Dear Polly: Megan, a 3-year-old in my group, makes a monumental mess when she works on projects or plays in the room. No matter what I say, she continues to leave a big mess behind her after each activity. How can I get her to work more neatly and to be aware that she needs to clean up along with the rest of the children?

This behavior can be due to a whole host of reasons, including immaturity, the result of a learning disability, or a child's attempts to be defiant. Children, especially those who can be oppositional, need many opportunities to choose and to decide things. They also need to be reminded that there are times for them to choose what to do and times when we do things the way the grownups say. In the case of Megan, each time she leaves a mess, it's important to say, "We can't have this kind of mess. Please clean this up."

It's also important to consider all the reasons why Megan may be making the mess in the first place. Is Megan more creative than others in your class? If so, I'd give her extra leeway. More ideas may lead to more props, paint cups, blocks, and so on spread everywhere across the floor. Is she more impulsive than others? If so, provide extra support to help her stick to the task and clean up.

What You Can Do

Try these ideas to help manage Megan's messiness:

  • Look for instances in which someone wastes time searching for something because it wasn't put back in its place. Talk with those involved about the fact that things work best when everything has a place, and when we put each item back in that place when we're finished with it. (Of course, part of the clean-up problem always is that children often don't really know when they're finished using a toy. They think they may come back to it-and well they might. Good play is fluid and interactive. A child usually doesn't pick up one thing, do something with it, and put it away.)
  • Be specific with Megan. For example, say, "Do you know what we keep the markers in? Can you find it and get them all in there? Do you know where we keep that container? Can you put it there? Thank you! Now we'll be able to find the markers when someone needs them!" Megan may need more guidance on this subject than you give others.
  • Engage the group in a discussion of room organization. Tour the room together. Help children rediscover how it works. Ask, "Where would you go if you wanted to do puzzles and play table games? How do you know that's where you would go? Yes, you're such a good noticer. Why do you think we paint and play with dough over there? You're right! What a good thinker you are! We have our messy things there because there's tile, not hard-to-wash carpet on the floor, and because the sink for washing up is there too."
  • If your classroom isn't well organized, you're looking at a big part of the problem with Megan. Now is the time to enlist children, and also parents, to thoughtfully plan and arrange your learning materials into logical areas. (Encouraging people of all ages to help solve a problem your class faces is a wonderful way to involve them in your program.)

Revamp and revitalize children's job schedule and clean-up rituals. Especially with children like Megan, the more invitingly playful you make your clean-up routines, the more likely you will be to attract them and lure them into habits of tidiness that work for the whole group-and for you!

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