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A Montessori Approach to Clean-Up Time

by Carine Robin

We know that Montessori is all about order.

We know that children have a sense of order. The Montessori classroom is an orderly environment where every activity has its place.

Montessori teachers encourage children to use one activity at a time and to tidy up each activity after they have finished with it.

As parents, we expect that the Montessori philosophy will help our children to be tidy! In my experience as a teacher, it’s easier for children to tidy up in the classroom. The Montessori school is designed for children and leads naturally to order. There are clear rules and expectations, and children are more willing to clean up after themselves in the classroom.

What if I tell you that, despite being a Montessori teacher, my children’s bedrooms are not orderly? They don’t tidy up spontaneously. There are several reasons for that, and I have learned over the years what helps children to tidy up and to stay organized.

Three reasons why children don’t tidy up?

1. You might have heard of the sense of order? This is one of the ‘’sensitive periods’ observed by Maria Montessori. It is now described more as a tendency that all human beings must make sense of their environment. It’s not so much about “tidying up after themselves” or keeping their bedroom clean” as about routine, rhythm, and knowing what comes next.

They will express that sense of order about what matters for them. For example: sorting their little people; being obsessed about their collection of pebbles; sleeping with their special teddy is all about that sense of order!

“It seems to him, at this stage, a particularly vital matter that everything in his environment should be kept in its accustomed place; and that the actions of the day should be carried out in their accustomed routine.” – E.M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, p. 123

Sense of order doesn’t equal being tidy!

2. Are you a tidy person? I’m very honest on this blog and on my social media about the fact that I am not a naturally tidy person. I used to have lots of clutter in my life.

I did a big work on myself to understand my hoarding tendencies and to learn to be more organized. So, if like 50 percent of the parents I work with, you tend to be “messy and disorganized,” you cannot expect that your children will be able to tidy up spontaneously. Children need role models. The more you clean and tidy in front of them, the more they will see it as being part of the routine.

3. They don’t see you cleaning and tidying! I have said it already but even the tidiest parent tends to “clean” when the children are not around. Have you ever sent your co-parent to the park with the children, to allow you to do a good clean-up session?

Do you tend to do everything when they nap? Or do you tend to tidy up all their toys at the end of the day when they are in bed? Stop now and do as much as you can in front of them. Montessori is about teaching life skills and independence, so taking care of the environment is something that I would advise you to focus on. Teach your child to fold the laundry, to do the dishes, empty the dishwasher, setting up the table, and cleaning the windows!

How to help children to tidy up?

• Work on yourself: if you are not naturally tidy, start with you! Do a big decluttering session, and try to understand why it’s hard for you to be orderly. Seek support if needed. Your children will thank you!

• Equally, if you are a very tidy person, lower your expectations; having a spotless house when we have children is just not possible. Review your definition of what is a tidy home.

• Be a role model: clean in front of your children. Even if you have a cleaner, try to do a task with them as a way to teach them. Involve them in the cleaning tasks: young toddlers, generally, love to clean! Give them child-size tools and don’t expect a brilliant result. Let them enjoy the process.

• Have fewer activities and toys available. The less there is to tidy, the easier it will be. Halve the amount of Legos™, blocks, train parts… Those sets tend to be difficult to tidy, and children get discouraged and stop cleaning up after themselves if they are overwhelmed by the task.

• Have a place for everything. Make sure you know the spot for each toy/activity. At the beginning of your Montessori journey, you might still move things around but try to limit a big overhaul, as it disturbs their sense of order and will prevent them from putting back what they have used.

• Make it playful: have a tidy-up song! or a silly dance. Have the animals go back to their basket, making sounds. Find what works for your child.

• Wait for when they are ready. When children are in a flow, playing intensely, it’s hard to know when it’s time to tidy up. It might be dinner time, but they might not be ready to stop playing. Wait for the moment they naturally seem to move onto a new activity to encourage them to put the previous one back on the shelf.

• Help them! It’s a skill, don’t expect them to do it consistently even if they have done it a few times. Like us, they are allowed cheat days.

What about older children?

Children in the second plane of development are messier than younger children. They are less interested in organizing the environment. They are less interested in practical life. They tend to spread out when they explore a topic. It’s because it’s an age when they make connections between concepts.

Their play area and toys might be in their bedroom. Their bedroom is their private area, and you might be less around when they play. Children in the second plane have access to toys that have small parts (Legos™ beads, …).

You can still rotate toys for that age group. You can have a rule that the Legos™ are stored in the living room, or the crafts are only accessible at the dining table. I recommend that you limit what they have access to in their bedroom. Make it part of the daily routine to tidy up for half an hour before dinner.

The bottom line: Mess is part of life but being tidier, as a family, will help everyone.

Having said that, let’s close with this quote: “Excuse the mess, the children are making memories!” •

Carine Robin has a master’s degree in psychology, specializing in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006.

It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew. She qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a Montessori preschool.

Carine has been running Montessori-based parents and toddler groups and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 20,000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world.

In 2018, Carine realized families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.

Carine has also trained with Sarah Ockwell-Smith in BabyCalm and Toddler Calm, with Dr. Laura Markham on Peaceful Parenting, and most recently, at the prestigious Maria Montessori school in London, as an AMI Elementary and 0-3 assistant. She writes on a popular blog “the Montessori Family”. Instagram: @montessorifamilyuk