Charlie and Sam were a set of twins I had in my very first class. One morning they looked into one another’s eyes and telepathically decided to feverishly scatter 150 counting bears off the table and onto the floor.
It's very common for 2-year-olds to take great joy in knocking collections of small items from a table. And, obviously, a bunch of small items scattered across the classroom floor presents both a mess and a hazard. I knew that if I picked them up it would just become a game, but what was I going to do?
After making a mental note to never again give 2-year-olds access to all 150 counting bears at once, I tried to remember what I’d learned in school. All I came up with is to avoid directional statements like, “Don’t do that,” or “Pick them up.” In the repose of writing about the episode 8 years later, I can say it’s because I don’t want children to learn to do the right thing just because an authority is bossing them around. I want them to do the right thing because they chose to do it. But at the moment I froze for what seemed like a long time before stating the first non-directional thing that came to mind, “The bears are on the floor.”
The boys just giggled, but at least they looked at the bears on the floor.
I said it again, “The bears are on the floor.” I was buying time.
They just looked at the bears again, but stopped giggling.
Then as matter-of-factly as possible I said, “The bears are on the floor and they belong on the table.”
We all looked at the bears. After a pause I repeated, “The bears are on the floor and they belong on the table.” Another pause followed by another statement of the basic facts. I must have gone through it a half dozen times. To be honest, I kept saying it because the boys kept standing there looking at the bears. But then like a miracle, Charlie picked up a bear and put it on the table.
I stuck with the strategy of making simple statements of undisputed fact. “Charlie picked up a bear and put it on the table.”
He picked up another. “Charlie is picking up a bear and putting it on the table.”
Sam joined him. I verbally noted it.
They were picking up the bears and putting them on the table while I narrated!
As they picked up those bears one at a time, I quickly realized that I couldn’t realistically expect them to pick up all those bears by themselves.
So I added a sentence to the repetition, “I’m going to help Charlie and Sam pick up the bears and put them on the table.”
Using the more advanced technique of scooping up handfuls of bears at once, I helped make fairly short work of the job.
I celebrated, “We did it!”
Charlie and Sam looked into one another’s eyes and telepathically decided to again feverishly knock 150 counting bears off the table and onto the floor.
I took a deep breath and said, “The bears are on the floor.” And we did the whole thing again, right down to the boys feverishly knocking 150 bears onto the floor for a third time. But they finally moved on, leaving those bears on the table where they belonged.
I wish I could say that it was the last time they scattered small items across the floor, but at least I can report that they allowed themselves to be coached through clean up every time, and eventually they gave it up altogether.
Since then, I’ve seen this repeated over and over in our Pre-3 class. It’s a behavior rarely carried out by a solo actor, but most often by two or more children who, like Charlie and Sam, connect with one another and make it a fun and frenzied game. Often it’s a first foray into the world of parallel play. That’s why I would never attempt to outright forbid scattering. Preschool is all about learning to play with the other people and this is one of the ways that 2-year-olds do it.
I do, however, want them to move on from this form of parallel play as quickly as possible.
Young children are biologically programmed to desire attention from adults, or as mom once said, "If you don't give children attention, they'll take it." That's why when the scattering starts, I like adults to avoid giving verbal attention to the behavior, but rather focus on the bears on the floor and their proper place on the table. In other words, ignore the behavior we’d rather not see, while waiting to give attention to the behavior (e.g., picking up the bears) that we want to see. It takes a lot of patience, but it works.
Of course, it has never worked quite as well as it did that first time with Charlie and Sam. Usually, when I say, “There are bears on the floor and they belong on the table,” nothing happens until they’re all on the floor. If I keep repeating it, however, eventually one of the children (not necessarily the ones who have knocked them on the floor) will begin picking up the small items, and I give them attention for doing it. This then tends to draw more attention-seeking children into the activity. And while the clean up team isn’t always the same as the scattering team, we get those bears back on the table where they belong.