24 Tips for Cleaning up Art Messes with Children

What are your tried and true strategies for cleaning up art messes with your child?

I presented this question to some friends and the smart crowd on my Facebook page, and they came back with a variety of ideas. Some of these are my own favorites, and a few are new-to-me. My hope is that you’ll find an idea or two in here that will work for you too!

24 tips from real parents for cleaning up art messes with children


Everything has a basket!  – Melissa H.

Clear, Bins and Buckets!!   – Sign & Shine

We have bins and baskets for art supplies so my kids know where to find what they are looking for and where to put things away so the next person can find it. But, I let my kids organize their own toys. I find they have very different organizational reasoning than I do. I was trying to put construction toys together, and play kitchen toys together, etc. But they organize their toys according to what adventures they are planning. Sometimes they put anything long and stick-like together so they can defend the universe and other times they just want to see how much they can fit into one bucket. As long as things are picked up off the floor on occasion, I’m happy. I get the thoughts behind fostering independence and responsibility and all that, but I don’t feel it is my job to impose labels and order on everything. Let the children decide where things belong and why. They will change their reasoning quite frequently. Chaos is part of creativity.  – Karin C.

Labels Labels Labels! Using picture labels on plastic containers helps kids to develop a sense of independence while cleaning up. You could even go so far as to label the container and shelf where the container belongs with a picture of the object-and as the child gets older the name of the object. The more sense their world makes, the more in control they can be! I teach a full class of 4 and 5 year olds and their parents are always amazed at how clean my classroom is and I don’t have to lift a finger!  – Tara K.

Too much order in cleaning up, I believe makes it too complex for the kids to put things away. If you let them put things away in a semi-ordered manner then they are more likely to contribute. For example, 3 bins for Kitchen toys, bins for creativity (coloring, stickers, glues, etc). At least, my experience has been more cooperation with more control to them. – Tina D.

paint on the floor

Have clean-up supplies handy

When doing art I try to clean as we go along and make sure I have everything we need close by and ready to go…. such as if we are painting I always have a wet wash cloth my little guy can use it to wash his hands when we are done so he doesnt have to go all the way to the sink, I also have warm soapy water, and try to clean spills as they happen.  – Chelsea S.

We use materials that can be cleaned up; washable paint, shaving cream, play dough, mud. While the kids are working I keep a damp rag close by for quick spot cleaning. These projects are saved for when Daddy is not home, it’s more fun when he’s not cringing in the background. (And I know there are very few messes that can’t be cleaned up… makes it easier to relax and have fun.)  – Jillian R.

We have a dedicated art space and the table is typically covered in butcher block paper. A lot of our supplies are accessible, but in mason jars with lids. We have a bin of rags in the space and a spray bottle with all-natural cleaner in it. Toddlers love spraying just about anything, even their own messes.  – Melinda L.

Make it Fun

A cleaning song and the ‘Clean before taking something new’ rule (won’t work all the time)  – Gerdien K.

Always change the strategy. If you use a cleaning song, only use it a few times, then try a different technique. Then go back to the ones that worked the best and use them a few more times. Right now, my kids are loving the “How many can you pick up before the timer goes off?!”  – Sharon H.

We have a clean-up song (Feist’s ‘I Feel It All’), so we dance while we clean and pick the furthest part of the mess and work inward. The boy is four, so I give him specific tasks to focus on.  – Rachel K.

Singing. – Projects for Preschoolers

Songs, games, and making sure to do it before moving on to the next big activity or location so it doesn’t pile up (plus they’re more motivated). Also give them tasks you won’t micromanage.  – Corinne S.

easel painting indoors

Break it up into steps or jobs

We do it in steps. He’s still small so I tell him “time to put the puzzle away”, then we do that together. “Time to put the train set away” and we do that together…. Then he gets the idea that even big tasks are manageable if you do them in steps.  – Christine W.

Divide and conquer. Each child is given one assignment at a time (m picks up all the books, J puts the dolls away, etc.) After finishing that job they get a second if necessary. I jump in to get items that are awkward and we get done quickly.  – Friday Frogs

Get the hubby to do it. 🙂  – Kara P.

Location, Location, Location

We have painting next to the sink but when we are at the table I always ask Jacob to help with table wiping which he loves. He’s also been brought up with the A place for everything motto so he’s well organised already.  – Zanliza K.

We do all art and messy sensory play on a huge tarp! I just clean it up and fold it away! I don’t know what I’d do with out it!  – Blaine N.

I guess my main mess-containment strategy is to limit the messiest activities to certain areas that I am comfortable messing up: the art table in our kitchen, the basement playroom, or my personal favorite, the backyard.  – Sarah H.

The messiest art at our house is easel painting. Fortunately, we live in such a temperate climate that we can generally take the easel out on the deck to do our painting. Drips that land on the “floor” can be hosed away, and I am able to relax a bit about the mess.  – Chelsea D.

Cover it up

I spent over an hour cleaning up our table after letting the kids explore with flour/water/oatmeal/soap and such. They had so much fun, but the mess was terrible. Since that day I now put a fitted sheet over the table when we do messy activities. This way I can just toss the whole thing into the wash! So much easier.  – Kimberly A.

I have lined tables with vinyl cloths, make sure the materials (especially liquids) stay mostly in the middle of the table in a tub or tray, and include everyone in cleanup time, with special jobs and a song. I like keeping cleaning spray and small rags/sponges around to clean up, too.  – Amanda G.

paint at the easel

Paint and Bathe

When my son was younger (3-4) he was really into painting his entire body whenever the paint came out. So I started doing a little time management and would just make sure we were painting on bath nights. So the paints would come out when I knew I had enough time for a full bath when the painting was done.  – Sarah H.

Tape to pick up glitter, painting happens at the end of the day (close to bath time), water beads happen in the bath tub, shaving cream in the bath tub, my sons love to “clean the floor” so I hand them a sponge and let ’em at it. – Marnie C.

What else?

So, what’s not on this list? Do you have a favorite tip that we missed?

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  1. I am a retired art teacher. A great way to keep tables protected and make it easier to clean up after messy art projects or painting is to spread newspapers on the table first in an overlapped , double or triple layer. When finished with the art project, roll up and toss. The newspaper absorbs a lot.
    Use an old vinyl tablecloth as a ‘tarp’ under an easel in the kitchen , basement or patio. Wipes clean and is reusable! It could also cover a table.

  2. These are fantastic tips! I am also all about location, location, location. We have a great time painting outside because we can be free to create with literally no worries. Thanks for linking up to our Spring Clean Fling!

  3. This is very interesting site.I really enjoyed to be reading it.Keep posting and sharing like this!!
    I really admire the way you present your ideas.

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  5. Love your desk space! Funny I just did a post griping about my nonexistent workspace… I saw the clothespin idea but I love the frame too… thanks for the idea! I must follow this Idea to clean my desk.carpet cleaning fayetteville

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