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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Story of.... the messy classroom

Just over a year ago I read the following statement about tidy and organised classrooms, and while I agree with some of it, I do not see the story of tidy v messy classrooms in the binary way...

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 , not just the teacher.

I always talked about tidying up 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 their play as part of a whole series of play that intertwine with each other. It is a way for the children to understand how they fit into the play-ecosystem. We are responsible to create a play space for others - so that others know where things are - 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 some messes can lead to accidents that are outside of my comfort zone as they are bigger than they need to be, or for the learning to be of value. Materials getting broken due to a messy environment etc actually makes me quite sad, especially as 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 I feel it is part of the whole theory of not putting blame on a child for breaking something as it might break their self-esteem) I think this idea might have gone too far sometimes, we can still encourage children to take care of materials and resources without breaking their self esteem, some kind of accountability that is appropriate for their age, or removal of some materials until they are ready. I remember working as a supply teacher at a place that had a atelierista that came into the setting twice a week, to not only work with small groups of children but also to fix the environment. She kept putting out small glass stones for the children to create with as part of the loose parts, which were then thrown around by some of the children and would shatter causing splinters of glass that actually harmed others... this was a real danger. I put them in a cupboard as i realised that before they could be made accessible the need to throw things had to be met and satisfied first. I explained to the atelierista and a week later she put the beads back out and the same thing happened again... she put things out without knowing or understanding the dynamics of the children. This happened several more times, the other less experienced staff did not dare to put them away, but did not know how to stop them being thrown either. To me this is a complete breakdown of adult communication, which had an enormous impact on the children's play and safety - but the atelierista had read how important it was for children to have a rich variety of materials so that they could learn to take care of them, because that was the "Reggio way" - and insisted on giving children materials and failing to give them the knowledge how to take care of them. So it is not as simple as mess, or tidy... it really is about the adult attitude towards that mess, our expectations of the children, and ourselves, and also what kind of skills and knowledge we are sharing with the children so they know how to take care and respect materials. As educators we need to be a part of the process - always helping - it did take some convincing other educators 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 “I did not play here either, 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 male colleagues 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? 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. I would not do 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 should help others. Some children I have worked with have required so much order or structure in order to experience a sense of well-being - for me to create it for them in their own personal chaos - others have 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-tidiers 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 autistic, having three autistic children and having worked many autistic 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 (especially as many of these children actually find it hard to structure their time to include organising their space to maintain well-being). So the above statement in the quote that classrooms are tidied for the teacher's sake is rather a general sweeping statement that I feel is 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 not only did not tidy it but took me to the room with a hint of satisfaction that it was messy, as proof that my suggestion of a sensory room was ridiculous and not sustainable. He did this even though he knew that I arrived just before morning gathering the next day and that we would be using that room to sit on the floor and talk about what we would be doing ... there was a layer of rice and lentils on the floor, so hardly a space that invited listening. 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... (of course using animal-friendly products). Actually in the end all the children learned from this one incident, and no-one ever made it rain in an entire room with lentils!!

What is also interesting is that everyone has a different idea of mess. The potential messes of sensory tables, with sand, water, lentils or whatever is being used, is not a mess a worry about at all, and yet there are many others that do, while that same person that gets upset about the sensory table mess gets upset with others that like materials to go back on shelves in the right place. I find it so interesting that mess, tidy, untidy, order, chaos are perceived so incredibly differently by everyone... so I think it is a worthwhile discussion to have with colleagues to prevent frustration... don't just talk about "tidying up with the children" but discuss what this actually means, what is tidy? Why that kind of tidy? Where is everyone's limit for mess? I like to leave "messes" 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.

What I do is observe... is the mess conducive to play? Are the children playing there? Have the children moved on because the play is elsewhere at the moment and will return, or is the play finished in this space and the play has moved on in an area where there is space.

Once I see that the mess is no longer inviting or encouraging play then I will either tidy it all away, or sort it and make it look inviting again and see what happens. If the children are engaged in play then I will do this alone, if they are struggling to find something to do I will encourage them to help me (after giving some space to allow them to offer their help). There is never one simple fix way to do this. What is right on one occasion is not another... finding a balance between me creating space for their play, and encouraging them to be proactive in creating that space for themselves and others is essential in avoiding being that "naggy" teacher.

Below are 7 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 (not taken as part of this series though) - as it felt all the contents of the preschool seemed to have ended up in one room... but the most marvellous play had happened in the process of that. We decided, children and me together to leave the mess until the next day so they could continue their play. The next day children looked at the previous day's play and could only see mess - it was no longer play worthy... they made the decision to clean up first... because that was not the play for the day... apparently.

See also...

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