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Friday, February 11, 2011

A tidy room versus creative chaos

I have to admit that I'm not a naturally tidy person. (If you could see the desk I'm writing at, you'd know what I mean by that!!) To me, the mess that surrounds me is a living, creative thing (and no, I'm not referring to mould cultures!)- an archaeological layering of yesterday's ideas and today's inspirations, last year's study notes and last week's topic lists. I can usually put my hand on what I want right now.

But when I realise that I've lost a month's worth of bills under there somewhere and the late charges are mounting, I start to get stressed, cranky and lethargic all at once. It's time to stop creating, overcome the apathy and have a tidy-up session. It's a balancing act which I'm still working on.

The same balancing act of breathless creativity and overwhelmed non-coping applies to your small children, and your attitude to the often appalling mess surrounding them when they play helps to determine what sort of learning they are allowed to do. 

A certain amount of mess can be creative, signifying an active imagination and a mind that's excited about the world and the discoveries it holds. But at some point the mess becomes counter-productive, out-of-control and unmanageable, and our kids end up stressed out and not coping- while we, depending on our natural tendencies towards mess or order, may be just as stressed-out. It can be hard to handle kids' creative play, especially if we are naturally rather anally neat.

Knowing your child means knowing your child's mess limit. Some kids actually like to have things in order; these children will find your average daycare centre stressful, and you probably need to find an environment which has fairly firm boundaries (without totally crushing their inventiveness). Children with special needs can also be significantly negatively affected by a chaotic environment, particularly those with ADHD or Spectrum Disorder.

Others, particularly very gifted or curious children, can function in quite high levels of disorder and will become very upset if you move or tidy up their 'projects'. All children will have a breaking point, where the chaotic environment starts to create chaotic behaviour; most will have a minimum stimulus level, where their environment isn't giving them anything to work with. Your job is to recognise your own child's start and finish limits for mess, and try to help them to work in between those boundaries.

When I walk into a daycare room full of screaming children who have clearly forgotten every room rule they ever learnt, my first instinct is to start packing away the toys all over the floor. There will invariably be many of them strewn across the floor, usually all mixed up together. I struggle to remember an instance of classroom chaos which took place in a relatively tidy room.

And when I enter a very tidy daycare room which seems to lack spark, where the children seem listless and unmotivated or are actually misusing toys or hurting each other out of boredom, my first instinct is to make things a bit less orderly, and do something completely different with those toys- like taking two different tubs of equipment which can work together and mixing them up as I start to create something new. The train set and the blocks, to make a city; the puppets and the throws, to make a theatre; the play dough and the home corner equipment, to make a cooking role play... even rearranging or redecorating the room to be less clinical and 'hard' can have a huge impact on stimulating self-motivated learning.

Watch your child. If you're a carer, watch your group at play. See if you can work out how many sets of toys is too many. When does the play stop being creative and start being random? That's the moment to call for the clean-up, before things escalate into chaos. When do children start tagging around after you, pulling on your shirt for attention? That's when the room isn't stimulating enough, and you need to create a little more intellectual tension.

Make sure you identify the difference between 'random chaotic' behaviour and 'experimental' behaviour; experimental behaviour is useful for cognitive growth. The other day I saw two children mixing up a set of weighing equipment with a set of mosaic tiles, some shells, seed pods, small stones, paper flowers and various other small items- it looked utterly random and very like chaos at first sight, but I reserved judgement and stood and watched them for a while. They had discovered that the scales could be used as a catapult, and were experimenting to discover how far the different items could be made to fly up in the air by placing them on one side of the scales and clapping their hand down on the other side. This was a great science experiment for a four-year-old and a two-year-old to discover, and taught them all sorts of interesting things about velocity, force, size and aerodynamics, to name just a few.

As they experimented with more and more items, the mess reached critical mass. The moment they started throwing the small items at each other I called a halt and asked for a clean-up. The mixed-up mess had become overwhelming and had overtaken the fun, and their coping mechanism was to break out into silly behaviour.

So how do we help children with the concept of tidying up, without either being anal or condoning chaos?

First, watch for a while before you assume that the mess is a mess, and ask the kids what they're doing and which items are vital to their play. When they come to a breathing point in their activity, or a time when the routine requires that they move on, that's the time to give them a five-minute warning and ask for the non-relevant items to be put away after those five minutes more play. Get them to choose which set of items they can do without, and try to allow them to keep play items set up which are important to them, so they can return to them later.

The clean-up itself doesn't have to be totally painful. It's okay to encourage the behaviour you want by setting up a race (who can be the first to pick up all the counters of one colour? I'll do red, you do green...), turning it into a game (okay, all the soft toys have to go in this box- but you have to toss them from behind this line. How many can you get in?) or drawing a line in the sand about the next activity (the racing cars can't come out till the Lego gets put away because there's not enough room for both - always use reasoning if you're drawing a boundary!). Remember to take part cheerfully yourself- modelling, modelling, modelling!- and praise whoever does a good job while ignoring anyone who won't help.

You can make it a categorising or science experience. (What will we pick up first, the people or the animals? You do the long blocks and I'll do the square ones...) You can teach them how to use a large flat item like a book to push all the Lego off the table into the box without having to pick up every little piece, or how to pick up the mat by all four corners to move large quantities of small items at once. Show them how to use a broom and a dustpan to pick up lots of tiny items from the floor. Use a magnet to pick up all the metal items.

And remember to respect their special creations- you may not see any value in something, but your child may have spent considerable time on a play project in order to get it just how he wanted it. If you spend an hour cooking dinner, how does it feel if your child throws the result on the floor? Are you angry and disappointed and hurt? Well, that's how your child feels when you knock down his block city because it's 'just a game'. Do unto others, and that includes your children.

Having a child is never going to be a neat and tidy experience- get used to it! But it doesn't have to be chaos, either.

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