Something is realized in preparation for the first child: they come with lots of stuff! Reality strikes at the baby shower as lots of new stuff overtakes a formerly peaceful two-person home. It dawns on soon-to-be-parents that we are being invaded. Tunes of Ariel (Little Mermaid fame) come to mind, "... gadgets and gizmos aplenty, whozits and whatzits galore ..." It continues from there with each age/stage adding to the mountain.
When can children help care for the stuff they require? Sooner than most parents think. As soon as they walk, they can begin to help clean-up. It is one of the first responsibilities children can learn. "Help Mommy pick up the toys ... bring me that car ... hand me that book." Every tiny step is part of the learning process. If Mom or Dad always clean-up, guess what? They will be expected to always clean-up. Children need to be taught the house belongs to everyone and everyone helps keep it clean. It's a joint venture.
Teach to Age Level. "The Grandmothers", early childhood educators in Cleveland recommend, "For preschoolers, clean-up time can be overwhelming; they don't know how to break the task down to smaller steps, or where/how to start. Say something like, 'That sure looks like a big mess. I'll bet you had a good time playing. I'll put away these things and you put away those.' Give a little help. Make a game of it -- we're robots programmed to put everything in its proper place."
"Vacuums don't clean houses. People clean houses."
~ Everybody Loves Raymond
Organize. It is easier for children to put things away when there's a designated spot: tubs, baskets or shelves. Labeling containers with pictures/words makes clean-up and storage much easier. Children begin to place like things together: cars, blocks, art supplies. Also, clean-up time gets simpler, i.e. "bring all the cars to Mommy and put them here (in this tub)".
Avoid Huge Messes. Do not allow every toy to be dumped on the floor. Limit how many toys can be out at once. Have clean-up time at intervals: before nap, dinner and bedtime. Everyone gets overwhelmed when a room is trashed. Children's short attention spans make cleaning for long periods unreasonable. Putting away before new toys are taken out or at periodic intervals keeps the task manageable.
Make it a happy time, not drudgery. Play music. Give praise for children's efforts. "Mommy is so proud of how well you help." "You are such a big boy, using your hands to help clean." Have a cleaning song which signals children what time it is. Many preschools/daycares use them; if your child is in a group setting learn their cleaning song to keep it consistent. It makes the request to clean a cheerful time and children know what to do without a speech.
Picking up and cleaning is a daily venture ... include the family ... the younger, the better.
Elaine Stone, mother of three, lives in Spotsylvania.