My sweet one-year-old

I found an e-card floating around on Facebook a few weeks ago that said, “Cleaning with kids in the house is like eating Oreos while brushing your teeth.”  I laughed.  Our little Desmond just turned one, and my husband and I oh-so-affectionately refer to him as the “One-Man-Tornado.”  [Do understand that I have the utmost respect for all of the critical brain development happening in his “one-man-tornado-ness” and I mean no disrespect to his process with this moniker.  Okay, carry on.]  He is in a dumping phase – wiring up some important neural connections by unloading basket after basket of blocks, balls, animals, metal baby food lids, and so on.  I am passionate about keeping materials accessible to children to foster their learning, but such a design permits Desmond to undo a tidy space in a matter of nano-seconds.

And while I laugh at the sentiments of this e-card, I also sense a one-sidedness in the conversation.  Why is cleaning with children in the house such a painstaking process?  I suspect, because much of the respect for the child and sense of communal ownership over the space has been removed from the process.  In the days of cluttered floors, disheveled bookcases, and emptied Tupperware drawers, I am exhausted from repeatedly caring for a space in which my co-inhabitors have a different idea of how to keep the space then I do.  And anytime I find myself working so hard against such strong resistance, I begin to question the process.  Here is where my questioning has led me…

Interrupting a child’s play because my schedule demands that we move on to lunch is disrespectful.  When I am in the middle of a project, and I must leave that project to run an errand or prepare a meal, I have ways to save the process. I push the computer cords out of the walkway, or close my books with a bookmark, but I don’t put the books back on the bookshelf or return my laptop to it’s case.  Interruptions instill in children the idea that becoming fully absorbed in a process is an effort that does not pay off.

Imposing my idea of order on the child’s construct of what-goes-where is disrespectful.  My husband is gifted with an eye for organization, and I am not.  So when he has time off, and decides to help me by imposing some order on chaos of the kitchen cabinets, I end up frustrated because I can’t find anything.  Do the children have a say in where they can go to find their materials?

Expecting young children to manage the entire clean up process independently is disrespectful.  I was young with the Northridge earthquake hit in California, and our house was thrown into a small bit of chaos that was tidied in short order when we all worked together.  The task was overwhelming on its own.  When I think of the young children in my program, still working on skills of categorizing and working memory, the task of sorting out and relocating an entire day’s worth of play is too much to ask.

Using methods that are manipulative in order to achieve my end goal of a clean space is disrespectful.  Such manipulative methods for me include competitions (Who can be the fastest one to clean up the blocks??), asking questions I already know the answer to (Do you know where the dolls go? when I already know where they go and could put them away myself without asking), using praise (Look at what a good block-cleaner Simone is.  I wish everyone could clean blocks like Simone), or threats (No lunch until you finish your job with the blocks!).

And here is why I think clean up is important:

Order feels peaceful.  To me, anyway.  When I know where I can find things when I need them, I am free to explore and create without the anxiety of having to search for materials to extend my play.

Order encourages respect for materials.  I am more likely to take care of things when I see how they are valued.  If I leave the dress up clothes in a pile on the floor, I am less likely to take care of them, because they aren’t even worthy of being hung up.

Order supports safety.  More than once, I have stepped barefoot on a stegosaurus or a wheel block, and it is not an experience I’m hoping to repeat.  And while no one is going to end up in the hospital because of a stegosaurus vs. arch catastrophy, I’d prefer we didn’t have to suffer the bruises.

Order makes me feel good.  Clean up is as much for my sanity as the children’s, and this makes it a high priority.  Respect is about everyone’s needs being met, and if I ignore my need for order for the sake of allowing the children to pursue their wildest dreams, I am still operating disrespectfully and compromising self-care.  At the same time, recognizing that clean up has such a self-motivated component encourages me to find compromise, looking for ways we can all go home happy at the end of the day.

The whole process is one that I have not mastered.  One of my favorite early childhood bloggers, Teacher Tom, wrote about their practice of cleaning up, which I tried – unsuccessfully – to import.  I think things like alerting the children as the time for clean up approaches can prepare them for a transition, while practices like singing can help routinize the time.  At the same time, so many of the practices I observe seem to disrespect the process that a child goes through during play.  So while I won’t offer any sure wins but here are some of my 5 Ways to Stop Grumbling at Clean Up Time.  When we clean up everyday, this is what we aim for:

1.  If I want to grow helpfulness, I must be helpful.  That means, I clean up with the children.  Replace, “I didn’t make the mess so I shouldn’t clean it up!” with “You look like you could use a hand.  Can I help?”

2.  If I want to grow respect for space, then I must model respect for space.  I do not clean up a material that children have used until I first ask if they are done.  “Tekoa?  I noticed the blocks are out.  Are you still playing with them?  Do you mind if I put them away?”

3.  If I want to grow direct, clear communication skills, then I must be direct and clear.  If I say, “Tekoa, the blocks are still out. Are you still playing with them?” as a way of getting her to clean them up, then I am not being clear.  I can say, “Tekoa? I noticed the blocks are still out, and you look like you’re done playing with them.  You need to put them away. Would you like help?”

4.  If I want to grow deep exploration and inquiry skills, then I need to make places for projects to be saved.  Taking pictures, drawing diagrams, or having a “save this!” table will allow items to be saved for long periods of time while still cleaning up what is left out.

5.  If I want to grow flexibility, I need to be flexible.  Not everything needs to get put away in the exact right place everyday.  Not everything needs to get put away at the moment its usefulness has passed.  Not everything needs to be put away cheerfully and with a smile.  Transitions are hard, especially ones that signal the end of play.

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Do you have ideas for respectful clean up processes?  Please share them in the comments.  Thanks for reading!