July 30, 2017 Tidy Up Time

What does it actually mean?

A question was asked: “How do we ensure that children tidy up properly at the end of each session?” “How can we prevent boxes of resources becoming a mixed up array of random stuff?” “How can we save endless hours at the end of each term, sorting the boxes into some sort of order and back to normality?”

Let’s reflect! Have you ever sat back and watched a group of 3 and 4-year-olds embark on a tidy up mission prior to lunch or the end of the day? The room has been well and truly used and resources have been mixed up and transported into far reaching corners of your setting, it’s nearly time for the session to end and you need to get the room ‘TIDY’.

The adult shakes her tambourine or perhaps a certain tune starts playing which represents it’s “tidy up time” the adult call or in some settings sadly shouts across the heads of a sea of busy engaged, absorbed bodies.

The busy children are now expected to STOP what they have been enthralled with and start to get the room back to some sort of order!! To stop their playing and return to normality and the real world.

Now watch !!
Little bodies reluctantly start to LOOK busy, some take themselves off to the toilet, for that all important wee that’s suddenly become urgent, I’m going to pee my pants urge!!
Others suddenly remember, that long forgotten bruised & black banana at the snack table, which they had prolonged eating all morning, due to being far too busy. Suddenly they feel this is a more than appropriate time to sit with an army of fellow shirkers or problem solvers. They’d eat anything if it meant avoiding “TIDY UP TIME”.

Perhaps some children are the quieter sort, who feel choosing a book from the book corner, an activity which will seek them approval from the adult, let’s face it. Isn’t this where they are supposed to sit after “tidy up time?”

We have many different reactions to “tidy up time”.

Finally, when time is of the essence and the job needs doing, the adult finally with loud vigor, shakes her tambourine a little louder and with a bit more force. Her bingo wings shaking uncontrollably to sound of the percussion instrument and with the most controlled yet authoritarian voice, this meek mannered nursery nurse can muster.
“Right! I need EVERYONE to TIDY UP right NOW, PLEASE !”
The word PLEASE added evidence she is under no circumstances shouting at anyone in particular. However, this mission needs to be completed. Her thoughts drift off – thinking, this must BE what it feels like to actually herd cats?

So the game begins! Children are smart cookies, and if you have worked with the long enough, take things quite literally!


Children will post things, hide things, pop them in the nearest basket. Cover them over with a blanket. Shove things into a play kitchen cupboards, under the cushions into any nearest box, tub or container. They scoop things up and dump them quickly, the mad blind panic, doing that silly running walk, cus Miss, says we mustn’t run inside.

Busy 3 and 4- year- olds on missions to collect those stray farm animals found lying abandoned underneath the art table. “Quick hurry put that away” – it’s TIDY UP TIMEEEEEEEE!


FINALLY, the mission is complete the room LOOKS TIDY! The floor is clear and the tables straightened. The children have a proud look on their faces, phew they did it just in time!

And relax!! They fall into the book or carpet area, a heap of exhausted yet triumphant bodies.

What just happened?

The children did EXACTLY WHAT YOU ASKED THEM TO DO they tidied up! The carpet is clear, the home corner orderly. The toys are all put away!

Have you ever sat back and thought, what tidy up time ACTUALLY means to your cohort of children. They just want to get the mission accomplished, completed in the quickest possible time. Why should they be interested where it goes or that perhaps the Duplo (if you have plastic toys) doesn’t belong with the stickle bricks!

The toys are put away, the room is tidy. It’s not their concern that is NOT how you asked it to be. They are not mind readers. They did what you told them to do.

Let us also consider –
What as adults are WE teaching them, with our big box of ‘junk’ growing ever and ever higher on the counter? You all know that box, the one you all drop things in because you’re TOO BUSY to put them away properly! The one that sits waiting for a quiet afternoon, when it takes one adult 3 HOURS to return lost items to the place they truly belong.

Perhaps you have a staff member who relishes this chore because it’s an escape from working hard in the classroom. Perhaps they are the ones who squirrelled all this stuff away in the first place. Just so they could have an afternoon looking busy and gaining brownie points from the room leader or manager.

Or perhaps you’re the hard working staff member who cannot stand clutter, who hates to see the resources unloved and discarded. Who wants to keep their room orderly and purposeful. Perhaps you are the only one who will actually do this task, even though you try every day to keep the box empty.

Still, what does this subconscious message tell our children?

Think also? Is there a staff member or a practitioner who when sweeping up the sand, has no urge to bend down and to carefully pick out and rescue the resources swept up in the heap. They pretend they haven’t seen the items. Ahhh, it’s ok, No one will miss that coloured tile from the sorting box or that shell from the tinker tray? None will notice as I pop it discreetly in the bin!

However, weeks down the line and resources are running low. The hundreds of pounds spent purchasing toys from the catalogues now seem to have diminished? It must be the children! We need to start frisk searching the little monkies on the way out.


Or is it just the culture within our setting, the way we value the resources and the environment as a whole.

Perhaps if we just start thinking differently about the outcome you want to achieve, rather than the result, surely we all know that learning is a process!


How can we do this?

Firstly, we must refrain from using the words ‘tidy up time’.
It hasn’t worked in the past and it isn’t in the future! Let’s start reframing the sentence giving clear instructions that children can understand.

Return things where they BELONG.
By teaching children and staff that items have a home, children begin to understand the need to keep things together.

Asking children to return things where they belong, poses a question in their heads. They have to think about it. They then have to make a conscious decision to either (a) Take the item to the correct destination or (b) Dump it quick where no one will notice? Most children will attempt to do the right thing and if not, this is where you guys as supporting practitioners, can support encourage and guide them.



Is your doll flung naked with felt tip pen scrawled on his or her head? Give her a name, give her an identity and give her value. Teach the children to return him or her where she belongs. Whether this is sitting at the home corner table or neatly tucked in a crib. Allow children the opportunity to create her a personality and identity, following this they’ll start to respect her more as part of your nursery family. Treating her with kindness and appreciation that her presence brings.

Equipment needs to remain in the same place at all times, giving it a home to which it belongs. You already do this, however, how many of you decide to revamp the nursery or provision without consulting with the children first. If you are truly a child-focused setting then allow children ownership of their play space. This will ensure they understand where things belong and don’t walk into a whole new set up every Monday morning.

By teaching children where things belong, we are showing respect for the environment. She/he, after all, is the 3rd Teacher. The environment is essential to the outcomes and learning of your children. Start treating him/ her with respect.

Bin the clutter, the unessential items. The resources shoved under tables or on top of shelving and cupboards. The stuff hoarded away just in case. As adults, we too need to look after our rooms, show children we are doing our part to tidy up.

Return items where they belong during the session (where possible) don’t leave things to pile up till the end of the term. Clear the clutter each day, returning items to where they belong. If we can get into this habit, children will too.

With a thoughtful and organised role model, children will respect the environment they play in, they will understand its value and the importance of belonging somewhere.

Belonging is a huge part of ‘The Curiosity Approach’. Whether you’re a stickle brick a Duplo brick (if you use plastic toys) or a beautiful authentic resource.

For more helpful information on beautiful environments.

We hope you found this blog helpful – Just change your wording and things will start to change. I’m not saying it’ll work miracles, however, you will be giving children clear instructions to what you want to achieve. Give it a try, what harm can it do?

This article was written by Lyndsey Hellyn, One of the Co-founders of The Curiosity Approach, alongside Stephanie Bennett. We're more than just another consultancy company, together we want to impact on early years. To make a change to the educational system. To inspire practitioners to bring back curiosity, awe and wonder to childhood and to the lives of educators.

Next up

Car Boot Crazy?

Read article

Be a part of Our exclusive
online community

Join Now

Subscribe to Subscribe to our
online Magazine

Subscribe Now

Curious Monthly Inspirational Resource

Purchase Now

Select your delivery For the magazine

Curious is our monthly publication that focuses on one inspirational ingredient of The Curiosity Approach each month. It opens out into a quality A2 poster, which can be displayed in your provision to excite and inform your team and/or families. We use beautiful imagery from our own settings, to help spark the visual learners amongst us, along with hints and tips on how to bring this aspect to your setting to create exquisite yet practical environments that feed our children's hearts and souls.

Subscribe to our online Magazine

Enter your details and receive the latest edition free of charge.