Dear Miss Faith,
My 2.9 y.o. girl loves to make “nests” in every room of our house. This is something I would normally be fine with, and in fact I recall doing something similar as a child, but my darling girl likes to pile all her puzzles, wooden food, toy trains, stuffed animals, pillows, books, and even the comforters off our beds! I love that she’s engaged and playing by herself, and she has a fabulous time, but I don’t want to spend all my evenings sorting out the mess, and we often get into battles of the wills when I attempt to get her to help clean up (she would rather just leave everything out, of course). How do you suggest I deal with this in a gentle way that will get her to cooperate, and keep the nesting under control?
I can completely picture all of that great “nesting” play, but how frustrating it must also be for you to be cleaning up all the time. At almost three years old, this is something that you can absolutely address.
At this age, one approach that might work would be to change the Rules. One option for this is to announce that there’s a new Rule in your house, and that is Rule is: there can only be one nest at a time. It’s up to you whether you want her to put her nest away as soon as she’s done playing with it, or if she can have one nest “in reserve” at any given time, but needs to clean it up if she wants to make another. Either could work, but both have a few things that would need to happen in order for the new Rule to be successful.
Be Ready to Help Every Time
Cleaning up big messes can be overwhelming for anyone, and are likely to be especially overwhelming for your daughter, since she doesn’t have any experience doing it. Your consistency is going to be what makes or breaks the success of this new Rule. So, make up your mind right now that you’re not going to be annoyed that you have to remind her EVERY time. Teach her how to ask you for help in ways that make you want to say “yes” to her (“You can say, ‘Help please, Mommy'”), and be prepared to help her every time, for quite a long time. Even once she learns to do it herself, she will not be able to do it alone every time; she will still need your verbal, energetic, and sometimes physical help, depending on whether she’s tired, etc.
Make It Fun
As you teach her how to clean up, and as you help every time, be sure to transform the process of cleaning up from drudgery into fun. Let cleaning up be as enjoyable as possible. “What?! Puzzle pieces! Where do THESE go? Do they go here?” (put them on your bed). “Do they go here?” (put them on her head, etc.) If cleaning up goes on for ages, pretend like you’re getting really tired, dragging along. “This is taking SOOOO LONG! What can we do to help it go faster?” Then maybe you guys can come up with a fun game to make it go faster: pretend like you’re bunnies hopping each Easter Egg to its hiding place. Pretend like you’re race cars zooming around. If cleaning up is fun and engaging too, then it doesn’t have to be a huge chore that everyone dreads. Soon she can come up with ways to make it fun, too.
Set Yourself Up for Success
The more things you have, the harder is to put things back when EVERYTHING’s out of place. So you have a couple of options here: you could limit the types of things that she can use in her nests, or you could limit the number of things that are available. I personally think that the second option is the easier way to go. Is she actually playing with the puzzles and the trains and the toy food except to pile them up? If not, put them in a box and wait till she’s a bit older to get them out. For the things that she does play with, winnow them down to just one or two of each type of toy, unless she really does interact with each of them individually. Fewer toys mean fewer things to put away, and I’ve heard again and again from parents that their kids play more deeply when they get rid of the clutter of too many toys. This doesn’t make much sense until you think about “stuff” like graphic design: if you see an ad or brochure that’s jam-packed with text, your eyes glaze over and not much of it really registers. Text only jumps out at you if it’s surrounded by space. This is exactly the same for children: if there is space around a toy, it stands out and is special. So cut back on your toys and see if that helps.
You could also start limiting the types of materials that can be used in making nests. Maybe set up a closet or a dresser full of nest-y materials, but suggest that wooden & plastic toys stay out of the nests. It’s up to you how insistent you want to be about this, but one big Rule change at a time might be enough; you don’t want to micro-manage her play. So perhaps they’re just suggestions; you decide what would work best for and makes life easier for you and for her.
Finally, I think it’s very important that you let her know that the Rules are changing. “Up till now, you’ve made your nests and I’ve always cleaned them up once you go to sleep. But now that you’re almost three, you’re big enough that it’s time for us to clean up each nest together. I’ll teach you how! So, there’s a new Rule: only ONE NEST AT A TIME in our house, from now on. I’ll help you clean up whenever you need help; you can just say, ‘Will you help me, please, Mom?’ and then we can do it together.” Remind her of this new change as many times as necessary, be compassionate that big changes like this take real effort (both for her and for you; self-compassion may be necessary as well), and remember to make cleaning up the nests as fun and inviting as possible.
Does all of this sound feasible? Yes, it’ll be work on your part, but now that she’s almost three, she can really start taking a more active role in cleaning up. Also, remember that you’re “front-loading” the work: putting in a lot of effort now, so that you can sit back and reap the benefits for years to come.
Warmly, ~Miss Faith