Many toddlers need extra support when they are learning to pick up their toys. A toddler is unlikely to pick up his toys unprompted. “No!” is a frequently heard word as they try to assert their independence and do what they want to do at the moment. Toddlers may not see the value of having a clean space because of their short attention spans. With a little patience and time invested, an adult can help a toddler pick up their toys without a fight.
Be specific about each step
Be specific with the toddler about the exact action you wish for them to take. Telling a toddler, “clean up your room,” is too vague for a young child still learning about their world. Instruct the toddler for each item you wish to be moved and where you would like it to be. For example, say, “Tommy, please put the teddy bear on the shelf” and wait for the toddler to comply before moving on to the next item. Think of your directions as an item by item checklist. Take each toy step by step from picking the toy up off the floor to carrying it to its proper place and putting it away. Repeat as needed to clean up all the toys. With persistence, it can soon be a task they anticipate on their own, and they will continue putting things away without prompting.
Choose the right time
Choose your timing carefully when to convince the toddler to pick toys up. Some adults may decide that pick up time is when the toddler starts to be cranky and in need of a nap. This is the worst time to try to teach the toddler because their attention is poor, and the mindset already distracted. Attempting the task when overly tired, hungry, or otherwise not feeling well will make the task more difficult than it needs to be because the toddler is likely to fight back.
Wait until the toddler is in a positive mood and wide awake to help them learn to pick their toys up one at a time and put them away in their proper place. Do not expect extended attention to the task for longer than a few minutes at a time because of their age. If possible, make the task a predictable one with consistent timing daily to reduce resistance to it. This time can be multiple times a day, such as before meals or as moving from toy to toy or room to room.
See things from their view
Get a toddler’s attention by getting down to their level. A toddler’s view of the situation may be much different from that of the adult. Crouch down to their level to see what needs to be done. Look for situations that may be difficult for the toddler to accomplish, such as placing a toy on a shelf that is too high for them to reach or opening a toy box lid that is too heavy. You will better know what tasks are reasonable to expect.
Point out items one by one and help carry it hand-to-hand as necessary to pick up the items with the child. Walk the toddler to where the toy needs to go and demonstrate how you would like it to be put away for them. Model the behavior you wish them to participate in when it comes to picking up their toys. If too many things are out at once, it can be overwhelming for the child just like it is for the adult. It works best to teach the toddler to maintain a play space by putting items away as they are done being played with, so it doesn’t get to be too overwhelming of a task.
Encourage their efforts
Offer encouragement and praise throughout the process. Criticism of how a toddler is doing the job is likely to discourage them from trying from following through on the task. Only telling them what they are doing wrong is likely to result in tears and un-cooperation. Express your belief in their abilities by cheering them on. Use phrases like, “Yay! You did it!” and “Good job!” to help them to feel confident in their abilities. Do not expect perfection from a young child still learning to do simple tasks. When they give their effort, even if it is not perfect, praise their effort in trying. If the child is motivated by rewards, encourage them to keep trying by reminding them if there is a reward to come when it is completed.
Picking up can be play
Make it a game with the toddler to pick up the toys. Ask the toddler to race you in how many cars can be picked up off the floor in a minute or how many teddy bears can be put back on the bed before the timer goes off. As long as the toddler is cooperating and in a positive mood, continue until the job is complete. If it becomes a fight, it is best to stop and come back to the task later on.
Over time, natural consequences may be put in place, such as toys that are not put away cannot be played with next time. Once they have learned how to pick up and begin to understand why logical consequences also become a motivating factor for the child, do not take it personally if they are not interested in the task at the time, however. Toddlers have not yet developed much foresight into their actions and are often hyper-focused on what they want to do.
Teaching a toddler to pick up their toys will be rewarding in the long run. It will teach them responsibility for their belongings and care for what they have. Picking up will also make for a calmer environment because items will not become lost or broken as easily and will be easy to locate. Toddlers learn to respect the boundaries and space of others by learning how to pick up their toys. They also learn how to organize their space by discovering that each item has its own unique space in the room-picking up after themselves is a lifelong skill that will stick with the child throughout their life.