7 Tips to keep child-initiated play under control

Child-initiated play without a huge mess

An early years teacher shared her struggle with child-initiated play and tidying up after that on a forum.

“We have long periods of child initiated, but my classroom is always a mess! The children get stuff out but never put it away once they’ve played with it so tidy up time is manic! I’ve got things labelled, and there are open baskets, so they can ‘see what is in them’. I am constantly tripping over stuff, and they are treading on a lot of things but just don’t seem to care. At the moment, we have very ‘basic’ stuff out because of this. Am I missing a trick somewhere?”

I think it is a common problem for both teachers and parents so I would like to address this issue and give you some hands-on tips.

I remember, when I first started to work in a nursery, I was dreading the tidy up time… I didn’t know how to teach children to tidy up and when they began to play, I could see how it will possibly end: with an incredible mess and crying.

Later on, I’ve learnt some effective tactics from my fantastic colleagues that I would like to share with you now.


How to keep child-initiated play under control and how to teach children to take care of their toys?

My opinion is, that we need to help our children understand why they need to put away the toys and why they should take care of them, plus we need to show them how. Children before the age of 3 might not fully understand the concept of it, but we still need to remind them and show good examples. Let’s make playtime a fun time for us as well!

Taking care of the environment and toys

Show a good example.

Children learn a lot by copying you (and others), so be aware of your actions. Try to show a good example by taking care of your environment such as by cleaning, tidying up or gardening, and using tools and other things appropriately and show appreciation towards the things you have.

During playtime (taking care of toys).

When you see the children playing rough with the toys, or they don’t use them properly, just go and tell them/show them how to do it and explain them why and what the consequences will be, for example, the toy will be broken, and they won’t be able to use it after that. If it is possible, ask them to fix the toy.

Taking care of the environment.

If you see the children causing some kind of damage to the environment, for example, they draw on the wall, explain to them why they shouldn’t do such thing and ask them to remove the drawing (help them if it is necessary).

By showing a good example, giving explanations and asking children to take responsibility will help them to understand the concept of taking care of the environment and toys so that any type of play will go smoother and children will be more and more independent.

How to keep child-initiated play organised with toddlers?

Child-initiated or child-led play has lots of benefits and experts say that it should be implemented into the daily routine of every nursery. A child-initiated play is when children decide what to, where to and how to play without the interruption of adults. Through this type of play, children develop and improve skills such as social, physical, communication and problem-solving skills.

Start it as early as possible

Let your children lead and play by themselves sometimes, so that they will learn as many things as they can at an early age such as taking care of and adapting to their environment, respecting others’ opinion and getting more confident.

What can you do?

  • Create a safe environment.
  • Offer toys and activity ideas at the beginning if it is necessary.
  • Let children make their own decisions and rules.
  • Supervise their play, support them without interrupting.
  • Observe their play to get to know their likes and dislikes, and to come up with next/follow up activities in the future.

Keep it under control.

If you teach your child to take care of the environment and his toys, he will be more likely to do the same when he plays freely with his peers. When it comes to child-initiated play, observe the children and “interrupt” them when it is needed, for example when they are about to hurt themselves or others or when they don’t know how to play with certain toys and use certain tools. Also, you can keep it under control by…

Setting up some rules.

Even if it is a child-initiated play, you can set up some rules before the fun begins (especially for little children). Be clear and tell children what you expect from them, for example:

Indoor play:

  • Choose a child or children who will decide what to play with. We used to choose the ‘activity helpers’, so everybody had a turn by the end of the week.
  • If you don’t want to choose a child or children, then select a range of toys they can choose from.
  • Tell children how many toys they can play with at the same time, and if they want to take another toy, they have to ask your permission or put one toy back. They will have enough space to play properly and tidy up time will take much less so there will be more time for fun!
  • Let them know how long they can play. For example, you can say that they have 30 minutes and when they hear you saying that it is ‘Tidy up time!’, they have to put the toys away. (you can set an alarm that goes off after 30 minutes or ring a bell, so children will know when to tidy up, or you can give them warnings such as ‘I will count to 5, and when I say 5 you will stop playing and put the toys away)

Outdoor play:

  • You can prevent accidents by setting up some rules, for example ‘Ride the bicycles on the road only, because…’ or ‘Keep the mud at the mud kitchen area, because…’
  • Let the children know how long they are going to play and what will happen when you say, ‘Tidy up time’.

Extra tips to make tidying up easy

  • Lead by example; tidy up after yourself.
  • Let the children know exactly what you want from them. Tell them how long they can play and that you are going to tell them when it is time for tidy up.
  • Tell them how to tidy up, and you can help them by giving the boxes to them and putting some toys away to show a good example.

Either way, you prepare and have child-initiated play in your setting, the key here is to help children understand why taking care of toys and the environment is important and what are the benefits of tidying up. Also, of course as always, show a good example and tell the children how long they can play and what will happen when you say, ‘Tidy up time’.

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Hi, it's Eva and I am an Early Years and Parenting Consultant. Here, I am sharing my knowledge about child development and experience in teaching. Have a look around and follow me on SNS to keep in touch!

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