You ask your child to clean his room and the result is tears, frustration or tantrums.

There are many things you can do to avoid this response. It is important you realize that children have cognitive limits to organizing and to work within those boundaries unil the child is ready for harder clean up tasks.

Children follow developmental sequences in mastering cognitive tasks that progress with age. This includes sorting and classifying objects. The following are scientifically researched guidelines for what children are capable of when cleaning.

Three and four year olds can sort colors and shapes. Sorting means you ask the child to focus on one attribute of an object at a time. For example,  say “pick up all the yellow things and put them in this box”. At  4 and 5 years old, most children can classify shapes and colors. This means children can hold 3 different attributes in their mind at one time. So at that point, you can say that yellows go in this box, the blues go in this box and the greens go in this box. Once they can classify colors and shapes, the next level at five years old is sorting by size (small, medium, large).

The next level is sorting by function.  This is a big jump forward intellectually. Until now, they have only been able to focus on externalities: size, color, shape. Function means they are looking at the what the object does. “Please put all the animals that swim in the ocean into this bin”. Or “all the objects that fly in the air go in this shoe box”. Once they get the hang of that, they will be able to classify by function.

The next level is articulating why already sorted objects are arranged a certain way. They will then be able to verbally label the single common denominator of a group. For example, they will be able to articulate that all the objects in a pile are large. Next they will be able to determine the differences in classification- one pile is for trucks, another is for boats, and the third is for bicycles.

Lastly, they will be able to classify objects into groups based on multiple characteristics at once. For instance, they wil be able to separate yellow fish, green frog, yellow frog, and green fish from each other.

If we know what children are developmentally capable of, cleaning up a room becomes much easier! For more information on helping your child clean his room, read the article “How to Get Your Child to Clean Up His Room”.


Hirsch, E., & WIggins, A. K. (2009). Preschool sequence and teacher handbook.
Charlottesville, West Virginia: Core Knowledge Foundation.