colorful, clean classroom
Learning at School

Magic Mess: Tips for a Happy Classroom Clean Up Time

Classroom clean up has always been one of the most favorite five minutes of my day as a teacher. I know that sounds crazy, but watching my students zip around the room and have the place sparkling again in a flash was SO. DANG. GRATIFYING. Plus, I knew they were learning to be a team and take ownership of our shared space. It made me unreasonably happy.

I opted out of teaching for the 2020-2021 school year due to having a brand new baby and, ya know, a global pandemic. I did come back as an interventionist in the spring. One thing that struck me as I watched my coworkers persevere through all the changes is how difficult it would be (for me) to have to rotate classrooms as a teacher.

Pre-Covid, most kids in upper elementary and older would change classrooms for different subject areas. For safety reasons and better tracking, schools started having teachers move from one room to the next instead, just pushing around a rolling cart full of their supplies for that day.

That means that really organized, tidy teachers were having to spend half their day in someone else’s room. And if your team teacher happens to be messy and disorganized? Oh Lordy, what a struggle!

Why a Daily Classroom Clean Up Means Better Overall Student Performance

I know this sounds preachy and obnoxious to some of you, but kids who are learning in tidy, organized spaces feel proud of their classroom. They take better care of their things, lose fewer pencils, and put less gum under their desks.

When their classrooms are clean and organized, kids feel inspired in all sorts of ways. One way that manifests itself is in motivation. Beautifully clean classrooms inspire kids, and inspired kids are motivated to work.

I have zero research to back that up, but I’m pretty sure it’s true!

Your room doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive to be clean and organized. Low budget will work just fine!

There are plenty of kids who are sensitive to chaos and get overstimulated easily. If their desks are a wreck or the teacher has stacks of paper everywhere, their little brains just shut down.

You know how I know that? Because my brain does that. In messy spaces, the eyes have nowhere to rest and the mind can’t rest, either.

Not to mention, messy spaces cause students to lose valuable time during transitions. If it takes students longer than 2.5 minutes to gather supplies for any activity, there’s a problem. If you’re teaching a testing subject with a group of students who are struggling to pass the test, you have no business wasting time on supply problems.

my classroom cleanup

Curious about my classroom (pictured above)? I used flexible seating for third grade ELAR. Here’s how the discipline and structure works. Hint: organizational skills required 🙂

Teachers should not be staying late to clean up a classroom – EVER!

All you need are good, solid systems in place for organization that kids can manage by themselves. Every supply in your classroom needs a home. This is where all your up-front thoughtfulness before the school year begins can save you so much sanity.

If you’ve got too much stuff in your room, you’re already losing the battle. Clutter is a killer of time, concentration, and cleanliness. If you can’t even FIND the marker bucket, good luck getting a kid to put away the 4 random markers that have found their way to the floor.

Kids should be doing all the cleaning in your classroom, and they should (and can easily) be happy to do it. If you’re staying late to create a new organizational system for your kids to use, that’s one thing. But you shouldn’t have to maintain anything.

How to Play Magic Mess (or Magic Trash)

I’ve used a variety of tricks to get kids cleaning, but the most successful hack for a classroom clean up is called Magic Mess. You might have heard it called Magic Trash.

Sneakily eye one “mess” that is bothering you. It could be a loose paper on the floor, a marker that fell underneath a desk, a set of stools that aren’t stacked under the small group table, or even a container of erasers that has tipped over on top of a bookshelf. Seriously, put your eye on ANYTHING that is out of sorts. Don’t tell them what mess is bothering you.

Your reward might be a certain number of Dojo points, a piece of candy, or 10 extra minutes of Chromebook time the next day. Tell the kids to find the Magic Mess and don’t tell them the prize in advance.

Watch to see who corrects the Magic Mess. Be clear that in order to get credit for finding the Magic Mess, the student must also put it back in the correct spot.

Once the room is truly spotless, announce your winner!

My students got so good at playing this game that they would straighten out my rugs, drag furniture 4″ in one direction, spray my whiteboard clean, pick a tiny piece of blueberry muffin out of the carpet, tuck papers without names into the correct file folder and more. They got SOOOO sensitive to things that weren’t just perfect, because they were so eager to win!

kid doing a classroom clean up wiping down his chair

How to Play Reverse Magic Mess

The beauty of Magic Mess is that you can reward kids who REALLY need a win that day. Are you feeling guilty about being too harsh with Luis that day? Then watch and see what Luis picks up, and pretend that’s the item you picked all along.

Got a kid who seems to never get lucky with Magic Mess, but really worked hard today? Just pay close attention to any item that he collects!

In other words, keep the premise of the game the same for the kids, but instead of choosing a “mess,” choose a student who needs a celebration and watch their performance during Magic Mess instead.

More Classroom Clean Up Games:

The Boss

Choose a classmate who needs a pick me up at the end of a long day. Let them supervise the class while everyone else cleans. Instead of playing Magic Mess, tell them The Boss is going to monitor for the hardest three workers. Whoever he identifies as the hardest three workers will each get a prize.

PS: In my classroom, an extra 5 minutes of free Chromebook time tacked onto their regularly scheduled computer tasks was usually enough to motivate every kid in the room! Another prize that kids loved was getting chosen for Show and Tell. It was easy enough for me to set aside 5 minutes so that student could show off their favorite stuffed animal or whatever!

child cleaning up the classroom - seems in a hurry

9 Items and Then Dance!

I don’t know about you, but I do a much better job cleaning my house when there’s good music playing. So I treat my students the same way.

I taught mostly 9 year olds, so after putting on good music (usually from GoNoodle), I’d instruct them to all bring me 9 items that were messy or out of order. They would show me their little collection of 9 things: a hair tie that fell on the floor, a piece of scrap paper or two, a pencil that needed sharpening, an empty water bottle that didn’t make it to the trash.

Once they brought me the 9 items, I would then instruct them to put everything back where it belonged or in the trash. Once each student finished, they could join the dance party at the front of the room. Seeing everyone playing and dancing often motivated my slowest cleaners!

Create a Classroom Clean Up Checklist

Another thing I’ve done successfully is create a word document or Google doc full of chores I like them to do at the end of the day. My bullet point of lists looks something like this (but longer – one chore for every student):

  • Tidy up the bookshelf
  • Pick all pencils off the floor
  • Sharpen pencils in the “dull” bucket
  • Erase the whiteboard
  • Pass out graded papers
  • Pass out communication folders
  • Lysol wipe the door and table tops

Every classroom and teacher are unique, so you really need to create your own rather than try to find one online. Just look around the room for kid-friendly maintenance tasks.

I just project my list on the SMART board and quickly assign tasks to different kids, making sure every kid has a job and it’s not one they’ve done a million times before. Kids stay motivated better when the chores stay fresh. Assigning tasks takes me about 20 seconds because the list of jobs never changes.

Then, as soon as kids finish their job, I let them come cross it off the list with the whiteboard marker, which they LOVE. I enjoy giving kids the satisfaction of crossing off a to-do list.

I usually began all administrative tasks and Magic Mess about 15 minutes before dismissal. If they finished their jobs early, I turned on Netflix for kids! That was motivating for them to work fast.

magic mess pin - teacher leading circle time before classroom clean up

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