Practical Work with Children No. 2: Sweeping


I have found children to be naturally drawn to brooms, with their great length (excellent for both knocking lamps over and developing proprioception!) and the interesting texture and lovely scent of broom corn. The tricky part is teaching them to treat the broom as a tool, rather than a toy.

Children, we can all see, learn best through imitation, so naturally the best way to teach this skill is to sweep in front of your children. I see many children push brooms around like a vacuum--a very different gesture, to say the least! Obviously vacuums are amazing inventions, and I'm not about to tell you to make like Laura Ingals and never use one again, but many of life's smaller spills can be easily tackled by this ancient technology. I find the quiet, rhythmic, swishing of a broom to be much less disruptive to the mood of the household than the loud whirr of the motor. I've even been known to find, for myself, a deep, steady breathing comes with the work, settling my mind even in the face of whatever mess I just created.

Once they see you start to sweep, a toddler will of course feel compelled to join in. Excellent! This is when a special set of tools can come in handy. A miniature broom is much easier to manage and can help minimize the number of broken lamps, and if you have the space, inclination, and budget, a small dustpan and whisk broom can make the pile sweeping easier as well. Make sure these tools live in a dedicated, child-accessable home, ideally hanging near their adult counterparts rather than in a play area with toys. Putting them away is a part of the task not to be neglected! 

The act of sweeping itself in an incredible opportunity for developmental movement. The two hemispheres of the body are isolated--one hand holding steady the top of the broom, the other reaching out and back. The bottom hand will naturally start to cross the midline of the body, and the eyes trace the bristles across the floor. Imagine these same movements in a few years when the children begin to write! One hand holding the paper steady, the other moving all the way across as the eyes trace. The work is slow and rhythmic and has an immense satisfaction at the end. 

At first, a toddler will likely bore of sweeping quickly. It is up to the adult to find ways of encouraging them to stick with something challenging without feeling like Miss Hannigan from "Annie." A good baseline can be to make sure that, even if they decide they're finished after 30 seconds, that they see they have helped the task along and put their broom away. Slowly you can start to build their stamina by giving incrementally larger tasks: "We need to sweep under your chair!" slowly becomes under the whole table, and then perhaps the entire kitchen! Slowly, too, they will gain independence. It is often not until around the age of 4 that children can sweep up a space by themselves. But then you see where going slowly at first pays off! Soon, you will have a kindergartener who can--especially if it is made a part of your daily rhythm--happily and effectively sweep up an entire room by themself.