Don’t Sweat the Mess: Kids at Work


It is pick up time, a time not well loved. Instead, after just about everything is picked up, I discover a gang of dodgers under the loft laughing. The teacher has spotted them and I ask them what they picked up today, while holding my composure not to laugh myself. The underneath section of the loft, which is superb for finding a nook or cranny, is now covered in masks, dress up clothes, and puppets. It is quite evident that they were staging a pick up protest.
During our pick up time, most will volunteer, some will dilly dawdle sticking toys in their mouth or sprawl out as if ther about to keel over, while others will stake it out under the loft or fade into the background. There is nothing fun about clean up time, even if we pretend. What the hell is so exciting about picking up puzzle pieces, rubber bands, peg boards, game pieces, books, dolls, doll clothing, crayons, colored pencils, glue sticks, paper, scissors, magnets, magnify glasses, play kitchen utensils, play food, puppets, cars, trains, tracks, felt pieces, linking logs,legos, hundreds of wooden blocks etc.

Compulsory clean up does not exist at our school, nor would I ever feel humane about authorizing it. A neat and tidy environment is not of concrete value to kids, and the making of the mess is a creative endeavor. Kids are professional mess makers because they intrinsically seek play, like a dose of sunshine.

Figuring out how to pour juice requires a spill. Learning to thread beads onto a strand of yarn entails scattered beads. Sifting sand in a sensory table makes for a sandy floor.

Play and messing up the classroom run parallel at any environment where there is a pack of kids. Pick up is not an obligation at our school; it is s cooperative effort, which is appreciated, if the willingness is there.

We don’t ride herd over people to pick up or breath down their necks, however it is sometimes frustrating for a teacher to have to pick up a hundreds of toys a day. We certainly thank the willing hands that cooperate in the activity of picking up, but don’t pamper them with codependent language, such as “good job” or “nice work.” Words like this our carrots dangling at the end of the stick, where eventually the natural self willingness to help out is diminished by an expectation of appraise. We don’t sing a catchy jingle during this time, as teachers we just remind them that it is a time to pick up.

At pick up time we usually ask them what they would like to pick up today. We don’t ask, “Who was playing with this?” Or, Tommy you need to pick up this because you were playing with it. There are often over a dozen kids in a classroom and keeping tabs on who played with what is hair splitting, too controlling. We don’t investigate the mess to find out a list of names. The mess is everyone’s mess and we created it, now it is time to pick it up.

Certainly asking a 2 and a half-year old to pick up stuff off the floor may be like pulling teeth. And guiding them through the process like a robot is not going to instill any valuable social skill, except the acknowledgement that the teacher is a butt. I’ve seen it before even in progressive schools, where the teacher excepts all to perform their clean up duty, where physical coercion is used – a manipulation of the hand or a beg and plead.

At snack time we ask again that they clean up their spot. Often times their peers remind each other. Again it has become sort of a preschool routine, however we don’t enforce it. As they help themselves to juice, water, and snack they can also pick up their napkin and empty cup.

Pick-up or clean up is what it is – another adult expectation. And an expectation is a value or ideology imposed onto another person. An expectation does not truly honor the autonomy of another, yet societies and schools are inculcated with these certaincomplicities.

A designated pick-up time is one of those adult expectations pinned on youth. It is just that – not mandatory. Instead, as adults in preschools learn to appreciate a well constructed mess. It is a part of the creation process, no matter how annoying

Preschool Punks. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Paul at riseout@riseup.net

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  1. #1 by Erin on September 16, 2006 - 12:57 am

    I am a first year teacher and was discouraged today when I discovered that my parents were discussing how I must be in over my head because of the mess in my classroom. After a good cry, because the parents couldn’t even tell me their concerns instead they voiced it to my aide, I came across your blog. Finally someone else that believes that children will be and should be children.

  2. #2 by Heather on July 25, 2007 - 7:22 pm

    I understand what you’re saying about the richness of the play that usually engenders a mess, but how do we dance on a rug covered with wooden blocks or eat at a table full of scissors & crayons? How does anyone move on to a new exploration if everything is everywhere at all times? More important, how do you keep materials in good shape and where do the kids in your class learn to be responsible for the mess they make? In my program, we don’t have unlimited funds to replace things we’d destroy by leaving them unprotected and laying around, nor do I want to contribute to thinking that implies than any mess you make will be cleaned up even if you never do it. I think that idea carries over into adulthood. Some of the kids in my class are great at picking up, some can’t get anything back where it actually goes, some try to duck picking up daily just because they don’t wanna…it usually evens out without intervention. But things have to be picked up around here…maybe it’s the Montessori in me, but I like caring for our materials and surroundings and so do many of the kids. And no one likes slipping on the beads from your necklace when you’re now in the water table. I say, make a mess yes, but unmess it when you’re done.

  3. #3 by Janice on August 17, 2013 - 4:09 pm

    This particular post, “Dont Sweat the Mess: Kids at Work | K-2 Punks”
    displays that you truly understand exactly what u r talking about!
    I personally absolutely am in agreement. With thanks -Magaret

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