Why Child's Play is Tough on Parents Part 2: The Mess

Keep the play. Lose the mess.

Posted Jan 13, 2011

I think one of the dark secrets of parenting is that we really LIKE our kids to play with play stations, video games, and iphones.


The kids keep themselves busy, have fun, don't bother us, and it doesn't make a mess.

I talked about the first issue - that kids want our attention when they play - in my first post.  This post focuses on the second problem: CHAOS.

The very best parenting - usually referred to as 'authoritative' - balances the child's need to express themselves and bend the world to their needs with the need for the child to accommodate their behavior to work and play well with others. 

When thinking about creative play, that means letting them play - cut up origami paper, run cars across the floor, go through the closets and turn pots and pans into an orchestra.  But it also means that they need to do it in a way that lets other people use the house.

If you're stressed because the house is a mess, that's not good for anyone.

How to reach that balance?  

Don't isolate play. 

The way many people - especially those with the luxury of large homes - deal with this problem is through isolation.  The 'family room' or 'playroom' is where the kids can make messes that the parents can ignore.  Yes, it's knee deep in there, but it's not my problem.  I just close the door.

This is a mistake for several reasons:

  • It's no fun to play in a mess. How many times has your child tried to bring their toys into the living room because their own room didn't have enough floor space to really sprawl out? If it feels cluttered and stressful to you, it does to them too.
  • Isolating the mess encourages it to stay a mess. It's like the back of the closet - out of sight, out of mind.
  • Kids who play in isolation become teenagers who are out of sight. Embracing your child's leisure within the life of the family lets them share it with you, and those are investments that have long term benefits.
  • You can't play with them if you're not with them. A big part of the fun of playing is talking about what you're doing. If the kids are off in another part of the house, doing that becomes an effort. Besides, you're not there when they decide to pour the bottle of glue into the rug.

Keep the mess out of the way. 

If they're playing in the whole family's space, that means you all have to live together (it's called a LIVING room for a reason, right?).  It doesn't mean they need to dump their blocks in the middle of the floor.

  • Encourage kids to play on the table and not on the floor. That way you don't have to walk around them. You can even make sure there's a table that can stay covered with toys when they take on a big project.
  • If they need the floor, keep it out of the major traffic flow. My youngest has enough legos to recreate Western civilization. He loves to dump them out on the floor to make it easy to find his favorite oddball pieces. If he does it in the corner, we can still walk through the room, watch the fireplace, or stretch out with a book. And even if it stays there for a day, I can walk across the floor at night without crippling myself.

Make cleanup easy.  

Good nursery schools are full of toys and kids.  They are also pretty neat.  Why?  They're good at cleanup.

  • Have kids clean up AS SOON AS THEY'RE FINISHED. Yes, it takes discipline. No, it doesn't take a lot of time. If they do it in little bits as part of the process, it becomes a good habit.  Nursery schools do it.  You can to.  It's a matter of making it stick.
  • Make a fast sweep before bedtime. At bedtime, tell them to put on pajamas, check to make sure toys are off the floor, brush their teeth. If they do that every day they have a fresh start in the morning.  And you can remenisce about their fun as they fall asleep.
  • Lots of little pieces? PLAY ON A BLANKET. Before my youngest dumps his legos, he lays a big quilt on the floor to catch them. When he's done, he scoops everything onto it, picks up the corners, and pours them all into their bin. Less than a minute and so much easier.
  • Use bins. Big toy boxes make it hard to find things and can have heavy, dangerous lids. Maybe some kids can neatly stack all their toys in nice lines, but none of them live in my household. Bins are a nice in between. Keep things played with together in the same place (e.g., paper, scissors, glue, paints, crayons). Different size bins can accommodate different size toys.  Dump everything in. You're finished. There's a reason nursery schools use them.
  • Bins with handles can be moved to where it's convenient. All the Barbies go into one bin with a handle. If the kitchen table is busy, carry it to the living room or onto the bed. Toys should be at your service, not you at theirs.

All the toys don't have to be out all the time. 

There is something to be said for the idea that less is more.  Cycle through their toys.  Have four or five toys easily accessible and the rest out of sight.  They'll develop a deeper appreciation of and play BETTER with a few toys than they will if they dabble in this, that and the other.  When they seem bored with one, put it away and bring out another.  If they want something put away, they'll be able to find it.  You'll see more play and buy fewer things.  And fewer toys are always easier to clean up than more of them

Play is one of the most important things that kids do.  The easier you make it for both you and them, the happier you'll both be.

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

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