Playing the Cleaning Game

I still get lots of comments from people who believe it’s inappropriate to give chores to 2-3 year olds. I think they’re missing a great opportunity! Kids this young don’t think of these as chores – it’s all play to them. Better yet, they understand they’re getting to play the games grownups play, and they think it’s great. They feel big and grown up and capable, even accomplished, for being able to do the things grown ups do. And teaching them how to take care of themselves and learn important life skills is way, way easier when they’re 2 than when they’re 15. Start early, be patient, and trust that it is best for your kids and for you to always encourage them to do as much as they can for themselves.

Here is the list that many think is too advanced or unfair.

It’s important for the tasks you give kids to be age appropriate, and you may have to work a little bit to get them to keep thinking the task is fun. It’s not a huge stretch, though, to see how kids can do these tasks and learn a bunch in the process.

I already wrote a post about playing the laundry game. Here’s how you can approach all the other tasks on this list:

Picking Up Toys

Getting kids to pick up after themselves is usually the one task on this list that people generally believe is ok, even for toddlers. It’s also (in my mind) the hardest one to get them to do because they’ve already figured out that playing with the toys is way more fun than cleaning them up. If they’re old enough to resist doing this, I recommend making a game of it while still being firm that it’s their job (not mom’s) to clean up the toys they used. Here are some ideas:

  • My kids were always especially difficult about cleaning up on the days where almost every single toy came off the shelves and ended up on the floor. They were just overwhelmed at the size of the task. I always offered to help, and then gave them challenges. I would ask them to clean up all of the animals, or the books, or the action figures. It was a little like a scavenger hunt. If that wasn’t interesting enough, I would ask them to clean up everything that was red, then green, then yellow, etc.
  • On days the categories didn’t work, we might set a timer and do ‘fast cleaning’. We’d see how much of it could they get done in 2 minutes If they didn’t finish, we could take a break and do another 2 minutes later.
  • Sometimes we sang a song while we cleaned up.
  • Playing loud music and dancing while we cleaned up was another popular one

Find the right mood for the day and go with it.

Clear place after meals

A surprising number of people think it’s crazy to suggest that kids could clear their place after meals. My kids both attended daycare, and starting at age 1 the kids were expected to carry their dishes to the shared sink after each meal. After watching dozens of kids do this every day, I knew this was very possible.

Most people who commented about this task assumed that a 2-3 year old would drop and break the dishes, or that the dishes would be too heavy, or that their kids would make a mess. My toddlers used plastic dishes that weren’t heavy, and that wouldn’t break if dropped. As for the mess if they did drop a plastic dish or food off the plate – that was simply an opportunity to teach them how to clean up a spill!

Instead of making this a chore, talk about it as a skill they can practice and master – learning to balance a plate with food on it, or carry a cup with liquid in it, all takes effort. Start with an empty plate. Then with a plate that is mostly empty and has no rolling peas on it! When they’re ready to try a cup with liquid, have it be water at first. Every time they succeed at a new difficulty level, point out how much they’ve learned already!

I will admit that my younger son did drop a real plate on his toe once when he was setting the table. I’m not sure how old he was, probably 4? He couldn’t reach the cabinet where the plates were, and could only carry one at a time. I would get a single plate at a time out of the cabinet and hand it to him, ensuring he had a good two-handed grip on it, and he would carry it to the table and reach to get it up there. One day the plate slipped as he was crossing the kitchen. It fell onto his big toe. The plate didn’t break, but the way it fell cracked my son’s toenail and I had no idea a toe could bleed so much so fast. I stopped the bleeding, bandaged the toe, and comforted my son. Despite all the blood, it didn’t actually hurt very much. He happily ate his dinner and talked about all the blood. His toenail eventually fell off and then grew out again. He was fascinated by the whole process and enjoyed reporting on the status of his toenail over the next few weeks. He remembers the whole thing rather fondly now. It’s one of his earliest memories. I don’t mean to say that it’s ok to let kids hurt themselves. But everything in life is dangerous, and dropping a plate on a toe, though not awesome, is also not the end of the world.

My kids knew it was always their job to clear their own place at the table. When they were older and went to friends’ houses, they did it there too. I remember being surprised when an occasional friend came to our house and didn’t clear their place after I fed them lunch, even at age 8 or 9. Knowing that they were certainly physically able to do it themselves since my kids had been doing it for 7 years at that point, it was weird to me that they would just expect me to do it for them. I think a lot about the dynamic in those kids’ homes where their moms were doing things for them that they could do themselves. For some moms, I think it’s how they show their love for their kids. I think some don’t realize kids can do so much for themselves. Some would prefer to do it themselves and know that it’s done right, and without wasting time or making a mess. I suspect some do it because they think it’s just their job. Whatever your reason is, I encourage you not to do things for your kids that they can do themselves. In the long run, it’s better for everyone to learn to do as much for themselves as they are able to, and to never expect another person to wait on them for free, even their mom!

There are also lots of good learning opportunities when kids clear their plate. Initially I just asked them to get it near the sink. Over time, though, they learned to scrape leftover food into the trash or compost bin, and they learned how to put their things in the dishwasher (plastic stuff on the top rack, utensils in the correct compartment, some items need to be hand washed, etc). Eventually I asked them to help clear the shared serving dishes as well, not just the ones they ate off of. And at some point we added in putting leftovers into storage containers and into the fridge. These are all things they would eventually need to know, and we taught them these things as they became old enough.

Make Their Bed

This is yet another task that receives a lot of negative comments from people who can’t imagine how a 2-year-old could possibly make a bed. And I agree with them! I can’t imagine any 2-year-old making a bed all by themselves. But that’s not what is intended here. At 2, you can ask the child to attempt to pull the blanket up to the pillow and attempt to straighten out some of the wrinkles. It will probably still look horrible, but it’s a start. At first, you’re teaching the ritual of straightening the covers ever day. Over time they’ll get more skilled and can do a better job with it.

Dust Furniture

Everyone is quite sure this will result only in lots of broken items. That’s why you don’t ask the 2 year old to dust anything breakable! In fact, you’re not really going to get any real dusting out of a 2-year-old. But boy will they think it’s fun trying! They’ll enjoy getting to spend time with you doing an adult’s task. Give them a dust cloth, or a feather duster, and tell them to chase the dust off an empty coffee table or side table. Tell them user their crawling super powers to dust the baseboards! It doesn’t matter – anything not breakable will do. They’ll think this is fun, and it will keep them busy for a few minutes while you do the real dusting! Over time they’ll get more skilled, and at some point will actually be helpful.

To really get the most out of this one, let them know that they can start on cleared tables and baseboards, and work their way up as they get older and better at it. It can be a point of pride for them when they are responsible enough to handle dusting the breakable items and you trust them to do it.

Also, if you use furniture polish, that’s a huge draw for young kids!

Feed Pets

I think this task receives the most interesting comments. Here is a sampling of them:

At this point I find myself wondering if these comments are coming form other kids rather than parents. All parents would understand that a 2-year-old could never be responsible for feeding the pet independently. But they will LOVE getting to help as much as they are able:

  • At first, you can scoop the food yourself and let them pour it into the dish. If they miss, they can help clean up.
  • When they’re ready, let them try scooping the food themselves. Great dexterity practice.
  • Give them a cup of water to pour into the water dish. Again, if they spill, they can learn to clean up the spill. It’s just water!
  • As your kids get older, they can take on more pet care tasks. Learning to care for another living being is full of great learning opportunities that will serve them well in life.

Your kids will inherently understand the importance and responsibility involved in helping to care for another living creature. They will want to learn how, and to learn to do it well.

You can use these ideas to make your own picture chore charts for your kids with The Trip Clip.

2 responses to “Playing the Cleaning Game”

  1. […] may also be surprised by how much kids enjoy engaging in these tasks. You can introduce these jobs as games as I suggested for 2-3 year olds. That will work for a 4-5 year old too! Another approach is to […]

  2. […] written other articles about how to engage kids ages 2-3 in housework and self care because for them it’s just play, and how to use pretend play to begin teaching kids ages 4-5 […]

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