My son is almost 3 and doesn't like putting toys away. I'm struggling with how to develop good habits without being overbearing or punishing.

Things I've tried:

  • incentivizing. Offering a treat (piece of candy, or doing something he wants like watching a movie).

  • praising. cheering and offering hugs and high fives when he puts things away.

  • putting left over toys in a "bye bye" bag and explaining that if we don't care for toys, they'll need to go away for awhile.

Neither of these strategies have worked and for the most part he just gets upset and I end up feeling like an awful father.

Any advice?

  • How are you trying to acheive this goal? Are you telling him to put his toys away and expecting him to do it on his own? Or, are you saying, "let's pick up" and demonstrating how to put them away while encouraging him to hand you this toy or that toy?
    – elbrant
    Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 0:31
  • 1
    @elbrant encouraging and participating but it frequently degrades into him thinking I'm doing it for him while he tries to do other stuff. "no no, Dada pick up."
    – Mike B
    Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 0:38
  • so... 3 and he's already manipulating you ;)
    – elbrant
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 21:37
  • My son said to his 3 years old: now you put away your toys or you are going to bed. So he went in his room and went to bed. :) Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 10:19
  • 1
    @AlbrechtHügli my daughter was that way, lol. I loved it, but had to adjust punishments until she did what was expected.
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 12:51

6 Answers 6


While every child is different, most 3-year-olds are not ready to independently initiate and perform cleanup tasks. Instead, success is often found when a routine is established with a cheerful adult. When playtime is over or when you are changing activities, start doing cleanup with your son. Say "alright, we're done with this, so let's put it away," and then do it with him. It can become a small game of sorts since cleanup often involves sorting things ("which bin does this block go in?"), gathering items ("how fast can you put all the balls in this bag?"), and more. Each cleanup task should be broken down into small, doable steps that can be fun simply because it's something you're doing together.

If he grows bored of this, it can be made more interesting by becoming competitive ("can you put the trucks on the shelf before I put away all of the playdough?") or by tapping into things he likes. If he enjoys nurturing or imagination, the toys have to "go to sleep" and you can make a tradition of saying goodnight to each toy together while imagining what they dream of. If he enjoys spacial games like building, then you can talk about how the toys will best fit in the bin/shelf/stack/etc. If he enjoys patterns, you could arrange them by color or by type. Let him choose these things, and cleanup will become fun and engaging for both of you.

After some time, you can slowly transition from cleanup led by you to letting him lead more and more. Eventually, he'll be ready to do it all on his own!

  • This is what I would have written. Kids need demonstrations, if parents don't model it they won't do it. In our lazy ways we tend to be "do as I say not as I do", and we need to fight that impulse.
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 12:53

You might try the "cleanup" song, and singing with him as you help put toys away. That has always worked with preschoolers in my experience.

When my son was younger, we had a one toy at a time rule and had all of his toys in open bins. That always helped unless we had a mob of kids over, in which case we always helped cleanup after.

  • Thanks. I forgot to mention that we've tried the song idea too. Heh. I really like the idea of not having as many toys out. Honestly I think he doesn't even remember some of his toys lol
    – Mike B
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 23:01
  • 1
    I agree with one (more) toy out, one toy in, although I'd let the child have more than one out at a time. But not so many that putting them away is overwhelming. Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 16:54
  • 1
    Yeah, we always gave leeway on the number of toys as long as he was actually playing with them.
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 20:21

First I just did myself. Ask him to give me one of wooden block or something, but no pressure at all, and after a while, few days, he just started to helping me and afterward it become a "ritual" to put away his toys.

By the way this was the way I taught him the colors. We had some colorized wooden blocks and first we put away only the reds and then blue...etc and he just learned the colors in two weeks or so. (I showed him, this is the red, give me another red please.)

This way also can taught him the directions. behind you, there, here...

The point of parenting, I think, is to be able to make him curious about things and then encourage him to do it.


I have to admit, I got a bit of a chuckle when I read "Daddy do it". Forgive me.

Consider moving his toys to baskets in the closet or onto a shelf that is out of his reach. He can request any toy he wants. When he is done playing with it, he can request any toy he wants (again). Then he has to physically put the first toy "away" into the appropriate basket while you hold (that basket) before you retrieve the basket holding his next toy selection.

As a result:

  1. There will only be one toy out at a time, limiting the mess.
  2. He will be learning to put his toys away.

It might mean that he gets frustrated not being able to grab any/all his toys at once. And, you might get tired of constantly changing toys for him. But you can encourage him with a lot of praise for putting the toy away and when he consistantly does it, you can move into letting him play with one basket at a time instead of one toy at a time.

  • I’ve written my answer before reading yours. Now I can see we just agree! Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 10:48

Most children have too many toys (all in a box). When they start playing they turn the box and empty it on the floor. Too many toys hinder a child from creatively playing. So a good solution is to hide 80 % of all toys and change the week by week or in other intervals.

One puzzle is better than ten puzzles. When it is finished it can be put on the shelf. And the next can be started.

  • the child has more room for playing
  • there is better overview
  • there is more order in the room
  • there are less things to clean up
  • there is less of conflict
  • there is more creativity
  • there is more of estimation

Mine are 5 and 7 and still don't like putting stuff away. At 3 we made it the tidy-up game, putting things in the right place, making it a quiz as to where things should go, me putting things in the wrong place deliberately etc. Lots of fuss and praise when they do it right or quickly, and ultimately the naughty step if they messed about too much. We always insisted on a quick tidy before dinner and everything has to be put away before they finally go to bed, so now it is an established routine.

Now they're a bit older most of the time they will tidy when asked to, but if not then "Drill Sgt Daddy" is currently proving effective. Now I'm not talking Gunnery Sergeant Hartman here. It generally goes one of two ways:

There's the telling them they have 5 or 10 minutes to do it themselves followed by "inspection" with anything left out pointed out so they've got a chance to quickly grab it before I can put it in the oops box.

Or a firmer approach of what can at times be a near constant stream of simple instructions but delivered with a firm clear "Daddy not happy" voice to child 1 put xxx away, child 2 put yyy away etc - but always with a please and thank-you. This means they don't get a chance to get distracted and know that trouble is not far away if they continue to push their luck. And if they're doing it well a bit of silliness tends to creep in to the act to lighten the mood 'cos at the end of the day they're good kids really.

And then the reward at the end of dinner, cartoon, bed-time story or getting out one of the bigger toys now they've cleared some space to play in.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .