Practical Work with Children No. 1: Why?


With my practice of working with children, I find myself using the term "practical work" every time I try and explain what we do to other adults. I shy away from the term "chores" because I find many of us have such negative associations with it from our own childhoods, and because it implies a kind of transactional, hierarchical system of task assignment. Instead, practical work is the work of life, the work of lovingly caring for our shared physical environment. Practical work is a practice, one that children are naturally drawn to and that can be cultivated to enrich both those lives and that of the household and community as a whole. 

By helping children engage with practical work, we are teaching them to feel at home in the world and to build the confidence that they understand what it takes to be here. Learning to sweep may seem like a small thing, but this idea: "I know how to do what needs to be done," is one that can grow with them. It is that same idea that helps them feel comfortable, later in life, to learn to fix a car or build a house or start a small business. Things like cleaning up your spills or helping a friend with theirs, working as a team to sweep up a pile of dirt, or building something useful also teach important values of responsibility and community that have benefits that reach far beyond a tidy home. 

In this series, we will be examining some of the more toddler friendly forms of practical work and exploring how to integrate them into your household's rhythm and culture. Just as with, well, everything relating to children, patience is key here. Having a child's "help" typically makes things take longer. They're not actually great at cleaning yet, and the work often needs to get re-done. Instead of putting yourself and the children in your care in the position of having to hustle or achieve a perfect result, try approaching practical work (with or without children!) as a meditative exercise--a practice of mindfulness. I love and often call to mind this beautiful passage by Thich Nhat Hanh, from his book The Miracle of Mindfulness: 

. . . There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.

If while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.

In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

Children can easily find this mindset of mindfulness, it is just our adult consciousness that is so result-oriented that it is easy to get impatient. But what a gift it is to give the children the space and time to be truly present with work worth doing. 

I'm hoping this will be an ongoing series to help us dive deeply into specific types of practical work and how best to approach them. First up: Sweeping! Tell me, is there anything particular you're interested in learning more about?