Last fall, the children were mostly engaged in play that involved dumping. They loved to dump out all the legos, or all the blocks, or all the puzzles. All the dumping meant a lot of pick up at the end of the day.
By late fall, Bethany and I decided to just start talking about clean up. All that meant was that instead of just cleaning up around the children or at the end of the day, we began to verbalize what we were seeing in the environment leading up to it, and to talk about intentions to clean up, and maybe sportscast our own clean up. If kids joined in, we may or may not sportscast what they were doing or perhaps we would stop and model for them an action they were trying to mimic. Sometimes we would even invite them to help clean up. And since they were invitations, there was no pressure.
Over time, the children started cleaning up more spontaneously, often as a form of play. After playing with the blocks to build, they might play “putting the blocks away.” The only times we ever required clean up was if children wanted to do something special that required space, which was currently occupied by a mess. For example, if children wanted to get out jumping bean (a mattress) or get out the tunnel, we’d tell them that we need to make room by cleaning up. If the children didn’t seem interested in cleaning up, that was fine. If they did, we were more than happy to help.
Cleaning up I have learned is partially about learning to see the environment in relationship to constraints and affordances for one’s immediate but also future actions. Thus, what was needed was to help the children to become more aware of the environment and their goals within it. The second thing we also accomplished was to associate positive feelings with clean up, which is a big help.
We still do a lot of the clean up, for sure, but the children will commonly all join in to clean up a big mess. They experience the positive feelings of “working together” to accomplish a task. All of this has made cleaning much more of a habit for them Recently, the kids have even started cleaning up our messes! No joke. We drink a lot of tea, and it’s not uncommon for a mug of tea to be left out. Now when the kids see empty mugs, they super carefully take them over to the kitchen.
I should say the development of “cleaning up” has not been an isolated activity, but is rather embedded within a culture around domestic routines. Bethany does a good job of engaging children in a lot of domestic routines, of which clean up is interconnected. At the end of the week, the children strip their beds and bring laundry down. They participate in loading washer, turning it in. When doable, children help make food. For example, they helped make BBQ sauce a few weeks ago. A lot of routines are around getting boots and rain suits in and out of the closet, or cleaning up after meal time.
I think one of the keys things is just to make sure such routines are not happening invisibly. There are two kinds of invisible, invisible in plain sight and invisble behind the scenes. With cleaning up toys, we had previously been doing it in plain sight, but since we were not talking about it, or drawing attention, or inviting participation, it was basically invisible.
I’ll end by noting some of the trouble we had to navigate with clean up:
One of the children already had negative feelings around clean up, so that anytime we would make an invitation, this child would either whinly say “no” and back away or try to sneak off. I don’t remember doing much except to not make a big deal about choosing to or not to clean up. They’ve come around just fine.
Clean up as play can also create trouble. It has not been uncommon for one child to be playing with blocks, when another child decides that all the blocks need to be put away. In big picture, this isn’t any different than most other kinds of trouble that arises during play, but it definitely became a thing. We’d try just to sportscast, “you are wanting to clean up blocks, but it looks like A is not done building yet,” and intervene if necessary.
One of the children here a few times seemed to use cleanup play as a form of bullying. For example, deciding something need to be cleaned up in order to wield an authority to take things away. This didn’t spiral out of control, because we were pretty equipped to deal with these sorts of scenarios. This particular child is keen to take on roles of enforcing rules and the sort, so we were not surprised.
Anyway, I’m sure we will encounter new challenges and successes with clean up, but so far it’s been a pretty amazing experience to watch unfold.