I once worked at a school where every teacher had a plastic shoebox for each student to keep their school supplies in, and it was clear I was expected to do that, too.
So I went out and paid for twenty-four plastic shoeboxes, and then tried to find room for them. When the kids arrived, they each brought their own box of crayons, box of pencils, box of markers, pair of scissors, glue stick, and glue bottle, and I helped them put their things in their shoeboxes.
I had misgivings the whole time, which were borne out by experience. Whenever we wanted to do an art project, all the kids had to go to the shelf to get their boxes, and would crowd and push and fight to do so. Then we had to make space on the tables (and floors) for all those boxes, and then the kids would fight over items left on the table: “that’s my crayon!” “No, that’s MINE!” Pretty soon their glue sticks were dried out and their glue bottles were empty, and the crayons were lost and broken. No one had money to replace these things, and as this was the year that I lost a child every few weeks and got a total of twenty-four new ones (they arrived every few weeks, and the last one showed up in May), none of the new ones brought supplies, either.
I couldn’t — and still can’t — figure out how this system worked for the other teachers. I junked it, and went to the system I use to this day.
Each August I send out a supplies letter asking the parents to send their child on the first day with a backpack (which they can get free at our open house), two spiral notebooks for journals, and $5.00. I use the money I collect to help pay for our supplies, which I then buy in bulk: crayons, markers, glue, glue sticks. (I bought the scissors long ago and still have them all.)
As we have 5 tables, we have 5 baskets for crayons, 5 for markers, and 5 for pencils, all of which go in designated (labeled) spots in the writing center. When we do a whole-class activity, one basket each of pencils, crayons, and markers (as needed) gets placed in the center of each table by a teacher or student-helper at set-up time.
I have bins on the art shelf for the scissors, glue, and glue sticks, which go in a central location for the children to pick up when they need them for a whole-class activity. At centers time, the children who need markers, pencils, scissors, etc. know where to find them, and where to put them away.
(As any early childhood teacher knows, putting out the scissors and glue on the table along with the markers means the children will start gluing first without doing any coloring. I only put out what they need, and disctracting supplies are set aside to be picked up only when they are needed.)
I know teachers who set up nice divided bins at the center of each table at the beginning of the year, with all the supplies needed, and then keep them on the table all year long. They tend not to refill broken or used-up supplies, and get frustrated with the kids for not taking better care of them. By early spring the children are fighting over the few remaining markers that work.
I teach my four year olds how to put caps on markers and glue sticks, and how to close glue bottles, but I realize they’ll only have limited success. As things get used up, I replenish them. The children need working materials, and it isn’t fair if they are expected to write books and letters and stories and draw pictures and make collages (and so on) without them.
Set-up and clean-up are easy, and as everything is clearly labeled, the children know how to fetch and put away whatever they need, and lack of supplies (or crowding around one shelf) never becomes an issue.