Emily have learnt how to vacuum clean and is very proud of it. I still smile thinking of her beaming face when she told her grandmother that clean carpet at their feet had been cleaned by her.
I always say that in our family household work is an important part of the curriculum. It exposes children to an important, but often invisible, part of adult life. It helps to develop self-organisation skills, to learn to take responsibility and to experience a sense of achievement. Helping with everyday tasks provides enough opportunities to practice dealing with “stuff that has to be done even if it’s not so much fun”, in situations where the need for it and the impact are obvious (which is not always the case with, for example, writing exercises or learning tables by heart).
Household activities provide many opportunities to show how reading and writing, math, physics or chemistry are used and applied in everyday life. It is also fun to add vinegar to sodium bicarbonate while cleaning sinks, discover that polyester thread and labels do not decompose when you compost an old t-shirt or climb under the floor to help with a job where kids’ small size gives them an advantage over their parents.
So, what does it take to make household activities work that way? I’ve been thinking about our ingredients of the mix:
- consistent and appropriate expectations,
- accessible spaces and kids-friendly instruments,
- guidance and scaffolding,
- adjusting expectations of time and quality,
- recognising learning opportunities in simple or routine tasks,
- making household work meaningful for the kids.
It starts from consistent and appropriate expectations: everyone’s participation in daily chores in a big family is not only a matter of survival, it is part of learning how to “live the life of the tribe”, how balance own interests and those of others, how understand, follow or negotiate rules and practices. We consistently explain and let the kids see why their participation is important and how even the youngest one can contribute to the family life. A lot of reminders and encouragement in the beginning (e.g. asking kids again and again to clean their place at the dining table when they are finished) eventually turn into habits and routines, making lives of everyone in the house a bit easier.
We also make sure that accessible spaces and kids-friendly instruments are available, so there are no additional threshold when their help is needed. For example, we have a low cupboard in the kitchen with cups, boards and cutlery that kids use and put back by themselves – it makes a big difference not only with our kids, but with their guests as well. I also resist putting a laundry rack up high where it would be out of the way, so even the youngest one can help hanging laundry or taking it back to the closets.
We often take for granted our ability to do routine tasks: at a certain moment I’ve heard “but I don’t know HOW to clean my room” from all of our kids. Getting them to help with household activities requires a lot of guidance and scaffolding: breaking an activity into smaller steps to practice, verbal or written instructions and doing work together while gradually decreasing our involvement. I also found out how important is to focus on explaining explicitly the criteria of a properly done task: “vacuum cleaning means that there is no dust and sand along the edges, in the corners and under movable furniture”.
Learning to work on a task is often slow, messy and inefficient. Doing any of the household activities together with the kids means that expectations of time and quality have to be adjusted. Cooking or cleaning together with the kids usually takes longer than normal and comes with unpredictable outcomes. I’ve learnt to plan for the extra time it takes, to enjoy the process and to be appreciate any results that kids are proud of.
Finally, making it all work also in a broader educational sense requires articulation and exposure, letting kids see a task in its broader context and experience it as authentic as possible. It starts from an ability to recognise learning opportunities in simple or routine tasks: drawing kids’ attention to different ways we handle crystal glasses and metal bowls, to symmetry lines when hanging or folding clothes, to the times and proportions when cooking, to the uses of do to list (and the value of working incrementally) or to the reasons we find recycling important.
It might also require redesigning our current practices of doing things in a way that they become meaningful for the kids. For example, our kids had low interest in writing shopping lists when it was part of the family shopping routine. Once we suggested that they plan and make their own snacks and one evening meal per week, it all changed. They quickly learnt not only to write the lists, but also had more interest in the tasks around it: keeping an eye on what do we have in house and what is still needed, being more independent with snacks, preparing space and materials for cooking and cleaning afterwards, learning to cook complete meals instead of helping with cooking, adjusting proportions or calculating total costs of a meal.