The Magic Word for No Hassle Cleanup

Some classes take pride in cleaning up the art room, and others don’t! So how do you get a class of twenty-five slobs to transform into enthusiastic, efficient cleaners?

One answer: the “magic word.”

Once I discovered this word, I never had to worry about supplies getting put in the wrong place or things left on the floor again. Complaints and feet dragging are magically transformed into “Did we win?” and “Come on guys, keep cleaning!” I never have art supplies shoved in cupboards, hidden in desks, or left on the floor anymore.

So what is this word that changed my life or at least my clean up time? “Mystery Item.”

That’s it. I tell the students I’m thinking of one “mystery item” that is out of place. I write it on a piece of paper so they know I’m not going to change it. At the end of the five-minute cleanup time, the table who found the “mystery item” gets a prize, sticker, music choice for next class, or whatever the reward is that day.

You should try this “mystery item” trick tomorrow! Some people even call this game “Secret Scrap” – you choose!  Your room will thank you for it, and so will the kids. I promise they will ask to play “mystery item” every art class!

What are ways you encourage students to clean up more efficiently? 

Erica Stinziani


This article was written by former AOE writer and insightful elementary art teacher Erica Stinziani.


  • kristin anson

    Ah, I used to do this all the time when the kids were doing collage and I called it the Magic Scrap!  The one thing that you’ve got to remind the kids is they can’t approach you and ask if it’s the Magic Scrap/Mystery Item–you’ll disclose it at the end of cleanup.  Otherwise it’s “Is this it? Is this it? Is this it?…” lol

    • Kristin,
      I am glad you brought this up, I had the same thing happen when I tried it. It was so cute how they kids had hand-fulls of scraps coming up to me!

    • This happened to me too! You figure it out really fast when you have twenty kids asking you “is it this?” that you have to set parameters. THANKS FOR GIVING EVERYONE “THE HEADS UP!” I forgot to mention this!!!

  • A fellow teacher introduced this ‘game’ to me a few years ago as The Mystery Mess Game- Best game ever, closely followed by ‘silent ball’.

    • What is silent ball!? I am intrigued.

      • Pallypalette

        Silent ball is an indoor game that can be played when there is a few spare minutes at the end of a lesson-as a reward for cleaning up quickly. It is simply a game throwing and catching a ball around the classroom there are a couple of basic rules the first is that you must be silent or you are out. Secondly you may not throw over arm – just underarm throws or you are out. You are out if you hit the displays etc or if you hold the ball (or soft beanbag) for longer than 3 seconds. If you drop the ball you are out. If you are out you just sit on the floor, quietly of course. You can make it more tricky by adding new rules along the way like catch and throw with only one hand. Stand on one foot etc etc. For some reason kids of all ages LOVE this game, I love the silent part of it, it’s fantastic with those ‘enegetic’ classes because they are all involved quietly!

  • Artsy Emily

    I do this as well! I tell the children that they can’t win the game until the “item” is put away. So if they come up with a pencil and ask “Is this it?” I say “It might be if you put it where it belongs!” I only give the award to one person, although the other day I had a class that would not clean up even when we were playing the game. Two boys worked hard to collect all the paintbrushes, wash them thoroughly, and put them back in the bucket. I gave them both a treat for working diligently without being asked!

  • Kristin

    Genius! I have been using the smart board to list clean up duties and the interactive timer that looks like a stick of dynamite. If they finish and are sitting quietly before it explodes…they win. If not…I win. I keep a score board as the second page of the smart board file. I have one for each class and save it each time. This sounds like a great way to keep it fun and efficient when I don’t have enough time to turn on the smart board! There are just those days when time has gotten away from you and clean p must begin NOW!

  • HeatherCrockett

    I call it the “Secret SILENT Scrap” game.  Nothing like cleaning and a little peace and quiet to get them ready to transition back to their classroom!

    • I like the SILENT part. Peace. Quiet. Ahhh..
      Greg Percy also has a song called “The Cleanup Anthem” I want to try playing this song while students are cleaning up SILENTLY.

      • bobbie

        Another good song to play during clean up is the Mission Impossible theme 
        song – I bought the one by The Royal Philharmonic from ITunes, it lasts 4 minutes and 15 seconds and the goal for my students is to have them all cleaned up by the end of the song.  Boy do they scramble when they hear the start of the tune.

        • That is an amazing idea!! I think the kids would love it and its catchy!

  • Alecia Eggers

    I read this post last night – so I thought I would try it today (we are wrapping up Eric Carle collages a.k.a. LOTS of paper scraps) and I was blown away by how quickly the students began cleaning up and how sparkly clean the floor looked!  It’ s amazing how a little competition can go a long way –  THANK YOU! 

    • Haha! I am happy it worked and HAPPIER that you didn’t have to break YOUR back sweeping up the floor:) I am a self proclaimed slob! As they say it “takes one to know one.” The only thing that gets me to clean myself is when I make it into a game!

      • I set a timer at home when I do cleaning or chores and try to beat the clock. It’s like a game, as you said.

  • Katie Maddox

    I tried this yesterday and it was AMAZING! Totally transformed my third graders into cleaning machines! Thank you!!!

  • Knighth

    Love this.  Adding it.  Think I’ll make a countdown video to play on my whiteboard, maybe using that Mission Impossible song.  My only concern: can I handle listening to that 6 times a day, every day?

    • So true! Maybe have a few different songs to rotate in. Repetition is the art teachers nightmare. I get tired of doing everything by the 6th time on Friday afternoon!

  • I ask the K-3 kids to be, Scrap Detectives, They dive under the tables and are very helpful, no rewards neede, just a sincere thanks from me and the custodian.

  • Mikyonyoo1

    I tell my students “pick up ten things from the floor and show me, as a ticket out the door”.  My, the floor gets cleaned under 2 minutes. :)

  • Rachael Kunnen

    I call this “game” the Secret Piece of Trash … and I tell the kids I have “Eagle Eyes” and I will see who picks up my secret trash.  If anyone comes up to show me their handful of trash that it will not be the secret piece …. I count backwards from 20 and then have them quickly throw out their trash and go back to their seats.  In 30 seconds the trash is ALL GONE!

  • Erin EGart

    I do this often with my students, too, and they LOVE it…and ask me pretty much every class if there is a “mystery prize.”

    I do something a little different for my Kindergarteners, that works just as well. I play the “Clean Up Anthem” (Greg Percy’s “Songs in the Key of Art, Vol. 4”). They know that when the music starts, they have to CLEAN, and when I pause the CD, they have to FREEZE. It’s amazing how the room can go from loud, [organized] chaos to absolute stone silence with the press of a button. :) When I see that the room is all clean, I gradually turn the volume down, and that is their cue to hurry back to their seats before the music is “over” (it never takes them the length of the whole song to finish!). Works like a charm :) ***I also make sure to reiterate every time that there is no running in the game. :)

  • Pingback: Create Art on Day One With This Fool-Proof Lesson - The Art of Ed()