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5 Tips for Cleaning Up Open Ended Play

Open ended play is amazing right? Your child takes, for example, a bunch of blocks and builds an amazing city with them. Then, takes out toy cars and drives them around the town. Then, maybe some people figures, or some magnatiles. It's amazing, so creative and engaging for your child. But, let's be honest with ourselves here for a minute. It's also a huge mess. A beautiful, awesome, purposeful mess. And, that can be really hard for some children to clean up - I know it can be difficult for my own children. 

So, I wanted to share some tips that I have found the make the process of cleaning up open ended play a lot more pleasant for myself and the kids. Using these tips, over time my children have become more independent in tackling these larger messes. 

5 tips for making clean up of open ended toys a successful process - here are few things to keep in mind as your children learn to clean up from larger messes.

Before I get into the tips, I did want to make one comment about respecting "a mess" when your children aren't done. I know there are plenty of times when my children are engaged in awesome open ended play but we have to leave. I don't, in these moments, force my children to put away their toys. If they are still working with a material, I let it remain out. I don't personally find it respectful to force them to be done stretching their own creativity in these moments. It's when my kids have moved on to something else or have declared that they are done that we start to make sure things are restored. 

This post contains affiliate links at no cost to you. 

Prepare Your Environment for Clean Up

Tip number 1 is to prepare your environment for clean up from the beginning. Your play space should be orderly and organized, so that your children understand where to restore their toys too. Make sure your environment is easy for them to navigate and the intended order is clear. Often, I find that baskets are a great way to organize open ended toys -- like model animals, building blocks, or magnatiles. If the order is clear, your children will be able to clean up a lot easier. Don't make the order too complicated so that your children can't restore without your help. 

Model and Be Present 

Second, be ready to model - especially if cleaning is a new expectation for your children or if your children are younger. If you are newer to Montessori or if your children haven't been expected to restore their work from birth then you need to be able to model the process. Show them that cleaning is a joyful and necessary part of the process. Don't make it a chore, treat it just like showing your child any other life skill. And, even if your kids are used to it, modeling will help reenforce those skills. 

Same goes for younger children {here are some more tips for cleaning with toddlers} they will need you to show them those expectations. Bottom line, keep your expectations in check for how much your children can do it independently and make this a joyful part of the process. 

Give Choices 

Choice is always an important part of a Montessori environment. Whether it is the freedom of choice of activity, or the freedom to move children should always be presented with choice in a situation. Plus, this can help to avoid a lot of power struggles. So, if you find your children are stuck with cleaning up an open ended mess - give a choice. "Would you like to clean up the red blocks or the blue blocks?" "Should we clean the cars or the roads first?" Things like that can often give your child agency in the situation and make it easier to complete the small tasks. 

Allow For Exploration

Just because your children are cleaning up doesn't mean they don't have a need to explore the things around them. They do! And, exploration can be a beautiful part of the clean up process. For example, the other day Gus and Nora and I were cleaning up from a large open ended play session. And, Gus started to gather magnatiles to clean up. Except only squares. While that wasn't the most efficient way to clean up, he was exploring a property of the blocks that I may not have considered in that moment. His learning, his sense of order, his process was no less important than if we had been "playing." Just remember that clean up doesn't have to be a miserable process, but one that still includes manipulating materials and respect for your child. 

5 tips for making clean up of open ended toys a successful process - here are few things to keep in mind as your children learn to clean up from larger messes.

Distractions Happen 

Finally, keep in mind that this may not be a completely straightforward process. Your child might get distracted with another work, or with exploration. And, that's alright. Allow them a break, stay present, and then offer a choice to reengage. Think about how you work, is it always from start to finish one less than desirable task? Or do you take some mental breaks with something you enjoy? I know I do - hello checking Instagram while folding laundry! The same is for your child. Allow that distraction then reengage. 

So, for example, when we were cleaning that same mess I was describing above, a puzzle caught Nora's eye. I watched her pull it out, complete it and restore back to her shelf. Then, at that point, I gave a choice to reengage her with picking up. The distraction lasted maybe 3 minutes, but she came back ready to focus again on cleaning up. 

There you go! To summarize, it's a hearty dose of making sure you've prepared the environment and keep you own expectations in check. Then engage your children via modeling and choice. Over time, it becomes easier and more manageable and your can slowly step back from that process!

5 tips for making clean up of open ended toys a successful process - here are few things to keep in mind as your children learn to clean up from larger messes.


How do you manage open ended mess? Have any tips? 
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