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getting kids to clean up

What’s the secret to getting kids to clean up?

Homeschooling and messes go hand-in-hand. With three active, creative, adorable, and messy boys living their best lives all over my house all the live-long day, clutter is a way of life. If I ever have to find my offspring, all I have to do is follow the trail of pencils, papers, blankets, toys, and game pieces that they leave in their wake. 

I know that one day I will miss all that clutter. I will look back fondly on the days when I had to carefully watch my step for fear of stepping on a toy and twisting my middle-aged ankle. I’ll think how wonderful it was to have the evidence of happy, loving children all over my house. Honestly, I could cry a little just thinking about it and am tempted to slip into a very poor rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset.” (Ok, I just watched that video, did you? I’m not crying, you’re crying! 😭)

But right now – RIGHT NOW – I feel allergic to kid-created clutter. My skin crawls when I step out of my bedroom and immediately see random toys, torn up paper, and mysterious pieces of cut-up string everywhere. 

So, for the sanity and safety of everyone in our house, I determined to tackle the clutter. I had a vision of occasionally being able to walk through my house without danger (of stepping on a Lego, slipping on a toy car, tripping over a beloved stuffed animal) or mental questions (what game does that card belong to? and what just stuck to the bottom of my foot??).

Somewhere along the way I read about the idea of doing a quick 10 or 20 minute cleanup before dinner, so I decided to try out that idea. Since my children were younger and as allergic to chores as I am to clutter, I decided to include a 5-Minute Cleanup as one of their daily chores. And I put it smack in the middle of our day before clutter turned into complete chaos. This simple addition to our daily routine turned out to be the secret to a neater home that I’d been waiting for!

My Best Tips for Getting Kids to Clean Up

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  • Link a 5-Minute Cleanup to a particular activity or time of day. This will help you to remember this important activity and make it part of your daily chore routine. My kids give me much less pushback with a cleanup that’s established as a regular activity at a particular time of day rather than an oh-my-gosh-what-a-mess-clean-this-up-right-now parent tantrum. In our house, we do a 5-Minute Cleanup right after our lunchtime kitchen chores.
  • Set a reminder on your phone.  Establishment of a new habit or practice requires consistency, so you may want to set a reminder on your phone until this habit becomes part of your daily routine. My reminder goes off around lunch time so that I remember to do our 5-Minute Cleanup after lunch chores.
  • Consider having multiple 5-Minute Cleanups a day as a transition between activities. There are days when the very first sound I hear upon waking is of a bin of Legos being completely dumped out. That always elicits a moment of aggrieved silence from me. Sometimes messes need extra attention. If it’s one of those days or seasons (I’m talking to you, Toddler Years), consider both a morning and afternoon 5-Minute Cleanup, maybe one before lunch and the other before an afternoon snack.
  • Adjust the length of time of the cleanup to your kids. With a 10-year-old, 8-year-old, and 6-year-old, we practice a 5-Minute Cleanup. I’ve experimented with a 10-Minute Cleanup but found that my kids became distracted and disgruntled with cleaning up for that length of time. Older, more focused kids may be able to handle a longer cleanup. On the other hand, toddlers may do better with an even shorter clean-up, maybe 3 minutes. In general, I’d say to keep the cleanup short enough to encourage compliance, especially for your younger kiddos.
  • Use a timer. I set a timer on my Apple Watch so that I don’t have to think about it, but your family may benefit from using a timer that everyone can hear, or even a visual timer for kids that need to know how much time is left.
  • Be honest about the time limit. When five minutes come and go without anyone complaining, it’s easy to think, “They’re not complaining, so I’ll just let it ride….” But that’s the path to losing trust and credibility in our kids’ eyes, which will inevitably lead to pushback on even this simple routine. It’s much better to end the cleanup with the kids thinking, “We’re done already? Awesome! That wasn’t a big deal after all.”
  • Mention what comes after the cleanup. Even when a 5-Minute Cleanup becomes a regular part of your daily routine, there will be days that your kids just aren’t feeling it and lack motivation. I find that it helps to tell my kids what’s happening after the cleanup so that they maintain perspective and not start thinking that five minutes seems like five hours. It’s especially helpful if the next activity is something that they want to do. So for example, I tell my kids, “Let’s do a 5-Minute Cleanup before going outside to play.” That sounds much better than, “Let’s do a 5-Minute Cleanup before doing schoolwork.” Other ideas for “fun” activities that you could schedule to follow a 5-Minute Cleanup are having lunch or a snack, playing a game, a read-aloud, and <gasp!> screen time.
  • Create systems/homes for items so kids know where things go. Cleaning up implies that we’re putting things back where they belong when not in use, but do our kids know where things go? If not, the 5-Minute Cleanup will end with a different mess than the one we started out with, but still a mess. And constant questions about where things belong will slow the process down and limit how much cleaning up we actually do. Setting up toy bins with labels (picture labels for the younger kids) goes a long way toward making a 5-Minute Cleanup a success. I also find that it helps to mark personal items – I color code my kids and mark their school supplies, water bottles, etc., with their colors so that everyone knows what belongs to whom. This will require some pre-work from you, but it’s totally worth it!
  • Turn up the music! Music makes everything better. Put on some upbeat music and your kids will bop their way around the house during cleanup time. Lately we’ve been playing this awesome soundtrack on our HomePod during our 5-Minute Cleanups. Turning up the volume a little louder than it needs to be makes it feel more like party. You can also try singing a favorite song. When my kids were younger, we liked to sing the Cleanup Song. I saw a lady doing that with her kids once and tried it at home – it was like magic! But even the ABC song will help if you sing along with your kids – they’ll love it!

“For many people, music is here to let them forget the daily chores of life.” Daniel Barenboim

  • Make it fun(ish). Music is pretty fun, but you can make it even more fun by adding a game-like element to the cleanup time. Encourage everyone to work as fast as they can, or see who can put away ten items first, or practice your aim by throwing stuffed animals into the toy box. Be creative!
  • Get creative with slackers. There’s always that child that walks around looking busy but doesn’t actually contribute to the work. But I have a couple of strategies for when kids do more wandering/singing/dancing than cleaning up:
    • Assign a different room to each child. I might send one of my boys to the playroom, the second to the craft room, and the third to the living room to clean up. This way each child knows that he is responsible and accountable for his own work. This strategy is especially helpful for those days when the kids are squabbling and are not working well together.
    • Assign each child something different to clean up. I might tell one child to fold blankets, another to clean up Legos, and the third to pick up blocks. Responsibility and accountability is a factor here as well, but this strategy is also helpful for a child that gets overwhelmed by all the mess and needs a focus for his efforts.
  • Pat yourselves on the back! It’s always nice to take a moment after the timer has gone off to admire the difference the cleanup has made. I congratulate my kids on a job well done and draw attention to special efforts, like a nicely folded blanket or toys organized in a unique way. It’s important to revel in those moments after completion of the cleanup and before running off to the next activity because that’s when the kids see that cleanup time wasn’t just a chore. Cleaning up allowed them to create a welcoming and soul-nourishing environment for the entire family.


Constant clutter doesn’t have to be a way of life, even for homeschoolers that are home more often than most. Involving our kids in a short and energetic cleanup performed consistently in an environment that makes it easy to do it right can help us to enjoy our homes…and our marvelously messy kids!

❓Question for you…❓

What’s your favorite way to organize toys? Do you have an organization solution that is easy to implement and has saved your sanity? Don’t keep it to yourself…share your tips with us!

getting kids to clean up

getting kids to clean up

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