hear from them. . . And hire them to come to my house for awhile!)

Since your goal is to have fewer toys spread around the family room, you might consider having only a few toys available at any one time. Instead of shelves and bins, get some cabinets that lock and only have one open. Or you could put most of the toys in another “off limits” place in your house and then rotate which toys are out at any given time.

Also, your kids are still little—five and three. While I completely agree they are old enough to physically pick up their own toys, they may not yet be old enough to emotionally handle the overwhelming task that a toy disaster zone can be. (I know that as an adult, I feel overwhelmed by massive cleaning tasks too!)

I think they get overwhelmed because they aren’t really able to break down a large task into small steps. So you might be able to look at the room and say to yourself, “First, I’ll put the blocks in the bin. Then I’ll line up all the dolls on the shelf. Then I’ll put the dishes and food on the play kitchen.” But they look at the room and see a massive pile of STUFF and aren’t able to create the categories and the steps they need to put things away.

So if it really does get to be a disaster, the best thing to do is to work WITH your kids. I know, this goes against the whole idea of “they made the mess, they should pick it up.” But it’s only as we work with our kids that we teach them the valuable skills of breaking down tasks and doing things step by step. Also, working and cleaning together as a family can be a wonderful time, if you as the mom approach it with a teaching rather than a taskmaster attitude.

My final thought is about your garbage-bag consequence. I would define this as a negative motivator—and it has lost its impact. I don’t know why, but I have some guesses. It’s possible the toys came back too soon, so the real message was “if I don’t pick up, the toys disappear for a while, but then they come back.” Or it could be that you have too many toy options, so your kids start thinking “oh well, those toys are gone, but I have all these others ones I like to play with so I don’t really care.” Or it could be something else. . . . Regardless, it’s time to explore some new motivators.

So for example, what if you have a situation where the toys are a mess and you really need them to just buckle down and do it without getting distracted? And you’re life is crazy so working with them is not an option? You might consider using other kinds of motivators to keep the task novel and exciting. I’ve found that positive rewards can often accomplish wonders where a negative consequence does nothing. I’ve used treats, movie time, or even a special outing to help give my kids the extra incentive to get a room clean. (I even paid my kids once, but I’m too much of a tightwad to do that regularly!)

Through all of this, remember that learning to pick up and keep a space clean is a process. Your kids didn’t come into this world knowing how to pick up (both physically and emotionally). But sometimes as moms we forget that because we’re so focused on getting the job done AND because they job is easy for us (now!).

Take time to teach. Be patient and loving. Work together. Look for ways to motivate positively.

And if you’re having a day where all of the above aren’t an option, chocolate ice cream is always a solution (for YOU, not your kids!).


Filed under Examples and Stories, Rewards

10 responses to “The Toy Disaster Zone

  1. I agree with ToriAnn, I have over the years limited the number of toys that my kids have had access to and that made the mess much easier for them to tackle. Sometimes I have had to just let go and say, okay is it really that important to have this room what I consider clean or is their clean good enough? The answer is mostly it will do, unless we are having people over. Also, as my 8 kids have gotten older, because I have tried to teach them to be organized, it isn’t a big deal for them anymore. The can and will pick up a room just as good if not better than I do now. I know it’s hard but I do think in this department that lowering our expectations, consistency and patience are the keys :0)

    • taperkey

      You’re absolutely right about what they are capable of when they get older. When Pepper was younger, I thought she would never ever learn to stay on task and pick up ANYTHING! Now that she’s 10, she is a huge help and can pick up a room in the same amount of time that I can. She didn’t learn it without training, but she DID learn it. But I wish I had been more patient and understanding of the process when she was little.

  2. Sara R

    I have one idea for enforcing the one-toy-at-a-time rule: toy bags! For toys that are a lot of little pieces, put them in a drawstring bag. The brilliant part is that you close the drawstring and KNOT the string so the kids need your help to get out a new toy. When they come to you to open the new bag, you can make sure that the previous toys were put away. After we put the Legos and marble run in the bags, it became slightly less perilous to walk through the basement. I think I got this idea from Confessions of an Organized Homemaker by Deniece Schofield.

    • taperkey

      I love this idea! It incorporates the idea of keeping the quantity of toys available at any one time to a minimum AND it reinforces the idea of picking up one toy before getting the other out. My only personal issue would be that drawstring bags don’t stack well, so I wouldn’t know as well how to organize several on my shelves. Perhaps some sort of “hard to open” bin?

  3. Shannon

    My solution has been totally different. We started having the playroom the largest room in the house, with an art center, a science area, a reading area, etc. It was either a disaster or I was cleaning it all the time, and neither were acceptable to me. We gave that room to my 13yo son as his Christmas gift this year and the new playroom is quite small. We have downsized tremendously and it has been wonderful! I was primarily influenced by Lara Gallagher (Lazy Organizer) and Keri Tibbets (The Headgate). The removal has been gradual and over the course of a year, but now I left only a few items in the toyroom: silks for tent making, wooden blocks (but only about 20, not the whole collection), about 6 puzzles, about 30 toy cars/planes/trucks, a huge white board, a small bin for each child for his journal/pens and one bin for each of my 5yo boys to put in what they will though even they are nearly empty. We had the visiting gecko in there and now the visiting guinea pig is in there. Everything else I either removed from the house, removed to my closet bc I wondered if they’d inquire about it, or put in the closet in the playroom that they are not supposed to open without asking me. The purpose of putting things in teh closet is so that I monitor what comes out (mess wise) but also because the things in there are things I’d rather them not play with every day (things with small parts, specialized things). The results have been wonderful! I don’t clean it up anymore. The boys can do it all themselves. We don’t have toys all over the house. In my house, if things are not picked up when I ask the kids to (pretty much daily), I take the items and put them in my closet. Sometimes they come back, sometimes they don’t. (Depending on whether the item is really important to the child or just junk.) And the benefits aren’t just in ease of cleaning – they play together better, more cooperatively, and more imaginatively then they did before.

    Actually I’ve come to the belief that toys are obsticles to playing. Real playing (in my mind) is with mud and sticks, rocks and maple helicopters. That is what I try to encourage here. (Oh, and bikes and balls.) I’d get rid of the rest of the toys if my husband wouldn’t think I had gone crazy! I’ve thought if we have another little one in our home I wouldn’t want ANY of the usual baby/toddler toys.

    • taperkey

      I’ve heard both Lara and Kari speak, and I was impressed with some of what both of them had to say. I don’t subscribe to everything, but I loved both their ideas of simplicity. I’m in the process of reassessing how much I have available for my kids at any one time and hoping that I have the courage to actually follow through. It can be really scary to take that big step of getting rid of things that seem to add entertainment value–but I am more and more seeing the wisdom of less, along with the idea that more universal and open-ended toys are, the more long-term value that they have. Thanks for sharing your ideas. As I move forward on plans still wiggling around in my head, I’ll let all of you know how it plays out!

  4. I love the idea of having less available and the drawstring bags. Love and Logic for the Early Years also has a few good ideas for the younger ages. Instead of nagging, threatening or bribing, the authors suggest using enforceable statements (i.e. “Only kids that clean up their toys can listen to a bedtime story”). You have to make sure that you can follow through with your own statement and that it is motivating enough to your child. For example, my kids are 6 and 3, every morning I say, “Little boys who make their beds can eat breakfast”. It didn’t take them very long to figure this one out. If they whine and complain, you simply repeat the statement. Be consistent and stick to your guns. I don’t subscribe to Love and Logic 100%, but this has worked well with my kids.

    Also, I agree with Tori that they may be overwhelmed with the task. You could help them break it down without actually doing the work for them. “Pick up all the Legos and then come and tell me when you’re done”. You could give them a small reward after they report each item and still stick to your original enforceable statement.

  5. taperkey

    I also like some things about Love and Logic, but have found that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. We use enforceable statements, too, with varying degrees of success depending on the kid.

    I love the idea of occasionally using a small reward to create motivation. Rewards can be a wonderful tool when used correctly because they can push external motivation to intrinsic motivation. You just have to be careful to not let them take over!

  6. Yay, I finally have a working keyboard so I can finally respond to this!! I read it a while ago and didn’t want you to think I was rude by not responding. I love the ideas shared, and as I was reading Sara’s comment I got an idea. Many of our toys are stored in canvas zipper totes from Ikea, which I thought was brilliant several years ago when I first got them because my kids were young enough that they rarely would bother with them because they couldn’t see inside and couldn’t read the label. Now I feel like those totes have backfired on me because, since they can’t see inside, they just dump them out until they find the one they’re looking for. So Sara’s comment got me thinking, and I agree with both of you. I love the idea, but thought they would be hard to store, which would bug me. (My toy closet, when all the toys are put away, actually looks very organized. Things are in labeled totes and the totes were purchased to fit nicely in the closet spaces. I get compliments all the time when people see it. Ha, they actually think I’m organized! But really, in my head I’m just thinking “Oh, little you know!”) Anyways, along the lines of Sara’s idea, I think I’m going to try finding those tiny luggage locks and lock up the zipper totes. This would significantly reduce the number of toys they have access to and if they really want one of the locked up toys they have to clean up first. Hmm, I think I’ll try it.

    I also like what you said about letting clean up time be time to teach and bond, something that should be so simple and obvious, yet easier said than done. Sadly I think by nature I tend to lean towards being the taskmaster, at least with clutter, so thanks for the reminder of what’s more important.

    I like all the ideas people have shared and I’ll try some, but I’ve concluded that we just have TOO MUCH STUFF! Stuff is just stuff. We don’t NEED it. Honestly, sometimes I get embarrassed to think what my pioneer ancestors must think about all my stuff and how spoiled we are. I seriously was in tears at the end of that particular day that I wrote that email, (and yes, I did end the day with ice cream!) and Jess and I realized that no toy is worth the negative feelings that myself and my children were feeling. I’ve made some changes and have more to make, but things are going much better already.

    Time to DE-STASH!!!

    • taperkey

      Sounds like you’re on to some great things! I love how you took a suggestion and made it your own. Luggage locks are a great idea to make your current system work. I’ve also heard of people taking pictures of their toys and putting them on the front of containers so kids know what to ask for and what’s available. And getting rid of things is almost always a good idea.

      I can’t wait to hear about your progress.

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