Putting things away when you finish

I love the theory – I mean it’s so simple.  When you finish playing with something you put it away before you get the next thing out.  I’ve tried to enforce this since the beginning, first me then the girls when they could get the concept.  But 4 years on, my house is covered in half-done jigsaws, textas with or without lids, pull along toys and lots of little bits and pieces.  My kitchen floor is a graveyard of soft toys, fridge magnets, wipe cloths and little plastic containers.

Some of this is ‘good mess’ – the soft toys are there because the little girl knows she has to let go of whatever she has when she climbs or she’ll fall off, the wipe cloths are because both girls are really good at cleaning up spills and can’t get into the laundry to put them in the wash afterwards.  Some of it is the house – the plastics cupboard doesn’t close and is very high traffic, so all the little bits fall out then get kicked around.  Some is just the result of little kids – they love playing with the fridge magnets but of course that involves taking them off and they never seem to all go back on.  There are always clothes on the bathroom floor because they toilet independently, but can’t (or don’t bother to) get their undies and bottoms back on afterwards and I don’t know until later.

It seems that we generally start a new activity inspired by the last one, and stopping to put things away would ruin the flow.  Or if I’m really honest, I don’t think of it until later and then I don’t want to interrupt them when they’re concentrating/being creative/playing beautifully together.  And it’s causing fights with the big girl – every time she asks to get something out the answer is “As soon as you’ve cleaned the last one up” and she DOES NOT WANT TO.  She’s not going to get away with that, but I’d rather avoid the fights because it’s not a pleasant way to spend the morning.  (I went to play floor dominoes with the girls this morning and they were in their bedroom.  I asked why they were in there not the living room and the answer was “We don’t want to clean up there before we’re allowed to play.”)

Five minute clean ups at the end of the day work the best so far, but then I still spend the day stepping on small things with lots of corners, the girls skid on paper and hurt themselves, textas are left without lids, and vital pieces mysteriously vanish.  We’re reasonable and getting better at having homes for everything – there’s a box or a shelf they are supposed to be on, but not everything makes it back and as the day goes on we progressively drown.  Then it’s such a hassle getting the girls to bed that I just flake out and seeing napping is a bit disastrous/non-existent it’s my first break of the day and I want to get some of my stuff done, so every day starts a bit further behind.  My darling husband on weekends keeps the house ticking over.

I think after 4 years it’s time to admit the truth – I’m not going to remember to pack things away as soon as they’re done with.  It would be nice, it would be efficient, it would be easier.  But it hasn’t happened so far and I can’t see that changing.

So what do other people do?  Do you have really good memories?  Do you have extreme limits on toys?  (We don’t have limits as such, but a lot are packed away where they don’t remember them and we rotate.) Do you let it go then clean it all up afterwards?  I really need a system, I’m completely open to suggestions.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Maybe you could try building in a few 5 minute pack away times into your daily routine – say before morning tea and afternoon tea or before lunch and dinner. Buy a cheap kitchen timer and put it on for 5 minutes and tell the children that everyone is going to pack away until the timer goes off – you included (and Dad if he is home), this makes it like a game. Suggest what each child can start with – ‘B, you do the blocks, C, you do the pencils and Mummy will do the trains.’ Do it everyday at the same times until it becomes a habit. You might not get everything away in that time but it will still be a help towards the ultimate goal of keeping tidy.

    Having easily identifiable places for things to go helps too. I have clear plastic tubs and each has its own purpose – plastic blocks, wooden blocks, plastic animals, etc. Adding photos of what goes into each box helps too.

    I think making it easy and fun helps children to engage with the act of packing away. Singing a song or playing music is an easy way to add a fun factor, as is the timer. In my experience, a tidier environment actually makes children play more contentedly and in a more focused manner. Plus, it means you are not perpetuating the myth of the clean up fairy!


  2. Posted by MummyTiff on February 15, 2010 at 1:16 am

    LIke you Deb one of our actvities often flows into another activity and in those instances we don’t interrupt the flow to pack away.

    However if it’s one of those days where boxes of toys are being pulled out left and right, dumped on the floor, thrown at a sibling, or being taken out and ignored, then we pause to pack away and I ask that they play with something before taking something else out. So we decide on something and spend some time playing with it together.

    SO I don’t like to have stuff from one end of the house to the other (like they do if playing with DP) but I also don’t have a firm expectation when it comes to packing away.

    I guess if you asked I would say “pack away before getting something else out” but that is just my interpretation of not having stuff everywhere.

    The most important thing for us is that the kids value their toys/belongings, take care of them, and pack them away when they’re finished with them. That’s not my JOB, that’s everyone’s job and they help all the time. We definitely don’t head out anywhere unitl the toy cabinet is back in one piece………we have about 16 plastic tubs, labelled and with photos on so they know what goes where (soft toys, books, puzzles, musical instruments, trains etc) and we have a power pack-away before we go out.


  3. Thanks, they’re both great ideas. We have a timer we use for the 5 minute cleanups and we do have places for the toys. I can see that an extra cleanup will fit into our getting ready for kindy routine, at least 2 a day would have to be twice as good as what we have now!

    I like the idea of singing or something – the 5 minute cleanups we’ve been doing were fun, but were starting to become a hassle, throwing something else in the mix will help keep them fun.


  4. My husband would like us to put things away when we are finished with them during the day, but he’s not the one home all day trying to enforce it!
    I’m quite fine with my son not packing his toys away when he is finished, because he is rarely finished when he leaves them! He’s only three, and has a short attention span. He’ll come and go from his trains in one room and lego in another room all day. He always has to pack away at the end of the day – he’s not allowed dinner until he’s toys are tidied up! (I know, I’m awful.) Sometimes we’ll help him, sometimes we expect him to do it. I tidy my things at the end of the day too.
    We always pack away craft and board games when he’s finished, because we aren’t going to be coming back to that, and I don’t want things broken and lost.
    My biggest challenge is putting my own things away when I’m done with them, because I have a small person who distracts me half way through and I forget to go back and am never done with them!


  5. Well, one successful morning. We did the 5 minutes at the beginning of our preschool routine and just concentrated on one area, rather than trying to get lots done. “Clean it up, clean it up” was good, but there was muttering about what an awful mother I am and towards the end the big girl refused to put her shoe away. So I put the handful of things I was holding in the (clean) bin and there was a change of heart. Hopefully that will get less as she gets used to it!


  6. Posted by jessjay on February 15, 2010 at 11:40 am

    I have phases when I’m stricter on packing things away, but mostly I’m pretty slack with it. After all, I should lead by example and much of the time I don’t. Our house is also littered with my shoes, notes, books, papers and so on, but I’m getting better.

    I have found that DD’s packing up skills improved immensely through her year of preschool, and she mostly seems quite comfortable with packing something up before she starts another activity. Her preschool teacher told us that over the course of the preschool year they notice the kids getting better at packing up, so I wonder how age appropriate our expectations are.

    We also have boxes and homes for toys, letting DD choose the boxes made a real difference (who knew the colour mattered). We have picture labels on some things (try sparklebox.co.uk) which have helped establish better habits for all of us.

    All things considered though I am mostly happy to let the kids go. I love the motto “a clean & tidy house is no place to raise children”.


  7. Posted by Carrie on February 17, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Like you Deb, there is plenty of mess that just happens (papers knocked off the desk and kicked around, clothes falling out of the laundry basket, etc) and some of it is exaggerated by sheer volume – there are a lot of us! At the stage you are at now, most of our toys were stacked in managable plastic boxes *out of reach!* One activity couldn’t ‘just flow’ into another, as getting the next lot out was a definite stop. A great technique for things like blocks is “can you just put away the blue ones?” or “Can you just put away 20?” – breaking it down into manageable jobs helps when they are a little overwhelmed by the mess.


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