Classroom clutter clutters learning in preschool

I was invited to participate in the Bam Radio show, along with Rae Pica and Dr. Rebecca Isbell, titled “How Classroom Setup and Clutter Affect Learning and Behavior.”

“Classroom setup and structure are critical elements in teaching and controlling behavior and student interactions. What do you need to know? What are the best practices? How might rearranging your classroom help you?” (From the Bam Radio Show)

Take a minute and listen to the radio show by clicking here or here!

Rae Pica with Dr. Rebecca Isbell Ph.D. and Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed.

Classroom Setup

Setting up a preschool classroom is a topic that makes up enough material for an entire book by itself! I have invested a tremendous amount of thought and time into my classroom setup. Having a rather small space to work with, like my preschool classroom, brings its own challenges but whether your classroom space is small or large, the way you setup, care for, and maintain it has a real and tangible affect on classroom management, child behavior, and child engagement in the learning process…

One important part of classroom set up is the issue of clutter. Clutter, clutter, clutter, clutter! Clutter is like chatter – a lot of noise going on all around you all the time and you can never shut it off. Clutter is distracting, stressful, demotivating, and can make a group of children go bonkers…


Where does clutter lurk?

Most classrooms usually don’t start out at the beginning of the year being cluttered but clutter sort of sneaks up on you. I find clutter building up in my classroom all the time. I literally do a daily search around my room before going home to make sure everything has been put back in its place and I am constantly amazed at how quickly things can start to fall apart and the clutter can start to build up.

Keeping clutter under control takes energy, time, effort, skill and a realization that if you don’t manage the clutter – it will absolutely-without-question negatively impact your classroom environment!

Clutter on counter tops…

Sometimes (well most of the time) it is my fault when my classroom starts to look cluttered. My teacher area (aka the counter top) is the number one place that starts to get cluttered in my classroom. I will set papers, cups, games, glue, paint, pencils, bags, books, and you name it on the counter thinking I will need it soon and the next thing you know I am adding dishes, measuring spoons, snack items, and more right on top of what is already there…

When my counter top gets cluttered, I start to feel unorganized. Well, it is more than a feeling, I actually am unorganized. I knock things over and it takes me twice as long to find something when I need it in a hurry. Clutter complicates teaching – it is a time waster and it adds stress to the day.

So at the end of every week, I wade through the piles of clutter on my counter top and unclutter all the clutter. I make sure that when I leave, the countertop looks clean, inviting, attractive, and organized. I get rid of anything that I don’t have to have off the counter top. I find that if I wait and come back to the clutter later, I feel stressed the minute I walk in the classroom so I have gotten into the habit of making sure I unclutter before I head home for the weekend.

Cubby Clutter

The next area that I have to keep an eye on is our cubby area. Our cubbies are composed of hooks for each child on the wall with a basket on the floor underneath each hook. When I visit a preschool or childcare center, one of the first places I can usually find clutter is either in or on top of the cubbies.

A cluttered cubby area does nothing to promote or teach children about organization, care of their personal space or things, or care for the classroom environment. My cubbies look pretty good in these photos but by then end of a week or two – our cubbies can look like a big rock, mitten, pebble, acorn, stick, toy, and paper collection! When the cubbies get too cluttered, the children have a hard time taking care of their things so we purge the cubbies regularly to help the children feel more in control of their personal space and belongings…

Classroom shelves and baskets and toys

Like most preschool teachers, I like to add new toys and activities to my classroom but there comes a time when you have to know enough is enough.  Having too many shelves, baskets, and toys is just begging for trouble in the preschool classroom (having too few can be a problem too but today we are focusing on the too many)

Having a small classroom, I really have to be selective in what stays out all the time and what needs to be rotated so that the children can easily find and independently take part in caring for our classroom. The more you have the more there is to take care of and for young children, too many toys with no specific and clear place for where things belong can be overwhelming…

After awhile, it can seem like the children just don’t seem to care about where things belong. When I start finding plastic fruit in the postcard mailbox and toy cars in the bookshelf, I know it is time to declutter and make sure that I have classroom setup manageable and that it makes sense to the children. Once I declutter, I sit down with the children and we have a little reminder session on where things go and how we all need to step up and start putting things away in their propper place.

Observing and reflecting on clutter

Your classroom may not look cluttered at first glance. Things may look neat and tidy but be sure to be an observer of your own classroom environment. Take time to observe the children at play and see where things tend to fall apart and what needs to be done to improve the situation. Be reflective and responsive to the children’s needs in the process. For example, in the photo below, you will see my students playing on top of the puzzles. The children have been playing on top of these puzzles for weeks now. They are not playing with the puzzles, they are playing on top of the puzzles….

In the process of their play, the puzzles keep getting shoved aside. Everyday, I find the puzzles set on the floor or on a table. I find them anywhere but on that shelf. These puzzles have been out for quite awhile now and clearly my students would like to use the top of this shelf for their own play but I haven’t been responsive. I really like these puzzles on my shelf. They look so pretty there but for the children, they are in the way of their play. They are actually just clutter.

So today, when half of the puzzles came tumbling down on the floor in a loud crash, I knew that I should have moved those puzzles over a week ago. So now I have them all stacked up on the counter with all the pieces (that fell out earlier in the day) sitting in a basket.  I will take all the puzzles and store them in a box in my garage for awhile and let the children have the top of that book shelf for their play. The puzzles can come out on another day but right now, the children need that space for their own purposes. I could tell the children that they are not allowed to play there because they are messing up my puzzles – but really, does that make any sense?

Classroom setup matters and clutter control is an important part of maintaining a positive classroom environment so if you haven’t been on clutter patrol in awhile – its time to start!  Don’t forget, if you would like to hear what the experts have to say about classroom setup and the impact it has on young children, head on over to Bam Radio and take a listen! Click here or here for today’s broadcast on classroom setup!

By |2012-02-24T06:00:42+00:00February 24th, 2012|

About the Author:

Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. has been working and teaching in the field of early childhood education for over 30 years. Deborah currently owns and teaches in her own part-time, private preschool called The Children’s Studio. Deborah’s deep passion for teaching and working with young children is documented and then graciously shared with millions of readers around the world through her blog and other social networking communities. Deborah believes that young children learn best through play and exploration and embraces this belief in all that she does in her own classroom so that she can effectively and passionately share rewarding, real- life, tried-and-true practices with other teachers, parents, and leaders across the field of early childhood education.


  1. Lakisha Reid February 24, 2012 at 8:06 am - Reply

    I LOVE your classroom!!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. February 24, 2012 at 9:10 am - Reply

      Thank you Lakisha:)

  2. Jennifer February 24, 2012 at 8:52 am - Reply

    Thanks for the post! I especially appreciate the reminder that if the children aren’t playing with it, it’s clutter.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. February 24, 2012 at 9:12 am - Reply

      It’s so true! If it the children rather play around or on top of over the materials I have out on a shelf, then I might as well call it clutter because it is in the way of positive play!

  3. Brooke@Let Kids Create February 24, 2012 at 9:32 am - Reply

    Good tips for my children’s toys at home, too. Thanks.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. February 24, 2012 at 9:51 am - Reply

      Yes – this would apply at home too for sure! Speaking of which, I need to do some at-home decluttering!

  4. Allison February 24, 2012 at 4:30 pm - Reply

    I totally agree!

  5. fer February 24, 2012 at 4:44 pm - Reply

    This is a really good article.
    Its very true, when all is a mess I personally feel stressed, and I really don`t feel like that`s my class, I don’t feel comfortable at all.
    And I think that is not a good or positive environment for the children to work in a desorganized place and visually it looks horrible.
    I`m a very organized person and I try to enhance that in my students, but not always we can avoid the clutter. Clutter has to happen in any moment of the day, but in some way the students little by little start to be organized until they don´t cause any clutter at all. And when that happens its awesome, and I personally feel that I reach an objective.

  6. Pamela Ennis February 25, 2012 at 1:30 pm - Reply

    We meet in a church hall, this means that every day I must set up and take down. I must know in advance what activities I want the children to focus on and what activities I want out for free play. You would think that would cut down on the clutter and it does a bit, but still every morning I must resist the urge to take out everything! The children aren’t going to play with everything everyday but still I have to stop myself from thinking that everything needs to always be available. However if a child does ask for something that we didn’t put out we are more than willing to go and fetch it if it doesn’t clash with the plan for the day.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. February 25, 2012 at 3:03 pm - Reply

      I would think this could be extra challenging. It would require a very good system of storage to keep the boxes of things from becoming a box full of clutter to sort out for set up! Wow – what a big challenge you have on your hands!

  7. Leeanne A February 25, 2012 at 10:23 pm - Reply

    I am so strict about keeping my classroom clear of clutter and organized. We pick up as we go along and we straighten up at the end of the day so everything is fresh and prepared for the next day. This allows the children to go to the exact items they wish to use without waundering looking for something to do. I tell any assistant coming into my room that they should always assist the children in putting items away after use. The day always runs smoothly because of this. If I bring something new in – something old goes out – no over flow sitting around waiting to be used. I learned this is so important over the years – no idle hands – no ‘getting into trouble’ – because things are easy to find and they are not overwhelmed. My son who is autistic used to be stir crazy when the classroom got more and more cluttered. I tried to explain this to his teachers, but some just didn’t get that this is an issue for most kids.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. February 25, 2012 at 10:51 pm - Reply

      I agree! I believe it is an issue for all kids to have a cluttered classroom. It just makes us feel hap hazard when things don’t make sense!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. February 26, 2012 at 10:39 pm - Reply

      We pick up as we go along. I try to balance when I need to let something stay out because the children will want to return to it and when it is starting to get out of control. I know that if we just let everything go and it becomes too overwhelming, then the children will not be able to clean up without it becoming too stressful.

  8. Kristin March 15, 2012 at 6:39 pm - Reply

    Hi! Great ideas!!! I love your website and have been getting lots of ideas. I was noticing those neat little glue bottles in the picture above. Where did you get them? I’ve been looking for something small with a lid so that it doesn’t dry up. Right now, we use paper cups and after a few days the glue dries up.


  9. Leanne August 4, 2012 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    Hi Deborah 🙂 I love your website!! I have learnt so much and the knowledge has helped me with running my own daycare:) I apreciate your article on clutter and I work hard everyday to keep it to a minimum. However, I have a question for you. It seems that the children in my daycare, don’t play with the toys in the “manner” for which they were intended. For instance, I have a “table toy” area with some Magnetic rods and balls. The children are suppose to build structures from them. However, they take the balls out of the basket I store the Magnetic items in, and they carry them to the “Kitchen Area” and start pretending they are “meatballs” or some other food item. THIS DRIVES ME CRAZY! I have a lot of pretend food for the kitchen area, so I don’t understand why they do this!?!? Is this normal??? I don’t know who else to ask and I figure you would have a logical explanation for this “creative play” that just about makes me bonkers!! lol
    I anxiously await your reply, Ms. Leanne CANADA

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. August 4, 2012 at 6:38 pm - Reply

      Hi Leanne,
      Your comment made me smile because I totally understand and experience it. The reality is, this is very normal and should be expected. Have you ever read the book “Not a Stick” by Antoinette Portis? It is about a little boy who has a stick but to the little boy it is not a stick – instead it is a sword, a fishing pole, and so on. For young children, they see objects for what has meaning to them. Your magnetic rods and balls are anything but a completed structure for which doesn’t have meaning to them or isn’t even possibly interesting to them.

      A magnetic stick with a ball on top make a microphone or the balls make great fruits and veggies or whatever else the children see them as being and find familiar in their world. When we talk about clutter – we need to understand the difference between a classroom filled with so many toys that it is overwhelming for the children to help with clean-up versus a classroom with a reasonable amount of materials that the children are using to explore in their own unique and imaginative way but in the end – still learn to put them back where they belong.

      Learn to view the magnetic balls and sticks as anything but a tool for building structures that make no sense to the children. But sit down with the children at times and teach them how to make a structure, shapes, a long line, and so forth with the tools so they can have a visual of how to use the magnetic qualities of the balls and sticks. However, as the teacher, get into the practice of viewing children’s play with toys as you would their time in creative art – as an expression of what they understand, what they enjoy, what interests them, and what has meaning to them.

      We don’t want children to sit at an art table and make all the same teacher cut and directed construction paper flowers – we know this is not allowing the children to express their own creative ideas. The same holds true for your toys. Your magnetic sticks and balls are not supposed to be used for building structures but rather for inviting and nurturing creative thinking and doing.

      Yes, it will mean you will have balls and sticks in the wrong baskets – so it takes a little extra effort for everyone to go around at the end of the day and find every single ball and stick and bring them back to you to drop them in the basket they belong in. But at the end of the day, your students have been given the opportunity to express their own ideas and still work together as a team to help keep the classroom “uncluttered” and ready for a new day of play.

      I hope this helps:)

  10. Leanne August 4, 2012 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    Oh. My. Goodness. THANK YOU for explaining this to me. Now I can relax and stop thinking they are playing “incorrectly” or that I have done something wrong! You are such an answer to prayer!! May you be rewarded many times over for your kindess and generosity! Ms. Leanne 🙂

  11. Kristen @ Busy Kids = Happy Mom August 14, 2012 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    Great post! I’m trying to do some clutter busting myself right now. Inspiring to read and glad to know I’m not the only one who hogs all of the flat surfaces (counters)!

  12. enkeleda August 15, 2012 at 8:49 am - Reply

    your classroom very,very good

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