Practical Work with Children No. 3: Dishes
If you spend much time in a Waldorf classroom, one thing you might notice is the children washing their own dishes after snack. Different classes do it differently: in some each child washes their own dish, in some a few helpers stay and do it as a service to the classroom community. In our playgroup, when it’s not too cold, we take the dishes outside with us after snack! I first discovered the brilliance of washing dishes outside at Farm Camp, and am continuing the practice here in Brooklyn. Being outdoors means no worrying about splashing water or slippery floors, and means no one has to stay behind inside to do the dishes while their friends go outside to play. Lest anyone worry, we always take another pass at the dishes to sanitize them after the children leave.
Our Classroom Approach
Children clear their bowls, spoons, and cups. With the help of a teacher sitting at a low table, they scrape their uneaten food into the compost bucket and place the dishes in a large wash basin.
Once outside, a teacher fills the basin with soapy water. One or two helpers, with sponges, sink their hands into the water and scrub the dishes, splashing and pouring water all the while.
Eventually, they begin to take the washed dishes out of the basin and sort them to dry on the table. A teacher pours out the basin, sometimes pausing to blow the bubbles on top into the air to the children’s delight. The helpers go off to play, and a teacher fills the empty bin back up with dishes to take inside and sanitize.
At home, you could recreate this experience in a stopped sink with a safe stool to facilitate independence, or in a basin on a low bench outside.
Water and Sensory Integration
The power of dishwashing for children is not limited to, or even really about clean dishes. When they get older the habit of being responsible for the task will carry with them and they’ll start to gain greater competence, but especially for children younger than four it’s really an opportunity to let their senses interact with water. Have you ever seen your child’s fascination with a puddle, or a stream, or a bucket of water? Water is a powerful element that has tremendous power to engage scattered attention and calm anxiety. For adults, this often looks like taking a bath or a swim after a long day, and these are opportunities we should give the children too! For a middle of the day centering exercise, washing dishes is an excellent choice.
In home and classroom settings, I have seen dishwashing calm and center the most disoriented children. It has a way of bringing them back into themselves. Build it into your rhythm during a part of the day where your child often struggles to self-regulate—say, when they’re getting tired but it’s not quite time for nap yet, or when they’ve just gotten home from school and need to integrate what they’ve learned, or during the infamous “witching hour,” whenever that falls for you—and it can almost magically bring quiet and peace. (pro tip: in the evening before bed, a bath can have the same effect so long as you take measures to make sure your child can turn inward: lower lighting, simple bath toys, leaving them alone if they’re old enough that that’s safe.)
Take it Further
Beyond sensory integration, there are lots of other habits around dishwashing that you can build to support independence and responsibility, as well as children’s physical development.
Emptying the dishwasher (especially the bottom rack) strengthens their core and teaches them to bend and straighten, builds sorting skills (early math) and offers an opportunity to practice their finer motor skills when carefully pulling out the cutlery. Though it won’t be a good idea for all children at all ages, consider keeping dishes on a shelf that is accessible to allow them to be more independent.
Setting and clearing the table are excellent responsibilities to give to an older child, and younger ones can at least learn to clear their own plate and cup. Keep your expectations consistent. Having an area of household management that is solely theirs helps children feel a sense of ownership over their work and like they have a way to contribute to the community.
I’ve included links to some products I’ve found helpful when washing dishes with children, curated based on their functionality, beauty, and environmental impact. Some links are affiliate, which support our work by earning us a small percentage of each sale.