Sunday, February 06, 2011


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 9 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.

(Reposted, with editing, from 7/22/09)

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Deborah said...

I was wondering Tom - do you at any point sit with the children and talk about where the bears (or other items) should be played with before they play? I find that by helping explain where I want something to stay - like bears on a table, and why it should be played there - "I don't want anyone to get hurt" or "This will help us not lose all of our very special bears" then contract with the children - even twos to help me then I can redirect them a bit more by reminding them "Can you tell me where we were supposed to play with the bears?" or simply play on their sense of goodness "I am so sad to see that all our very special bears were dumped on the floor". Bringing in a sense of how it makes me feel so that they not only want to pick the bears up but they also want to make a wrong right. Does this make sense?

I do completely agree and like that your focus is on the bears on the floor rather than on the children being good or bad. This is a much better way to get and teach desired results.


Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

Teacher Tom and the zen of The Bears are on the Floor.

Jessica said...

Teacher Tom,
Your blog post really enlightened me on how to deal with young children and their behavior problems. I have never really had an interest in dealing with kids at 2 and 3 years old because of the example you provide--throwing bears on the floor. I would never have enough patience or really knew how to react to kids when they would do something wrong or irritate me.

First, I've learned from you that this type of behavior is normal for kids at this age. They are just playing normally. Second, you definitely gave me an idea as to how to approach this situation when I have kids of my own some day. "Directional statements" are used by parents all the time and that really doesn't teach a child anything. If I make a narrative statement of what they are doing and what should be done then eventually the child will understand where the toys should be. All it takes is patience and time, and realizing that the fruits of your labor will be seen later on when the child is older. Although I plan on teaching middle school and high school students, this blog post was very helpful and insightful to a 22 year old college student with no kids. Thanks!

Jessica Battles

Unknown said...

I couldn't help but laugh out loud as I read this! I have one little guy in my room right now who (for the first 3 or so months he was in my room) could NOT walk past the bucket of large legos without tipping it all out on to the floor :) He really just enjoyed dumping and filling containers, so I would just wait about a second or two and there he would go- filling the container up with all the large legos again. It never failed though, he would fill it almost to the top and then dump the entire thing again! (He only does it occasionally now- rather than every time :) I did consider moving the bucket at first, but knew from experience with other children that he would just find a different bucket to dump! (I love your matter of fact statements about this! No blame- just statements of fact!)

Anonymous said...

You make me a better teacher... It's nice to read reminders of the things us teachers, often caught in the "what needs to happen now," forget sometimes.


Kate @ An Everyday Story said...

Thanks Tom, it's always nice to read someone else going through the motions again and again and again. We try sooo very hard not to use commands with our little boy and it can be VERY frustrating at times. He is nearly two! He is constantly tipping things out and we know that this is part of his development and so try to approach it as such. But sometimes.......

I just want to say though that it is so very important to speak with children respectfully. As you know they learn through imitation and so we should really aspire to be someone worth imitating. I tell myself this when J has tipped the pencils on the floor again :)

Kristin @ Intrepid Murmurings said...

Thank you!!!! This is great and with twin two year olds in the house I will definitely be trying out your wisdom soon -- probably tomorrow! I see this very thing all the time (but don't always respond so well, ha ha!).

I do get it, though -- the joy of a million little things hitting the floor! My girls then lie down and roll in them...

Anonymous said...

oh, thank you, thank you for the great laugh. i could just see those two telepathically telling each other to dump those bears again!

i am a grade 1 teacher and, sadly (or maybe not depending on your point of view) i still have kids who love to dump things all over the floor. i tend to turn it into a math experience and tell everyone to help clean up by picking up a set number of items. they are still young enough to want to help and things get done fairly quickly.

am enjoying reading your posts. think i'll have to pop in more frequently now that i have found you.


Let the Children Play said...

Having worked with 2 year olds for a few years, I was with you every agonising step of the way!

Unknown said...

Hi- I am wondering if anyone has any thoughts in regards to 4 year old scattering. I would like to say that her scattering has never been the throw everything over type but seems to always have an organization. When she was little she would scatter in a planned way. For example when a pile of construction paper of different colours went to the floor it would do so then immediately be pushed around according to direction and colour.
As a four year old she purposely scatters according to some inner classification, all across the surface of the floor. Lately it has been books. As she has literally hundreds of books now, I can get quite exasperated. After conversations about the way in which we treat our books, She tries really hard for a day to do as we discussed but it goes gradually back to full scale scatter and I am wondering if it is something that is providing some learning element for her.

Anonymous said...

Oh I so needed to read this tonight - I've just begun working in the toddler class of a new center where I seem to be alone in my teaching philosophy, and I was caught in the eye of a "donut" block scatter storm with no idea how to handle it. I thank you for the sense of solidarity I feel when reading your posts, and for all the glimpses of a functional, loving, child-respecting school.