Posts in Practical Work
Practical Work with Children No. 3: Dishes
 
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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.

Resources

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.

 
 
Practical Work with Children No. 2: Sweeping
 
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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. 

 

 
Practical Work with Children No. 1: Why?
 
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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?