When parents observe a Montessori classroom, they invariably comment on how helpful the children are. Three-year-olds are sweeping up spills without being asked. Four-year-olds are arranging flowers to place on each table. Five-year-olds are patiently giving their younger friends lessons.
“What is the secret?” the parents ask.
Well I promise you, there is no magic involved but there are a few simple things we do in Montessori classrooms to encourage children to do their part to take care of the classroom.
The best part? They can easily be done at home, too. Here’s how.
1. Set the expectation.
Make it clear that everyone in the family helps take care of your home. Talk about how each person helps—how Daddy cooks dinner and Mommy does the laundry and how your child can help too. Talk about how these things make your home beautiful and comfortable and fun to be in.
Don’t do this when you’re asking for help though, then it seems like a lecture. Talk about it over breakfast or in the car, not while in a power struggle over cleaning up toys.
Children want very much to be a full part of the family and hearing this will help them realize that helping out is part of your family culture.
2. Offer choices.
As adults, we have choices all of the time and it’s easy to forget how frustrating it can be to not get a say. Your child may not get a choice about whether to help, but you can give him a choice about how to help.
Instead of asking him to sweep the floor, ask if he’d rather sweep the floor or help fold the laundry. If there is something that has to be done, give him a choice about where to start: “Would you rather put away your blocks first or pick up your toy cars?”
3. Model the behavior.
Small children want to do what they see us do. How many times have you seen a child pretending to talk on a cell phone or turn a piece of tree bark into an iPad?
Your child will be so much more likely to help around the house if she sees you doing it. This won’t happen if you save all of your cleaning for nap time or after bed.
So bring a basket of laundry in while she’s playing and start folding—she may not join in the first time, but she likely will after a few days.
Start cleaning the mirror in her room and talk about how shiny it’s becoming. She will likely be drawn to what you’re doing and want to help out.
4. Ask indirectly.
You should absolutely be able to directly ask your child to do something like put away his toys. But if you’re just tidying up and thinking it would be nice if your kid would help you, try saying that out loud. “This sure is a big job. I wish I had some help.”
Who doesn’t want to save the day? Children honestly may not realize that you would like help, but will frequently rush in and start eagerly assisting if you mention it.
You should only ask indirectly if your child has a choice though, so this one isn’t for every occasion. It can, however, be a lifesaver with tricky toddlers who are in the “no” stage.
Your child may automatically say no if you ask him for anything directly, but will jump in and help if he feels like he’s choosing it himself.
5. Provide the tools.
There is such a huge market for pretend tools for children—play kitchens, play rakes and brooms, play hammers. They are wildly popular because children want to use the tools they see us using, so why not give them some real tools?
Your child will be much more likely to help sweep the floor if she has a little broom just her size. She can help scrub her sandbox toys if she has a little scrub brush.
Work is more fun when you have good tools. This is just as true for children as for us.
Make sure to keep her tools where she can get them herself too. You may be amazed when you see your child grab her broom and start sweeping after dinner without being asked. She can’t do this if her broom is kept out of sight where she can’t reach it though.
This is a great resource for child-sized tools of all kinds.
6. Give recognition.
Everyone likes to hear that their work is appreciated. How frustrating is it to spend an hour deep cleaning the kitchen and have no one notice?
This does not need to be over the top though. If you are too enthusiastic with your praise your child may start doing things just for you, to get more praise, and that’s not really what we want.
Try commenting on the specifics of what he did— “You scrubbed the window so thoroughly, I can see the flowers in our garden all the way across the yard!” is much more meaningful than, “Good job, you’re such a good boy!”
7. Make it fun!
Just your attitude can go a long way with making things fun for children. But, why not take it a step further?
When it comes to children, I’ve found that nothing makes cleaning fun like a spray bottle. Have your child help you fill a small bottle with water and a drop of soap and watch her have a blast wiping the tables, chairs, windows, and mirrors. Set limits with this one though. If they’re spraying other people or spraying and not wiping up the water, the bottle goes away immediately. Every time.
A dustpan in his favorite color, a fun ladybug scrub brush, a cleaning cloth with his favorite character—there are so many ways to make housework a little more fun for kids. I think of this as similar to how my Vitamix makes cooking dinner more fun for me.
Take your time. View it as quality time together, not a chore to rush through. For example, sing Moana songs while you clean together. Be cheesy—“It’s fun to work together!” Be silly—turn it into a game! Who can sweep the biggest pile?
Remember that your child really just wants to be with you.
He would often rather clean with you than play by himself while you rush around trying to get everything done. He just may need a little help to get started.