I wrote this post for Teachwire about messy play within a Reggio Emilia Approach setting... that it is not just about pristine classrooms. This was a year ago, and I made the decision to share it on my facebook page yesterday... so I found it interesting to read a shared post about "clean classrooms" today...
Every "clean" classroom I've ever experienced in my observations (and in my time teaching) is not the product of well-behaved students. It's the product of a naggy teacher.Children learn to equate the absence of clutter as "neat", "clean", and "organized". We tend to forget that organization starts in you. You see something that can be more efficient for you, so you set it up in a way that makes sense to you, then you maintain it because it works for you.When you've organized a classroom and you seek to keep it organized, you're asking children to see things from your perspective and try to make sense of it, even if it just doesn't make sense to them, because it makes sense to you. That's pretty selfish, and definitely not anything I tend to see teachers reciprocating for the children they teach.In a preschool classroom, when a teacher says "pick up" I watch what the kids do, not what the kids accomplish. If you look for what the kids accomplish, you'll see that things are no longer strewn out on the floor or haphazardly thrown across tables and shelves, and eventually it looks like organization--but is it?If you watch what the kids do, you see them pushing things from the shelf into the crevice between the shelf and the wall. You see things get picked up from the floor and plopped into any open bin. You see kids hiding or even trashing toys because they've learned that the absence of clutter is what's expected when someone says it's time to clean up.This teacher thinks that their kids have learned to value organization and that they've learned that cleanliness and tidiness is important in life, when really, this teacher has bestowed upon children a bad habit that's really, really hard to break.I remember in the first grade, my desk (a small, one-seater desk with a compartment for books and utensils) was so "disorganized", my teacher singled me out in front of all of my peers, screamed at me, picked the desk up off the ground like The Hulk, and Hulk-smashed it onto the ground so everything in it flew out onto the floor. There was so much clutter in it, such a reaction seemed necessary to her. She thought she taught me a lesson--that she wouldn't tolerate my disorganization... by literally making the mess 100x bigger. And what was I expected to do in front of all of my peers? Put it all back in the desk. No practical assistance on what she wants it to look like. No guidance to help me get rid of trash I didn't need. That didn't make me an organized person, but it did desensitize me to the idea that organization and success aren't correlated.I'm not being "too easy on kids" or engaging in wishful thinking when I say they'll pick up and organize things when they're ready to. I see it all of the time. When a kid steps on a lego and picks them up off the floor to avoid it, I see it. When a kid knocks a bin off the shelf and notices there were cars in it when it's the bin for blocks (maybe he doesn't pick it up, but he NOTICES it), I see it. In those moments where the mess is so overwhelming that nobody can move without breaking things and I sweep everything into a pile, start sorting things myself, and kids join in to help me, I see it.Disorder is part of the culture of childhood. It's part of their culture we don't have the right to seek to change. Children are not wild animals we are charged with the task of taming--we're not that important. Children are also not premature businesspeople we are charged with the task of preparing for the workforce--we're not that unimportant. Everything they move, place, or scatter is there for a reason, even when it seems silly and ridiculous. As they explore routines and patterns--as their neural pathways start to form organized connections--they start to see value in certain forms of organization. And they may never see our ways as the right way.And that's okay, because organization is about YOU, and what works for you--singular, you.If you've got to clean up, don't expect kids to be doing it if you're not doing it.If you've got to clean up, do it yourself, while they play, once you know the kids have lost interest or moved on (like workers at a Children's Museum do!).If you've got to clean up, be there, watch them, thank them, and don't force them. Don't be my first grade teacher.That's how you really teach kids to be clean. (Travis Manley)
I feel that children have a responsibility to each other - I always talked about it with them - why we put things back when we were finished. Because I believe in the competence of children. I know that if they are given the chance to understand why then they will see their play differently... not just their own play in isolation, but there play as part of a whole series of play that intertwine with each other.
We are responsible to create a play space for others - so that others knew where things were - and that meant even they would too as they could rely on the process. Of course MY role as educator has the bottom line responsibility to ensure there is space for the children to play... I often tidy things away as I see children playing, in an invisible manner to ensure their play continues and they have space... or ensure that things are not left out that can present a danger (risk for a little hurt is OK, its part of the process of understanding that when things get messy there is a risk of stepping on something and it hurts, or tripping, or sliding or whatever... or that things get broken... but that leads me to a possible future dialogue about how so many children are not the slightest bit bothered about breaking stuff... they shrug their shoulders and say we can buy another... it does not feel like a sustainable approach to play... but it is part of the whole theory of not putting blame on a child for breaking something as it might break their self-esteem.... but as I wrote, I will save that for another post)
As educators we need to be a part of the process - always helping - it did take some convincing others that us clearing up too was not taking learning or responsibility away and that it was part of the democratic classroom approach - if we want help then we help others - in this way we could be role models - often I heard from children "I did not play here" as a way to say, no I don't want to help - and I would answer “no I did not play here but I help anyway so that it is ready for play tomorrow or later or...” - I would never force them, but would remind them that help is a two way thing.Boys tended to be slower to catch on to this and girls more eager - so I would say to the girls I see you have done your share you can go do something else and let the boys finish off - in this way the stereotypes of good girls who tidy up is broken - and I feel that IS important
I wonder how this impacts how educators react to the "clean classroom" concept... I mean in my many years working in early years settings it has been nearly always men that have challenged the whole order and tidy idea... let there be mess... Is this because as children boys always got off tidying up because "boys will be boys" while girls strived to be good and show their worth by pleasing the teacher by tidying up. So girls learn that tidy and order is part of pleasing others, a part of being socially approved, while boys never got to participate in this learning in the same way? And don't you in your head envision a female teacher rather than a male in the text above??? I am not saying the girls have got it right and the boys have missed out on something... what I am writing is that both have missed out on something.
Of course I would send any child- boy or girl - on if they had contributed enough - not like this every time but enough for the children to get an idea that helping others is a part of what a society does - and that if I want help I also need to help others.
Some children have required so much order - but for me to create it for them in their own personal chaos - others needed more freedom and flow but most children are in the middle which makes sense, as children are learning to connect and master left and right brain thinking as a whole - it’s going to swing - we want flexibility (chaos) and order (rigidity) but too much of either is going to limit - so the classroom needs to be able to offer both not only as a way to support the children but also to challenge them.
over the years I have had colleagues that have loved chaos and been vehement anti tidying and also colleagues who are order freaks - and everything in between. Children are just as diverse - so it’s about trying to find balance and trying to create the space that suits the group/class
Being npf, having three npf children and having worked a whole load with npf children over the years has lead me to understand that chaos and mess can be extra stressors - extra sensory input - so helping these children find routines to tidy up to de-clutter is essential. So the above statement that classrooms are tidied for the teacher's sake is rather a general sweeping statement that is also, I feel, incorrect. But I guess there are some educators out there that are not listening to the children and the clean classroom is about control rather than support and challenge.
Tidy up is a part of math - sorting - sometimes a part of film making - we made stop motion films of the tidying up - they were hilarious to watch together afterwards. Tidying up is not just about learning how to organise... it is about empathy, responsibility, cause and effect, sorting (get the children involved in how things should be sorted/tidied), collaboration skills, memory (where do things go), democracy (we all participate and contribute) - this means the teacher/educator is a part of the process not an observer - messes in preschool are always "ours".
Once a child I worked with had been let into the sensory room on his own (after I had left for home) the child had the most marvellous time throwing the lentils rice etc etc all over the place making it rain (at least this is how I imagine it as I found lentils etc on the highest of shelves - hahaha). What saddened me was that my colleague did not tidy it, even though he knew that I arrived just before morning gathering the next day and that that was the room we sat in to chat about what we would be doing during the day... there was a layer of rice and lentils on the floor. So first I had to deal with the shock that my colleague thought the fact that since I had introduced the sensory table it must my responsibility to clean up (not all staff were keen on those sensory tables you know) - then I had to make a decision about where are we going to have our gathering. I made the decision to postpone the meeting and ask the child to come and help me sweep the room. Not with anger or disappointment but just a simple matter of fact please can you help me. he came, he helped. I asked if he had a good time - which I think he must have for so much to be everywhere - he shook his head, I assume it was because he thought this was the right answer to give. I then said it was fine to throw the sensory stuff around, if everyone in the room was in agreement, and as long as he helped to clean up afterwards... or maybe we could take something outside instead that birds could eat afterwards... he opted for the second option...
"Messes" are often left out to continue another day, sometimes weeks, if it is an active play area. In fact for a while I took a series of photos called "Traces of Play" - as i loved seeing those small/large traces of play that some call a mess... its like the image of a dandelion with the meme - some see a weed others see a wish.
Below are 8 photos from the Traces of Play series... things I found strewn/constructed/left with no children in sight...
I have images of BIG messes of a whole room littered with play - as all the contents of the preschools seemed to have ended up in one room... but the most marvellous play had happened in the process of that. By leaving the mess to the next day the children could decide whether it was play worthy or not... they made the decision to clean up first... because that was not the play for the day... apparently.