The children often call our school, "Teacher Tom's school." I remind them, "It's not my school, it's your school," but it's more a statement of aspiration than truth until they've started taking care of it themselves, and the place to start learning that is clean-up time.
As a cooperative preschool with all those extra adults in the room, it would be easy to just leave it to them and it would get done, and done well, in about 5 minutes. Instead I instruct the parents to leave as much to the children as they possibly can, even if it takes a half hour and even if the results leave a lot to be desired. Rather than being an annoying, yet necessary part of our day to hurry through, this act of coming together to care for our school is the single most important community building activity on our daily schedule.
Here's how it works in my 3-5's class . . .
I announce clean-up time by beating my drum and singing, to the tune of the Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs song Heigh Ho:
Hey heyBy this time of the year, most of the kids, most of the time, go into action with the first beat of the drum. The rest might need a couple minutes to finish what they're doing, and that's understandable.
Put everything away
Into the place
In which it stays
Hey hey hey hey hey hey
I expect the adults to avoid bossing the children around with directional statements like, "Pick up the blocks," or "Put the dolls in the crib," but instead strive to make simple informational statements like, "There's a block on the floor," or "The dolls go in the crib." This might sound like a distinction without a difference, but it's important. Humans instinctively resist being told what to do, even preschoolers, and this is especially true when it comes to an activity like clean up. I'd rather focus our energies on coming together to take care of the school than in power struggles between adults and 3-year-olds. Informational statements are the only way I know how to do that. When we respond to a child's complaint of, "I don't wanna clean up," with an informational statement like, "It's clean-up time," we are avoiding a time sucking battle of the wills by not giving him anything to fight against.
I cruise the room, making informational statements like, "We need lots of help in the drama area," "The stuffed animals go in the basket," and "There are counting bears under the table." The trick is to be patient. They aren't always going to respond right away. You need to give them a chance to process your statements and make decisions for themselves, because that's the kind of space informational statements leave for the children -- a decision-making space. This isn't about obedience, it's about allowing children to make their own choices, then verbally noticing when they take action to care for their own school: "Max is helping clean-up the drama area," "Alex is putting the stuffed animals in the basket," "Anjali is picking up the counting bears from under the table."
I'm not praising them. I'm not saying, "Thank you." It's their school, of course they're taking care of it. I'm merely making a point of noticing the children who are participating in clean-up time, just as I would notice the children who were participating in circle time by raising their hands.
When children continue to play during clean-up, I give them informational statements like, "This is not playing time, it's clean-up time," or "That's closed. We're cleaning up now." I then follow it up with a directly applicable informational statement like, "The playdough goes in the playdough container."
When a child wants to talk to me during clean-up time, I ask, "Is it about clean-up?" If they say, "No," I answer, "You'll have to save it until circle time because it's clean-up time now. I only want to talk about clean-up." My own desires and opinions are informational statements and during clean-up time I'm a single purpose clean-up machine.
When a child simply retires to a corner with a book, or sits quietly, I generally just let it go. That child will eventually join us, if not today, then in the future.
And finally, when all else fails, in those rare instances when a child steadfastly continues to play in a way the disrupts or impedes the group activity of clean-up, she is given the choice to either join clean-up or "stay out of the way," by sitting, quietly on the blue rug. A few children make this choice, but most give it up after a few seconds, opting instead for the action taking place in the room.
"Big projects": Planning Ahead
Two years ago, Julie Howe Gwinn remodeled her kids' bed room and donated a nice set of shelves and cabinets that gave us a lot more "in classroom" storage space, so much so that we even had room to store our large wooden blocks near our block play area rather than out in the hallway. As we were setting up to start the school year I instructed a couple parents to move the blocks. Malcomb's mom Carol said, "Aw, really? It won't be the same place without the kids taking the blocks to you in the hallway."
She was right and I relented on the spot. Taking the big blocks into the hallway is a "big project" and it generally involves well over half of our 22 kids. As I wait to receive the blocks, I sing my observational statements to the children, usually to the tune of our clean-up song:
I seeThey have to carry those heavy blocks, some larger than they are, from the classroom, up two steps, and around a corner to were I'm waiting. The doorway causes a bottleneck where they are forced to negotiate that small two-way space while managing heavy, bulky blocks, and the stairs are a real hazard for some of them. It takes a real team effort to make this work and it's wonderful to see all the different ways they do it. Some try to carry 3 blocks at once, while other single blocks are ushered into the hallway by 5 sets of hands. Some push blocks across the floor, while others carry them on their heads. And all the while I'm singing to them, "Hey, hey, hey hey . . ."
Bringing a medium block
And here comes Marcus
With a big one.
Hey hey hey hey hey hey
And Peter is pushing his
Across the floor
Are working together
Hey hey hey hey . . .
It's useful to plan at least one "big project" clean-up activity every day. Removing wet things from the water table to drip dry on towels can be one of those projects. Moving large objects like our boxes from one place to another will do. Turning over a table that's been tipped on its side can be made into a group effort ("I need lots of strong people to turn this table over!"). So can bringing chairs back into the room from the hallway ("We need 6 chairs at the green table and 4 at the blue table.")
The "big project" is one of the best ways to get everyone involved and there is no better way to build community than engaging in a big project together, shoulder-to-shoulder.
Consistency and Faith
When the school year starts, participation on some days might only be around 50 percent, but I have faith that if we (meaning the adults) remain consistent in our commitment to speaking informatively and not worrying about incidental things like how long it's taking or how well it's done, most of the children, most of the time will get involved.
I approach clean-up time with the steadfast expectation that every child will pitch in and that every parent will join me in speaking informatively about what needs to be done. Realistically, an adult needs to step in and handle anything that require sanitizing or to put the finishing touches on the sweeping, but most of the time, the kids do most of the work.
That said, like with any preschool activity, there are always a few kids who opt out, but by this time of the year it's rarely more than 1-2 kids each day, and they quickly see that they're missing out. It's hard to resist carrying a block or two out into the hallway where Teacher Tom is singing a silly song, or joining your friends in the effort to right-side-up a heavy table.
It's not my school, after all, it's the kid's school. And the only way to make that true is to take care of it together.