mom holding girls hand on the way into school

Kids Making a Mess: The 20 Item Tidy Up Solution

Are your kids making a mess and driving you slowly insane? I gotta say, I’m extremely disciplined about household clutter, and we STILL struggle with remembering to pick up toys! My kids are six, three, and 9 months currently. I’ve got a solution called “The 20 Item Tidy Up” that always works in a pinch, though, and I’m excited to teach you how to do it today.

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Why You Should Care About Your Kids Making a Mess

Some of y’all are the easy, carefree types, and I envy you with every cell of my being. It would be FABULOUS if I were wired to just enjoy my little people without a thought about the clutter and chaos. I’ve seen those signs in Hobby Lobby that say, “Please excuse the mess – my children are making memories,” and I think to myself, “I guess my children are going to have memories of doing chores.”

It’s okay to not care about your kids making a mess. I’m actually trying to be more than way. But  you should care about them learning how to clean it up in the aftermath. Here’s why.


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    You’re going slowly insane.

    The mess is getting under your skin, and you don’t want to live surrounded by plastic parts and wooden trains. No one can blame you for feeling a little nuts. If you’re always stressed, is it possible the mess is contributing, with or without you realizing it?

    Being tidy and organized is a life skill they need.

    There’s no need to feel guilty about making them pick up their toys. You’re doing them a favor, really. Are you trying to raise a slob? Nope.

    Gaining life skills is one way kids grow in confidence. I’ve got a post called 16 Self Esteem Activities for Kids that talks about giving your kids more independence to help with self esteem.

    They learn ownership of shared space.

    Kids need to learn that they share responsibility for more than just their own spaces. If kids are only ever required to clean their own bedroom, they don’t learn to value sharing the home together as a family. 

    messy living room at christmas time

    Why Your Kids are Making a Mess

    Have you ever worked your butt off all day and then entered a room to discover it had been wrecked in the past fifteen minutes? Of course you have! Every mom has experienced this misery, and then thrown her head back to the heavens shouting, “WHYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!” Why does this keep happening?

    Your kids are making a mess because that’s what kids do.

    Yes, kids making a mess is a normal thing. Come to think of it, adults making a mess is a normal thing, too. After all, we don’t put our things back where they belong 100% of the time, either. But it’s definitely more annoying when kids do it, right? That doesn’t mean that we don’t work toward improvement. Kids are naturally messy, especially the creative types. But messy kids need to become organized, tidy adults. 

    putting away messy books and toys

    They’re not afraid of the consequences.

    I hate to preach at ya, because I’m guilty of this problem in other areas of my kids’ upbringing. However, I’m super consistent with consequences when it comes to making a mess. I know it’s easy right now because my kids are young, so if you’ve got teenagers, I’m not sure this will be helpful to you. Basically, my kids know if they make a mess, they’ll clean it up every single time. And not tomorrow, either. Not even later, before bed. Messes get cleaned up before any other fun thing happens.

    Want a snack? Yay, me too! Clean your mess and then we can have a bite.

    Oh, you want to watch a movie? Sounds like a great idea! First pick up the trains.

    You get the idea. My three year old will absolutely throw a fit over this requirement, once in a blue moon. It was especially bad the first couple of times he wrecked his room during nap time. But he learned not to do that anymore, because I didn’t back down on my tidy-up demands after nap time. I remained in the room and helped with the stuff he legitimately couldn’t do alone so he wouldn’t be completely defeated. But he did 80% of the work.

    Don’t forget: you can also read them this timeless classic before you show ’em what’s up.

    Their toys are too plentiful and/or poorly organized. 

    Kids are just like adults in many ways. If their toys are poorly organized or if there are too many of them, they’ll procrastinate tidying up. It’s just not very fun when nothing really has a proper home. Want more on this topic? Check out my post called “Why Your Sweet, Grateful Kids Won’t Play with Their Toys.”

    tidy up little messes

    Why the 20 Item Tidy Up Solution Really Works

    Sometimes, when I’ve been distracted by other chores, I don’t notice little messes accumulating around the house. The next thing I know, it’s 11:30 am and there’s a creeping sense of chaos and mess around the house even before I make lunches. It’s the perfect time for a 20 Item Tidy Up. Another good time is the end of the work day. Here’s why the 20 Item Tidy Up really works. 

    There’s always an end in sight.

    When little kids look around at a great big mess, they feel overwhelmed just like we do. But with a 20 Item Tidy Up, you’re basically saying, “You don’t have to do ALL of this.” There’s a definite end in sight, and it’s 20 items.

    kids making a mess but put back toys

    It improves counting and facilitates mastery of 1-1 correspondence.

    When both of my older kids were in the 2-3 year age range, they learned to count during 20 Item Tidy Up. Most kids can memorize how to count to 20, but one-to-one correspondence is understanding that each number is assigned to an individual item. You stop counting when you run out of items. It’s not an easy skill to learn, and you may not even notice your children mastering it. 

    It’s customizable for different ages.

    My six year old does a 20 Item Tidy Up, but my three year old does a 10 Item Tidy Up. That’s all his attention span and frustration level can handle, and you want the task to be realistic for your child. You may be able to start small, and with practice, they can get to 20 items. I don’t recommend more than 20 at any age; the purpose of the activity is to quickly (and frequently) get the boost of a quick cleaning win.

    tidy up little messes

    The 20 Item Tidy Up stops bickering and blaming among siblings. 

    I can’t stand it when brothers and sisters fuss about who made the mess originally. We are a team around here, and I don’t care who made the mess. We’re all going to work together to clean it. The 20 Item Tidy Up allows kids to gather messes from any part of the house. They will likely clean their own messes because they know where to put those things back, but you won’t hear as much fussing about whose toys are out of sorts. 

    It can be “played” collaboratively or competitively.

    If you’ve got small people, it’s often better to do activities collaboratively, so you don’t have to deal with temper tantrums and hurt feelings. As kids get older and more evenly matched, the 20 Item Tidy Up can become a race against each other rather than a race against the clock. 

    How to Implement a 20 Item Tidy Up

    So let’s get down to it. Here’s how it works!

    Find a right-sized basket for each participant.

    Each kid needs their own basket, box or bag that can be easily carried or dragged around the house. My kids use laundry hampers or baskets. Do not purchase a basket for this, Mama! Resist the urge to accumulate – it makes your life more difficult. 

    right sized basket for kids making a mess

    Create a cleaning playlist.

    This activity will only take about 10 minutes, so you don’t need lots of music. Here’s a playlist on Spotify that’s perfect for the pre-k crowd.

    Remember that we all need a little cleaning inspiration. For my own tidy-ups, I prefer 90s gangsta rap like all good moms. 

    Kids (and possibly adults) put 20 misplaced items in their basket from anywhere in the house.

    Here’s where they get to independently practice counting. You can also help and cheerlead. They can find misplaced items from anywhere in the house. Resist the urge to be controlling over this part of the process. If you do frequent 20 Item Tidy Ups during the day, whatever mess is REALLY bother you will eventually get tackled. You want it to be more fun and manageable than most cleaning jobs.

    The best part of it is that as long as you’ve got more than one kid, you’re cleaning more than 20 things. You know the old saying, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” And the dream is a house that you don’t want to set on fire, amiright?

    basket of toys for cleaning

    The adult confirms 20 items and helps child count, if appropriate. 

    The child brings the basket to you, and together, you count out the 20 items – or 10, or whatever other number you chose. This is partly for accountability, but also to get in some counting practice. 

    All items are returned to their rightful spots.

    Finally, you just encourage the kid to put everything back where it belongs. This part will go much better if your organizational systems are functional. You can motivate kids with a prize at the end if they finish before an alarm goes off, or you can let them race against each other. They could also try to beat previous times.

    kids making a mess

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