10 Ways to Motivate Small Children to Clean Their Room

A black and white picture of a kid's bedroom with toys all over the floor and baskets on the table.           

As a mom of two littles (ages 3 and 5), getting my kids to clean their room after playtime is the bane of my existence; so I’ve come up with numerous ways to motivate my small children to clean their room. I feel that knowing how to clean up a room is an important life skill that everyone should learn (and trust me, it’s a learned skill, a habit, and not something that comes intuitively to everyone!). That being said, I also think that if my kids are old enough to make the mess, they’re probably old enough to help clean it up.

I have bad knees, so getting down on the hard floors to help them clean up their toys every day is extremely painful for me. My goal is to motivate them to clean their rooms as autonomously as possible. At this age, that’s nearly impossible, but I have gotten them to the point where all I really have to do is supervise.

I have lots of different methods that I’ve come up with and rotate through because not every tactic works every time. My kids are motivated by different things depending on their moods, so I have to switch it up frequently, and I’m always thinking about new things I can try (necessity is the mother of invention, right?).

I started using these types of tactics when Charlotte was 2, and now she’s 5 and has a 3-year-old little brother, Teddy. I can see that they’re being internalized, because on separate occasions, I’ve had each child come to me and say, “Mama, I just cleaned my room all by myself!” The other sibling had been in bed, and they just got up and started doing it! And no, this is not a joke. Teddy did it a couple of months ago when Charlotte was “needing a little space,” in her bed, and Charlotte did it just the other day while Teddy was napping.

So if you’re having trouble getting your littles to help clean up, check out this list, try a few of these out, and let me know which ones are your favorites!

Note Before We Begin

I just wanted to mention that we don’t actually keep all of the kids’ toys in their room. More than half of their toys live on a special shelf in the living room. When they want a toy from the living room shelf, they have to “trade in” a toy from their room. The reason for this is actually 2-fold: 1. It keeps them from dumping every single toy bucket out on their floor every day. Trust me, we’ve gone through that, and it was a nightmare to get the room cleaned every day. 2. It means that their toys are in a rotation. When they get kind of bored with something, they trade it in. The “new” toy may have been sitting on the shelf for a month or two, and suddenly feels new and fresh and exciting because they haven’t played with it in a while.

I do have a couple of rules regarding trading toys that I thought I would share, too. Their room MUST be clean before they can trade anything. Also, certain toys are traded in as “like for like.” For instance, they have 3 different kinds of blocks. They can only have 1 style of blocks in their room at a time (otherwise cleaning up time is overwhelming with how many are all over the place). Same goes for their animal figurines – they can only have 1 style out at a time (they have 4 styles, ocean creatures, land creatures, horses, and wooden animals).

1.      Pick ‘Em Up, Sort ‘Em Out (aka “The Bucket Game”)

This was actually one of the first things I did to get my kids to help with clean up time, and it worked REALLY well when they were 2 and didn’t fully understand the concept of sorting. When Charlotte was little, we assisted with the sort ‘em out stage, but when Teddy was 2, Charlotte was old enough to do the sorting if he did the picking up. Here’s how it worked for us at that stage:

We would put a big bucket or plastic tub in the middle of the room. We would line up all of the different little toys tubs and baskets in a row. Then, Teddy would run around the room scooping up toys and tossing them into the big bucket. Charlotte would take the toys out of the big bucket and sort them into their proper homes. We even made it a game to see if Charlotte could get the bucket empty before Teddy picked up all the toys (this was actually a pretty evenly matched game!).

2.      “The Minute Game”

The timer game was one of the very first motivational tactics I came up with to get my kids moving, and we have used it with other friends when they come to play, or when I babysit! I would set a timer for one minute at a time, and they would race to see how many toys they could put away in one minute.

It’s important to keep the time increment large enough that they can actually clean up a good number of toys, but small enough that they don’t lose focus. For this age, I found that 1-2 minutes is ideal.

You can have each child count their number separately and make it a mini-competition, or you can have them tally together for teamwork.

3.      “The Timer Game”

Another timer variation where you start a stop watch and see how quickly they can finish cleaning the room. They can compete against themselves from the previous day to see if they can do it quicker. If cleaning the whole room is too big of a goal, you can try having them clean something specific: “How quickly can you clean up the blocks? How about the stuffed animals?”

A picture of a little boy holding up two blocks, fitted into each other.

4.      Sting High-Fives

One of the best bribes for my kids have been “Sting High-Fives.” I give them a certain type of toy to clean up (stuffed animals, dress up clothes, blocks, etc) and when they finish cleaning that, they get to give me a “Sting High-Five” (they try to make the high-five as hard they can so it “stings” my hand). Being 3 and 5 years old, we’re just happy when they actually high-five my hand instead of missing and hitting the couch.

A black and white picture of two small kids putting wooden blocks away.

5.      Pick a Song

This is a great one for my kids, who LOVE music of all kinds. I instruct one kid to clean up one thing, and the other to clean up another. The first to finish cleaning their type of toy gets to pick a song for me to play on my phone for them to listen to. While they listen to the song, the “winner” helps the “loser” finish cleaning up the toys they didn’t finish. (Note: I NEVER use the terms “winner” and “loser” with my kids, and I’m only using them here for the sake of clarity.)

6.      What’s At Your Feet?

This one took a little work in the beginning because the concept seemed lost on my kids. Basically, whenever they put something in a bucket, they would find the next nearest toy and then put that away. This works well when you spread the tubs/buckets around the room.

To get them to understand, I would have them put something away and then yell, “Freeze! What’s at your feet?” They would look down, spot the nearest toy, and pick it up. If the nearest toy wasn’t directly at their feet, they turned it into a game where they would jump closer to it (“hop like a bunny”) before picking it up.

A black and white picture of a little boy holding an armful of stuffed animals. In the background his older sister is putting stuffed animals away in a drawer.

7.      Gummy Bears (aka “The Full-On Bribe”)

The other day we had a home inspection (our apartment complex is for sale), and I was absolutely desperate to get the kids to clean their room as quickly as possible while I worked on other areas of the house. Enter: the full-on bribe! I bought a small bag of organic bulk gummy bears from Sprouts the other day and it served as the PERFECT bribe to get the kiddos to clean! Every time they finished cleaning a type of toy, they got one gummy bear.

(Remember how I keep most of the toys in the living room so only a handful are in the bedroom? This is important, as each kid only ended up getting about 3-4 gummy bears! If all of the toys had been in the bedroom, they each would have ended up with about 10 gummy bears and it probably would have resulted in a major sugar rush during the inspection! Haha)

A black and white picture of a little boy putting on a cat hat. In the background is his older sister, also wearing a cat hat.

8.      Playing Pretend

Charlotte actually came up with this one the other day, but it worked so well that I’m including it here for you guys! While they were cleaning, she picked up one of their baskets and pretended she was picking peaches and putting them in baskets as she cleaned her room. It was absolutely adorable, and Teddy was more than happy to join her as a “peach picker.”

When they got bored playing peach picker, they found kitty cat hats and started playing kitten clean-up. They meowed and traveled around the room on hands and knees like kittens and pretended to pick toys up with their mouths (they did not ACTUALLY pick them up with their mouths, but held the toys next to their mouths as they carried them to their buckets).

A black and white picture of a little boy cleaning his room in a cat hat.

9.      Toy Toss

This one is Teddy’s favorite! We take the buckets and tubs and line them up, and he gets to toss the toys into them from 1-2 feet away (he’s 3, and his aim isn’t great). It’s pretty simple, and best played with toys that be tossed without getting damaged or damaging anything else (great for the squeaky blocks and the bean bags, not so great for the giant wood blocks!).

This motivational tactic is also great because it serves double duty in working on hand-eye coordination with your kiddo as they clean.

A black and white picture of a little boy hugging a stuffed owl.

10. Color, Number and Letter Sound Practice

Speaking of serving double duty – this one does, too! We homeschool, so incorporating learning into our normal daily activities is second-nature to me, and practically a requirement. This is a great one if you aren’t in a rush to get their room clean.

For Teddy, I’ll ask him to pick up all the red (or blue or yellow) toys he can find. Or I might ask him to find 7 trains, 4 stuffed animals, or 6 wooden blocks. He can work on his colors and counting while he cleans up.

For Charlotte, we have graduated to more complex ideas. I’ll ask her to find toys that start with the “B” sound (blocks, balls, bears) or toys that rhyme with “fall” (ball, doll). I’ve also labeled the tubs in their room with what toys go inside. It’s her job to read the labels and make sure they are putting the appropriate toys in each tub (Mr. Potato Head, Octonauts, Wooden Blocks).

I really hope you like my list of 10 ways to motivate small children to clean their room, and I hope some of these tactics work for you and your family! If you have any other ideas to get kids to clean their room, let me know! If I get enough new ideas, maybe I’ll make a round-up list of your guys’ ideas, too!!