When Gabe’s mother walks through the office on her way to pick up Gabe, she meets Gabe’s four-year-old friend Lilly going out the door with her mother. “Gabe is still cleaning up,” announces Lilly with a little foreboding in her voice. Sure enough, Gabe is putting the last few things away in the doll house as his mother comes in the door. Spotting her, Gabe pulls a sad face and says, “I didn’t get to go to story today.” “You sound sad about that; you must have had a lot of cleaning up to do,” comments his mother. Suddenly smiling with the memory, Gabe says “Lilly and I were playing Trick-or-treat. We got all dressed up and got treats and a Halloween bag too. Then we played we were dead; we piled the dress-up cloths on top of us. Then Milo came and needed ‘Take Out’ so we made tacos for him, and two drinks.” “Wow,” says his mom, “It sounds like you and Lilly were very busy; no wonder there was a lot to clean up.” The teacher smiles and comments, “They were busy! Lilly did her part of the clean-up and came to story, but it took such a long time for Gabe to finish up his part.” Turning to Gabe the teacher says, “Too bad it took you so long, Gabe; I missed you at story. Next time I hope you can pick up a little more quickly so you can be part of our story group.” Gabe and his mother head to his cubby, and then on out the door of the Nursery School as they talk about which book they will read when they get home.
Finishing up and putting things back where you found them is part of completing an activity, not a negative consequence for playing. Children care for one another as group members by leaving each area ready for the next children who will use it. All through these early years children are learning how to stop and start activities intentionally; by the fourth year at BlueSkies children usually clean up easily because they know cleaning up is not only the completion of an activity, but is also a gateway to the next activity. Something interfered with that for Gabe today, and the teacher has worked it through with him, so she lets his mom know why he missed story time without going in to every detail.
When children dawdle to avoid cleaning up, the teachers have different strategies to help. Sometimes they break down the tasks – “Gabe, why don’t you put away the kitchen things and Lilly can put away the dress-up things.” This clarifies the task and simplifies it when the children feel overwhelmed by the number of things they have used in their play. The teacher might also step into a younger group and cull away toys that are no longer in use, to help the play stay focused and ease the final clean-up. Occasionally a child may yell, cry, or even throw things to distract the teacher. New or younger children may be testing to see if the teacher really means what she says, while older children may be so excited to be in a relationship where communication and ideas are coming together that they become disregulated and get silly.
A big tantrum that is loud and disruptive can draw curious children who want to see what is happening. The teacher helped everyone gathering for story by narrating what happened: “Gabe is crying so loudly! He is so sad; he really wishes it was different, but you know at school where there are so many children we have to remember about others—cleaning up, being quiet at nap time, remembering to use our words, are all ways we do that. It is too bad he forgot to get busy and clean up, and now he is so mad and sad because he is not ready for story. Too bad; can we help him stop crying? Would you like to get him a drink of water, Oliver? Pam, I see the tissue box on the book shelf, maybe he’d like to wipe his eyes.” Her clear explanation helps both the upset child and the others see that everyone in the group is held to the same agreements, and that actions have consequences. The teacher gathers the watchers and the sad/mad child in emotionally, and perhaps physically in her arms as well. She explains, empathizes, and comforts them all in their concern for their friend. After the child is calm, the teacher will still leave Gabe to finish his job, knowing that consistency is comforting – even if she is consistent about expectations the child was resisting. Lilly understands too; she knows about school and about mothers who help their children when times are rough. She watched this scene unfold, and seeing Gabe’s mother coming to get Gabe in true 4½-year-