How to Get Your Child to Tidy Up: 8 Practical Guidelines

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How to Get Your Child to Tidy Up: toys and clothes in the correct place

When parents observe a Montessori classroom, a frequent comment is something like “Oh I wish my child would tidy up like this at home” or “I can never get my child to do their chores”. There is, of course, no reason at all that a child shouldn’t tidy up at home. You will also find that your child will enjoy helping you with tasks such as cooking, washing up and dusting. Despite what many parents may think, we don’t need to “push” a child to tidy up after themselves or do chores. All you need to do is apply the same principles that a Montessori practitioner applies in their classroom to your home. 

The first thing to do is look at the word “chore”. The word itself has a very negative connotation, and can conjure up images of boring jobs which “must” be done in order to do something more fun. In fact, many older children do not want to carry out their “chores” because they have already made this negative association. Luckily, younger children don’t feel this way. They enjoy copying their parents, they feel satisfied when they help around the house and they feel more secure if they understand their place in the world. 

In this article, we will focus first on younger children and how we can encourage, direct and engage them. We’ll also talk about how we can approach any issues that you may encounter when encouraging your older children to help you around the home and take care of their environment.

Help me to help myself

The first thing to understand is just how important this key ethos of Montessori really is: “Help me to help myself”. Very young children already crave independence – you have probably already noticed this with your own child(ren). Have you ever noticed how younger children love to role play being an adult in their games with other children? Children have a natural curiosity of the world around them and want to explore this, and their place in it. The role of a parent or caretaker in this context, is to allow the child to explore this at their own pace and in their own way.  

Self-care and care of the environment is incredibly important at this stage and is very much linked to the child’s need for independence.  Therefore, it’s natural for a young child to want to take care of their environment as it gives them a sense of independence.  A really simple way to encourage this at the beginning is to allow them to put away toys and clothes in the correct place. 

Equally important is that children feel so much more comfortable when they have a feeling of order.  This applies not only on a practical level (such as knowing where things should go), but also in terms of knowing boundaries with other people and understanding their routine.  A child who not only knows that they need to put something away when they are finished, but also knows where those things go, will feel more secure, and will happily carry out these duties. 

If you think about the importance of the practical life area of a Montessori classroom, you can see that children naturally are drawn to these tasks.  They want to learn new skills; they want to practice and perfect them.  Think of your own home as one big practical life area!  There are so many opportunities for your child to help around the home.

Some practical life materials that you can use at home

- Cleaning:  Giving your child a cloth and asking them to clean or polish small objects - Age: 3 - 5 years and more

- Washing and drying dishes - Age: 4 years and more

- Watering plants:  This can also include garden care if you have a garden - Age: 3 - 5 years and more

- Pouring liquid:  Your child can pour their own juice or milk - Age: from 2 years

- Spooning:  At meal times, your child is able to serve themselves from serving bowls - Age: from 2 years

- Folding clothes - Age: from 3 1/2 years 

get child tidy up guidelines montessori folding learning tray

Teach children how to fold clothes and other material with the Montessori Folding Cloth Learning Tray

Model Behavior

Children observe everything around them and they will model any behavior that they see. Therefore, how parents behave, respond and take care of their environment will obviously impact how their child does the same.  I can’t stress how important a parent or child-carer’s attitude towards this will reflect in the children in their care.  If a parent takes care of their environment, their child will naturally copy this.  Here are some ways you can be more aware of the behavior that you model:

- As much as possible, try not to complain about having to do household work in front of your children.

- If for some reason, you need to leave something out rather than tidy it up, explain this to your children.

- Encourage your child to do activities together with you, such as baking, washing up and laundry.

- Make sure that you are all aware of where things go.  It can be very tempting to have a giant toy box and throw everything in.  But this goes against the sense of order that our children need.  If it is possible, try to store toys on open shelves, so that their “place” is visible.

- Don’t be afraid to let your child use knives and scissors.  But be sure that you model their use perfectly, and supervise their use.

Don’t Reward – Expect

An important aspect to consider is that we should never “reward” a child for cleaning up after themselves.  This may sound counter intuitive.  After all, don’t we want the child to know that this is a great thing that they are doing? And won’t rewarding the child encourage them to do it again and again?   Well…. yes and no.  It’s certainly not bad, and we certainly want the child to continue to tidy up after themselves. 

 However, the goal should be that the child understands that cleaning up after yourself is totally normal behaviour.  Rewarding the child enforces the notion that what they are doing is something that deserves a reward.   They may think that it is something negative – a chore.  If we think back to Maria Montessori’s belief that “work is a child’s own reward”, we can see that there is no need to view tidying up as any different to play.

- Try to refrain from even saying things like “good job” if your child tidies away their own toys, instead say something like “it’s great that you’re having fun”.

- Offer some activities normally considered to be chores, such as folding clothes, watering plants and dusting to your child.  This will also help them to perfect these skills.

- Make tidying up fun. Because you don’t want it to seem like a chore, you can work together to tidy up.  You can, for example, ask younger children to show you where something goes.  They will take great pride in showing you their knowledge!

Helping the child to tidy up

However, no matter how much we may wish to encourage our child’s independence, there are of course some things where younger children in particular will need supervision.  You can still work within Montessori principles and nurture independence, but take more caution.

- Provide your child with a stable ledge or raised platform if you need them to reach a counter top or wash basin

- Although children as young as toddlers can use knives to cut vegetables and fruit, they should be instructed on how to do this properly and be supervised at all times.

- Children should not be discouraged from using scissors but instead should be shown the correct way to both handle and walk with scissors.  You can definitely cut fabrics and paper together.

- Helping works both ways.  As we previously mentioned, sometimes helping a child is a great way to let the child show you their independence and their skills.  Realistically, it’s also a great way to save time if you are in a rush!

Use Child Sized Material

Look in a Montessori classroom, and you will see that everything is in miniature – for adults. Any wall material is at the eye level of the children. A Montessori classroom is a carefully prepared, child-centred environment where a child can explore at his or her own pace without fear.

Get the Montessori Crumbing Tray material

Get the Montessori Crumbing Tray to teach children how to clean crumbs off a table or anywhere else

With this in mind, it is important to remember that you should only expect your child to do things that he or she is physically capable of. This does not mean that you should make everything in your house child sized. However, it’s possible to adapt or prepare materials to better help your child:

- Shelves for toys, clothes and books should be accessible to the child.  This means that at the most basic level, things should be at an appropriate height for the child.

- Storage spaces should ideally be stored on open shelves rather than closed drawers, so that the child always has a visual reminder.

- If possible, invest in a small sized dustpan and brush or broom.  Your child will not be motivated to clean up if they don’t have the motor skills needed to hold utensils.

- Cut up cleaning cloths into smaller pieces so that they are child sized.

- Scissors and knives should be of an appropriate size for the child, and their use should be supervised.

Encourage Older Children to tidy up

Older children may not have the same enthusiasm for helping around the home.  They may have learnt that such things are “chores” and it can be problematic to engage older children to help you with household work or to tidy up after themselves.

It can be hard to get older children to form new habits, but rest assured, once the habit is formed, it will be with them for life!

A really good way to get started on this is to get back to basics and clear everything out.  Children grow out of toys and clothes so quickly that it can often lead to clutter.  Arrange a time to go through your child’s things with them.  Don’t be afraid to be brutal!   You can decide together what you want to do with the items that you no longer need or use – perhaps donate them to less fortunate children or arrange a sale. 

This should leave you with a clean slate from which to start.  Work together with your child to create a space for their things which will inspire them to keep tidy.

Montessori mentions “sensitive stages” for child development.  Older children may no longer have the same need to explore the world around them.  However, they do still crave independence and order (as do adults).  Treat them with trust that they can take care of their things and they will do so.

5 ideas to encourage children to tidy up after themselves

  • Work with your child to create their own space. Put your child in control of how their room is arranged for example.  Ask them where and how they want to store things.  By giving your child these choices, you will encourage them to take care of their things.
  • Suggest they cook for the family. Older children will love showing off their cooking skills and preparing food.  You can offer to be their kitchen assistant.
  • Involve them in family decisions. Many children rebel because they feel like they are not heard, and not being heard often resonates as “not being respected”. Vacation plans, buying a new sofa and doing the weekly shopping can all involve your child.  You don’t have to follow every decision, but you should listen to every decision.
  • If your child plays a sport or musical instrument, for example, they need to know that they are responsible for the care of the kit or the instrument. Encouraging this responsibility often ensures that it is carried out.  For example, if a sports kit needs cleaning, and it isn’t done, then your child will feel the consequence of that and take better care of it next time.
  • Encourage a bi-yearly clean out to maintain or reinforce the order in their possessions. This will get them into the habit of evaluating their needs, and the feeling of serenity that comes with order.

As you can see, by understanding some basic Montessori principles and putting them into practice, you can create a calmer, cleaner tidier home together.

By Josephine Moysey,

Trained Montessori educator.


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