Benefits Of Play

Here’s Why Toddlers Love To Pretend Clean

The developmental benefits are huge.

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Parents know how much toddlers love to play pretend clean. We see it in their own homes as our little ones waddle around from room to room, sweeping up imaginary crumbs, mopping floors that could use an actual scrub-down, and wiping down any surface they can reach with whatever fabric they can get their hands on, be it an actual cleaning cloth or a dirty sock from the hamper. The toy industry is well aware of this phenomenon as well. We’ve seen a surge of cleaning-themed toys hit the market in the past few years, and there’s one product in particular that feels like a rite of passage into toddlerhood: Melissa and Doug’s Dust! Sweep! Mop! set. As soon as your baby outgrows infancy, there’s a high chance this six-piece wooden toy set will make its way into your home. But what is it about playing “cleaning” (different from clean-up) that is so thrilling for young kids?

“Cleaning seems to take up even more time than other housework imitative behaviors that toddlers like to engage in,” says Laura Phillips, neuropsychologist and senior director within the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. “It's one of the earlier forms of pretend play that we see toddlers engage in. And there are developmental reasons — cognitive, social, and emotional — that drive that play,” she says.

Here’s what experts have to say about the appeal of cleaning to toddlers, how it benefits them developmentally, and how parents can make this type of pretend play the most enriching for their child.

Why Toddlers Love To Clean

Reason 1: It’s in their nature to imitate

Playing copycat is an integral part of development. “The most meaningful, significant, or critical reason why toddlers engage in so much cleaning and other housework behaviors is because kids just naturally are imitators. It's how they learn,” explains Phillips. “We're social beings. We learn foundational linguistic and motor skills [like speaking and jumping through observing other people do it,” she says.

This did not go unnoticed by the masterminds behind Melissa & Doug’s toys. In fact, the product first came to be after watching toddlers in their element — what items were they drawn to and how were they interacting with them? “We noticed that kids would often play with a dustpan and broom in preschools,” says Sofia Dumery, senior vice president of design at Melissa & Doug. And from there, they decided that “cleaning could be an exciting area to examine.”

Reason 2: It makes them feel good

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Both Phillips and Dumery agree that there is a sense of accomplishment and self-worth stirring in young children when they engage in cleaning, and this is likely due to the praise they receive when they perform these acts. “It's very reinforcing and that's feeding into their own sense of agency and sense that they can accomplish tasks,” Phillips says.

And perhaps there’s something about playing with purposeful items, as opposed to toys that are simply designed for entertainment, that accelerates their sense of independence. “Realistic, hands-on toys let kids explore the world around them, and help them connect with others,” explains Dumery. “Our research in pediatric development showed that kids undergo a huge transition between ages 2 to 3 when they start to explore their world and develop a sense of autonomy. Taking on grown-up roles and responsibilities (like pretending to do chores) and imitating the behaviors of their caregivers allow kids to model independence, which builds self-esteem and confidence.”

Reason 3: The accessibility

One theory why toddlers are so drawn to cleaning (more than other imitative tasks they could be performing) is that there’s a lot of cleaning naturally actively happening around them and thus have more opportunities to observe it, reflects Phillips. Think about it: caregivers are generally most paranoid about germs the younger a child is, constantly tidying, mopping, and wiping surfaces. It makes sense that if babies and toddlers have an innate sense to imitate the people around them, once they are physically able to, they will want to.

Wiping and sweeping is also a relatively safe act to imitate, Phillips surmises, as long as actual cleaning products aren’t within reach. Most likely they’ll pick up a sock or some other small, soft textile, and try to wipe down the fridge, cabinet door, or play table.

A Brief History On The Toy

Melissa and Doug’s highly recognizable Dust! Sweep! Mop! set celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and in the company’s 30-year history, it’s one of their top five bestselling toys of. all. time. Grown-ups love it and buy it because it’s a unique toy from a quality brand with a relatively small footprint. And let’s be honest — it’s kind of hilarious to give your 2-year-old a mop and broom set that’s literally ergonomically designed for them.

Here is how Dumery describes the very intentional design elements of Dust! Sweep! Mop!: “The bristles are pliable enough to actually pick up dirt, but aren’t scratchy, the dustpan snaps easily to the brush, the mop doesn’t damage the floor, and the duster is super soft yet durable. The fact that it comes with a sturdy, wooden storage stand is crucial; it has a small, yet stable, footprint so it can easily go anywhere and the stand encourages kids to clean up after themselves.

Developmental Benefits Of Playing Pretend Cleaning

Letting your child pretend clean to their heart’s content is all fun and games until you realize there are serious developmental benefits behind this type of play — it just might become the activity you want them to engage in the most. “As brains develop, they drive certain behaviors naturally that then help kids to acquire new skills,” says Phillips. And with regard to playing cleaning, she says “there's tremendous cognitive benefit to allowing space for that type of play: language, motor, creativity, flexible thinking, problem-solving, and also that social emotional piece of developing empathy.”


Essentially, imitation is the foundation for language and communication, explains Phillips, giving us a glimpse into what’s happening in a toddler’s brain when imitating: “There's actually neural circuitry (mirror neurons in the brain), that drive imitative behavior because of how it supports the development of language and communication. Both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication really starts to be developed through imitation and in the context of a relationship where there's a lot of back and forth. And it’s reinforced through the parent responding to what really is first in imitative behavior.” An example of communication via imitation is when a baby babbles and a parent babbles back at them.


To a newborn, they and their caregivers are one entity — it’s not until they move through infancy and into toddlerhood that children increasingly see themselves as beings separate from their caregivers, Phillips explains. Once this realization starts to manifest, it’s then that they start to “observe other people's behaviors and then try on those behaviors,” she says. This is what lays the foundation for developing empathy.

“From a social emotional perspective, that type of imitative play is really critical for developing empathy in a society where we really need to care for one another,” says Phillips, as it teaches them how to function as part of a group, and you really see this in a classroom or day care setting: children observing and mimicking the behaviors of their peers (like hanging up their coats in their cubby).


Natalia Lebedinskaia/Moment/Getty Images

The most obvious benefit of this type of play is probably the fine and motor skills benefits. “When you're sweeping, you're moving your body in a different way than you do naturally. So, there's also a lot of physical development,” says Phillips. Same for dusting, using a spray bottle (which happens to be something that my toddler actually does during occupational therapy sessions) — each of these actions utilize and exercise different muscle groups to build strength and coordination.


Pretend play in general helps children strengthen problem-solving, creativity, and flexible-thinking skills, says Phillips. You’ll see it in the way they resolve issues (either real or imaginative) that arise while they play. Let’s say there’s a spill on the table and an actual rag isn’t available — they might run to the nearest hamper and grab a sock to wipe up the spill. This is an example of them identifying and addressing a problem using the resources available to them.

How To Make The Most Of Playtime To Benefit Your Child

Serve and return, or talking through whatever they’re experiencing, is the best way to shape language and communication, says Philips. “What kids need in toddlerhood is language and a ton of it. And specifically from a live human being,” she says.

Dumery dives further into why it’s so important for little ones to interact with people as opposed to electronic toys when it comes to language development: “American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) studies have shown traditional toys are better than electronic toys for children’s language development because, when toys talk, parents talk less, and as a result, kids vocalize less.”

Also important, and probably less intuitive, is to narrate and label what your child is doing to give them the vocabulary for what they’re doing as opposed to asking them what they’re doing, which interrupts their play and actually can put pressure on them. “When kids are cleaning, parents can then narrate like, ‘Oh, look, you're sweeping the floor,’ because giving them words for what they're doing is helping with language development. It also helps kids just knowing that their parents see them is incredibly important for self-concept,” she says.

So what’s wrong with asking questions? “Parents have this urge to ask questions. They'll say, ‘What are you doing?’ Or ‘What are you building? What color are you going to choose next?’ That actually puts pressure on kids to feel like they have to meet a parent expectation about what they're building or what color,” she says.

All in all, any form of interacting and communicating with your young child teaches them so much more than just a bank of vocabulary terms. It’s so true when they say that toddlers are parrots and children are sponges — they just want to soak up and copy everything you do, and if that means they’re going to want to help you wipe down the tabletop after every meal, well, so be it.

Study referenced:

Healey, A., Mendelsohn, A., et. al. (2019) Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era. The American Academy of Pediatrics,


Laura Phillips, Psy.D., ABPdN, board certified in pediatric neuropsychology; senior neuropsychologist, senior director, Learning and Development Center at The Child Mind Institute

Sofia Dumery, senior vice president of Design at Melissa & Doug

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