When work is play

Believe it or not, young children like to help out. It’s true! Children actually enjoy and take pride in being helpful until they are “taught” otherwise. It’s only when they hear their parents or older siblings grumbling about “having to do” this or that around the house that helping out becomes a chore.

If approached positively, helping out can seem more like play. It can also help build self-esteem, self-discipline, initiative, diligence, perseverance, self-reliance, and responsibility—all qualities that are useful in life.

There is at least one educational system that uses this “work as play” principle in a big way. Departing from traditional teaching methods in favor of capitalizing on a child’s natural interests, Maria Montessori (1870–1952) gentled some of the most undisciplined preschool children in Naples, Italy, into highly motivated, creative, and accomplished students. One facet of Montessori schooling called “practical life” involves teaching children the basic skills they will need in everyday life, such as dressing, hygiene, and food preparation. Two-year-olds, with their “I can do it myself” attitude, are at the perfect age for practical life training, but there are plenty of practical life challenges for every age and stage of development.

As a busy mother, I usually found it quicker and easier to do the little jobs myself than to teach my little ones to help. But I soon realized that I was being shortsighted. I needed help, and my children needed opportunities to learn and feel “grown up.” Later, I found that even rascally children were usually happy to channel their energy into doing little jobs for me if I approached them right.

Preschoolers can help with simple meal prep, beginning with washing vegetables, spreading peanut butter onto sandwiches, or mixing cookie dough or pancake batter. Young children enjoy sweeping, wiping spills, and sorting silverware. If you keep it fun and reward them with praise and recognition, they will be thrilled each time they “graduate” to a new job.

This does not need to end when your children reach school age. It was a milestone for my children when they were considered old and responsible enough to use the vacuum cleaner. Some children like to clean bathroom sinks and change the hand towels. Others like to rake leaves or mow grass or help wash the car. The list is endless—just look around!

Assigning game names to household jobs is good “marketing strategy.” The first such game I taught my children was “ant hill.” They pretended they were ants and scurried around, taking every toy, block, or stuffed animal left out back to the “ant hill” (where it belonged). Even babies can learn to play this game, sitting in your lap or next to you as the two of you take turns putting blocks or other small toys into a box—then you make sure to lavish them with praise.

Some possible pitfalls and how to avoid them:

  • It can be frustrating for both of you if the job is beyond their ability or attention span, so don’t expect too much.
  • Make it easy for your children to succeed by making sure they understand the job and how to best go about it.
  • Make helping out voluntary or give your children a choice between jobs, when possible. If you’ve succeeded in keeping it fun, your children will be quick to volunteer.
  • It helps, especially when the job may seem daunting or tedious to the child, to talk about something fun as you tackle the job together. Be their coach, teammate, and cheering section.
  • Don’t wait till the job has gotten too big or your child is too tired to tackle it cheerfully.
  • Teach your children to put away one thing before getting out another and to clean up as they go, whenever possible.
  • If you leave your child alone to do a job, don’t be surprised if you come back and find he or she has gotten busy with something else. Children get distracted easily without supervision. Don’t wait till time is up to find out how it’s going.
  • Be careful how you express disappointment and always try to counter it with words of encouragement and reassurance. Stay positive!

There are so many benefits to making work fun for children. Not only do they learn practical skills and develop character, but also teamwork and appreciation for how much you and others do for them.

Finally, if you want your children to get into the habit of helping cheerfully, then get in the habit of thanking and praising them. Thank them on the spot. Reward them with hugs and the occasional special treat. Sing their praises to your spouse, family members, and friends—preferably within your children’s earshot. Nothing builds self-esteem like praise and appreciation from those we love most!