Perfectly Imperfect: What Our Cubby Connundrum Taught Us About Kids!

I remember when I first started teaching kindergarten 19 years ago. I used to put names on everything — from journals to hooks. Every new child or mispelled name meant tons of additional work to do. I never really considered how many items had names on them until I had to add or change one. Then over the years things changed, and this year, my teaching partner, Paula, and I put names on almost nothing. It’s kind of like that song, Let It Go: this is what we decided to “let go.”

Based on some feedback from another kindergarten teaching team at our school, we didn’t even put names on the hooks in the hallway. At first, this was strange for us, but overall, the kids have figured it out. We have a few sets of hooks, and every day, students select one that works for them. A few children always select the same hook. Others always look for hooks beside their friends. One set of siblings select hooks across from each other, so that they don’t confuse their backpacks and snowpants. I love that they’ve even spent the time thinking about this. Metacognitive hook selection … AMAZING! Yes, there’s always a child or two who forgets where they hung up their backpack, but with only a couple of different hook choices and friends to support them, they always find their things with relative ease. In some ways it’s all part of the learning process. In our opinion, if we want kids to be more independent, we have to give them opportunities to have this independence. Now we no longer have to worry about hook changes, name spelling, and problem solving where one more student might go. The kids own these problems!

The same is true in the classroom. On the back wall of our room, we have a lot of open cubby spaces. These could be used for storage. Instead though, we use them as spaces where kids can “save” their work. I’ve taught in classrooms with a similar layout before, and I always labelled these spaces for kids: one cubby for each child. No more. Our students have figured out that if they want a space, they can create it. Some children have made multiple spaces.

The other day, a four-year-old told me that he was going to get “scissors and tape. I know that I have them in my cubby.” And he did. While my initial reaction was to think, the scissors and tape are for the classroom … why is he holding onto them in his cubby? The other part of me loved the problem solving that comes from ensuring that he always has what he needs by putting them in his cubby. It was this other part of me that won out, and I had to smile at his ingenuity.

I love how some children can have more cubbies than others. Other children have no interest in a cubby and don’t save anything. A few children have communal cubbies with friends. All of these different options can co-exist, and every child is happy. Not one student has complained to us about how unfair it is that “[Name] has two cubbies,” or “[Name] is saving his LEGO work, and I never get to save anything.”

  • If you want to save it, make a space.
  • If you want more spaces, make another one.
  • If you don’t like the layout of the spaces, reorganize them.

Yes, there are times that I walk by this back wall area, look at the cubbies, and feel an overwhelming desire to clean them out, put back the individual LEGO pieces, and straighten the signs, but Paula has inspired me not to do any of this. If the kids have spent the amount of time that they have, organizing the things that they do, should we not respect this? I’m coming to fall in love with the highly imperfect, disorganized organization, and what this seemingly small spot says about our view of the child, as “competent and capable” learners. It makes me think about what I inadvertantly communicated to them before, when all classroom organization rested with me. 

Strangely enough, it’s our coat hooks and cubbies that help me see how we’ve supported independence in the classroom. Maybe this seems like a primary problem, but when I taught Grades 5 and 6, my students relied even more on me to help them stay organized, find their materials, and figure out where to put their things. I wonder if some open cubbies and a push to have students take charge, would have changed things for them. How do you support this independence with your kids? Doing a little bit less has eliminated some of our stress and helped children. There’s something to be said for some perfect imperfection.


4 thoughts on “Perfectly Imperfect: What Our Cubby Connundrum Taught Us About Kids!

  1. This is something I think about a lot. I recently gave an assignment to my class – a long term writing assignment that we worked on through the whole writing process (brainstorm, draft, revise, publish.) Kids lost pieces of it all along the way. We don’t do desks in my class. Everyone has a labelled “book box” which is where their writing should always be. And yet we found writing notebooks and drafts all over the blessed place. I have to keep reminding myself that teaching organization and helping kids organize their writing materials and not lose their assignments is an important part of the process in the primary grades so that the grade 5 and 6 teachers aren’t still working on it.
    Organization is one of the executive functions. I have never struggled with this (though I do lose things sometimes!) but my husband struggles greatly. He’s learned a lot of coping skills over time, but it certainly doesn’t come naturally for him.

    • Thanks for your comment, Lisa! You’re giving me more to think about here. Your comment around where their writing was supposed to be, and where many kids found it, made me wonder, what role are kids playing in the creation of the organizational systems? I think of the number of times that I’ve created systems for kids — from labelling folders to creating boxes for work — but students never played a role in the actual creation of these systems. Did they then understand how and why to organize items in this way? Did the one system work for everyone? I wonder if this is what was missing for my students before. Now our kids are far more involved in the process. This doesn’t happen naturally though. A few kids could just pick a good hook for themselves. Some, we had to talk through the process of choosing one. How will they remember where it is? This led to some problem solving on their part. Just like with the cubbies. When kids initially came to us asking to save work, the question we asked was, where could it go? How can you remember that it’s there? Is there enough room for everything? If not, then what? Some kids need more of these questions. Some less. But I wonder if playing a role in the process helps with the development of the organizational skills. I’ve never been good at organizing things, and can relate to your husband. Over time though, talking through some different options with my parents (both educators), helped me out. I also learned what works well for me, and what doesn’t, which is why I organize most of my things electronically. Thanks for giving me more to think about here!


  2. I am a pretty organized person, but not a very neat person sometimes. 🙂 Ask me where anything is on my desk and I will be able to get it for you in a second. However, if you were trying to find my stapler it would take you all day!

    One thing I have noticed is that some of my people want to hoard thing like books, or they want to keep all of their work (we just threw out some Halloween stuff for a friend the other day). Like you, I spend a lot of time talking through the systems with them, and I provide flexibility for anyone for whom the first system isn’t working. But I definitely still have to remind myself to be patient and not get annoyed about having these conversations with 7 and 8 year olds!

    • Thanks for replying, Lisa! The line between organized and neat is an interesting one. I had to get rid of my desk almost 19 years ago because it wasn’t neat or organized. Not having a place to pile papers makes a huge difference for me.

      Your comment about the children that like to hoard things is interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about this when it comes to the cubby spaces. We have a few children that like to/need to hold onto everything. For example, there’s a huge bin of LEGO, but they need a collection of some small pieces in their cubby. For a while, I took the pieces out. I often said, “These things are for sharing. They don’t just belong to you. They’re for the whole class.” But then, in conversation with Paula, I also began to recognize what’s developmentally appropriate for some young kids, and that involves having their own things. Their experiences might also drive them to want/need to hold onto things. So I’m trying to become more understanding of this, or at least attempt to figure out the why behind these choices. Maybe it comes down to your reminder too about the age of the kids, and that need for a little extra patience.


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