Photo: Aubrey Hardwick

On the east coast we’ve weathered our (hopefully!) last blizzard of the year, and it is time for some spring cleaning.

In my fantasy I’m Pippi Longstocking strapping brushes to my feet, dunking them in sudsy water and frolicking through the soap bubbles.  In reality, spring cleaning – or any cleaning really – is much more tedious.  That said, through games and an awareness of positive discipline, cleaning up can be a lot more like Pipi’s “Scrubbing Day” than a onerous task that fills you with dread!  

As a parent and a teacher, I know that getting kids to clean up after themselves can be a challenge (that’s putting it mildly). But when I re-frame cleaning up as an extension of playtime – and an opportunity for me to practice positive discipline – everybody wins!

A Dramatic Play Game to Make Clean-up Fun

Speedy Clean-up

I use this tactic in my classrooms and in my living room, and I find that kids respond well to getting into the character of a machine that cleans up!  

Click here to watch the Clean-up Game

Here are the steps to play:

– Wind up your child

– Wind up yourself

– Enjoy the super-speed clean-up

– Play around with slowing down

– Recharge with another wind-up, a hug or bite of fruit (for example)

– Continue cleaning until mess is gone!

The Speedy Clean-up game is a wonderful jumping off point for your tidying. That said, a healthy attitude toward clutter and a bit of positive discipline can go a long way when thinking about a larger “spring cleaning”.

Acknowledge the Merits of Mess

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

-Albert Einstein

Earlier this winter, we bought our son his first “big boy desk.” Now, he has a special place for his art projects, plastic figures, and silly putty, and my husband and I have our kitchen table back. My son’s desk quickly became as cluttered as my own – but no one minds. It is his very own space dedicated to imagination and creativity, and what’s a little mess in pursuit of that?

In fact, Dr. Kathleen D. Vohs spearheaded a recent study at the University of Minnesota, which found that disorderly environments can actually encourage thinking outside the box and creative risk-taking.

So as you and your children embark on cleaning quests this spring, take a moment to appreciate those imaginative messes, too.

How to Clean Up With Joy

That being said, there inevitably comes a time to put those toys away. The following tips will help to make that process a less painful one.

Before the Clean-up: Give Kids a Choice

Offering kids a choice makes them feel as though they have some agency in the task at hand rather than as though they are being forced into it. Just make sure to be aware of what kind of choice you are offering: instead of giving them a choice about when or whether to clean up, offer a choice about what to clean up first. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Dr. Alan Kazdin of the Yale Parenting Center noted that, “Choice among humans increases the likelihood of compliance. And choice isn’t important, it’s the appearance of choice that’s important.”

2. Use Positive Discipline

As your child becomes active in the cleanup process, heap on the praise. It is most helpful to do this while your kids are engaged in the activity, so that they understand what they are doing well and can repeat the behavior. Be effusive and use physical contact for added positive reinforcement. And then – keep practicing. “Getting the child to practice the behavior changes the brain and locks in the habit,” says Kazdin.

3. Teach Cleaning as a Skill and Model Good Behavior

Just as your children learn how to tie their shoes or brush their teeth, they need to learn how to tidy up. You set the ultimate example, so talk openly about the chores you do as a part of your routine, and it will be easier to get your child to contribute!

4. Give a “Heads-up”

Making the transition from playtime to cleaning up can be the toughest part, so give kids a 5-minute warning to wind up their play and ready themselves for the next stage. I like to set the timer on my phone – that way it seems less like an arbitrary “mom” directive, and more like an outside force operating!

Enjoying the Purge

In New York, our living spaces are (in)famously small, and it is impossible to keep everything. The need to get rid of old sippy cups, toys, and even artwork, becomes a necessity. Japanese organizational guru Marie Kondo recommends only holding onto things that “spark joy,” and I have found this advice very useful in my own home.

When my son and I embark on one of our periodic dumpings of his toy chests, he sorts the items based on this criteria. We make two piles: a “spark joy” pile, and a “to donate” pile.

Kondo also emphasizes the importance of gratitude in her organizational work, and I like to pass this practice on to my son. She advises her readers to “thank” an item for all the work it did for you as you discard it. So we acknowledge the hard work that old bath toys, dried up markers, and broken model trains have done in our house, and send them off with a “thank you” and a goodbye.” This is wonderful way to foster the development of compassion and appreciation in your kids. Getting rid of surplus “stuff” will streamline the cleanup process for you and your children, and giving kids an active role in the sorting and discarding will encourage them to appreciate the toys they still have.

While all this sparking of joy is super fun, I’m still not giving up on the idea of one day tromping through my kitchen wearing scrubbing brushes. Until then I’ll work on the positive discipline and play some Speedy Clean Up! And hey, maybe spring will come faster if I start cleaning now?

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