Main Reading: LIFE as the Enrichment Activity

washing dishes

Today’s parents often work very hard to provide Enrichment Activities for their kids. Enrichment Activities serve two purposes: first, they provide opportunities for children to practice skills necessary for healthy development, and second, they provide an opportunity for parent and child to spend “quality time” together, time where there is nothing on the agenda other than enjoying one another’s company. The problem with enrichment activities is that they are huge time-suckers. We often end up feeling like we spend all day catering to our kids, and when they finally go to sleep then we have EVERYTHING left to do. We end up with no time for ourselves, no time for self-renewal, and we become burned-out.

There is a solution to this, and it’s to transform our household tasks INTO enrichment activities. Instead of setting up a Water Table for our child to play at, they can help us wash the dishes. Instead of putting the square blocks into the square holes and the triangles into the triangle holes, kids could gain those same sorting skills helping us unload the dishwasher. Instead of setting up a “sensory experience” with play-doh, children could help us bake real bread or muffins. When done successfully, children can get the developmental support and the sense of connection that they need from us, and we can get our housework done at the same time. Then when our children go to sleep we won’t have piles of laundry and dishes to do, because they’ll already be done. Suddenly we’ll have some time for self-renewal, or to reconnect with our friends and partners. Suddenly we’ve created time in our days where none existed before.

If this is such a great idea, why aren’t more people doing it? Why is it so unusual? One reason is that enrichment activities are really “supposed” to be process-oriented, while housework is very results-oriented. Most of us try to get household tasks done as quickly as possible, and those of us who do like to linger over a certain task generally do so because we have a very specific idea of how we like to do it, and exactly what the results should be. All of these things necessarily become altered when we invite toddlers and preschoolers to participate. So instead of trying to reconcile the results-oriented nature of housework and the process-oriented nature of the enrichment activities, most parents choose to separate them and only do housework while their children are otherwise occupied.

However, it’s well worth taking the effort to involve young children in household tasks by transforming them into enrichment activities. Not just because it creates more time in your day, although that would be reason enough, in my opinion! In addition, there are some serious advantages for the child to successfully involving young children in tasks that are necessary for the running of the household.

The Benefits of Helping

Perhaps the biggest benefit to involving children in household tasks is that it allows them to contribute to something larger than themselves. When we do an arts-and-crafts activity with the children, they work on their fine motor skills and they spend “quality time” with us. But when a child helps us make dinner, something deeper occurs because that child knows that he is helping. This is important because the act of helping others has many benefits that have been well-documented in scientific research: people who help others tend to have fewer health problems, they tend to live longer, and they report higher levels of happiness than people who don’t help. And this is not just because people who are healthier and happier tend to help: helping others causes people to become healthier and happier, and helping has been used with high success rates to help people recover from addiction, and emerge from depression. People who feel like others are depending on them are more likely to survive disaster scenarios. People who feel like they’re making a difference to others report higher levels of job satisfaction and general happiness. Encouraging children’s helpful tendencies now, in early childhood, lays a foundation for them to value helping others as a lifetime habit.

Helping as the Sweet Spot

This course focuses on three Universal Needs that all humans share: the need for connection, the need for competence or mastery, and the need to contribute. When we set children up to help us with real, meaningful work that’s necessary for the running of the household, and we do it successfully, we can hit a “sweet spot” where we are actually allowing our children to meet all three of these needs at once. Let’s go through these in reverse.

Contributing:  A wonderful husband/wife pair (White & White) did a long-term, cross-cultural study of young children across six different cultures, and they discovered that young children who were expected to do chores that benefited others at ages 2 and 3 (rather than chores that promote independence, such as making their own beds) tended to show significantly more “pro-social” behaviors later, at age 7.  Another study, in the United States, showed that children who were expected to help their parents at age 2 were less likely to have behavior issues at age 5.  Contributing is more than competence alone.

Competence:  Involving children in activities that are goal-oriented in addition to being process-oriented allows children to build real competence in areas that they can see are important, leading to feelings of efficacy and mastery.

Connection:  Finally, doing household activities with children can promote connection. It can do this in two ways: the first is the same way that we would connect with them during play or a traditional enrichment activity, through eye contact, playfulness, etc. However, doing household tasks as enrichment activities can allow us to connect in a deeper way: it allows us to connect through appreciation. There has been a lot of research on the importance that self-esteem has on children’s success in life, and one result of this has been the “good job” culture, where children get praised for everything, where everyone’s a winner for everything. However, further research showed that this type of praise-for-everything doesn’t actually raise children’s self esteem at all. Instead, it has two common effects: the first is that it can children into “praise junkies,” expecting praise for the smallest actions and leading them to be unable to deal with even the smallest setbacks.  The second is that it can cause children to stop believing you, leading them to think that even real praise is empty (for an engaging article about the effects of different types of praise, read this article on How Not to Talk to Your Kids).

So we’re told to praise our kids, but make sure that the praise is genuine and deserved. But how do we do that? The best way I know how is to allow them to participate in real work that must actually be done. Of course at the beginning it will take much longer to get tasks done with them than it would without, but as they gain that competence they will be able to do tasks more and more effectively, until they are actually helping. And they are able to do this at a much younger age than our culture gives them credit for; visitors to my childcare program have often been amazed to see one- and two-year-olds setting the table, clearing their dishes and scraping their bowls, wiping the table and sweeping the floors with me. When a child is helping in these activities that have real meaning, then we can give them genuine, appreciative praise, the type that strengthens connection and boosts self-esteem.

Finally, even though it’s more work to let children help, this is an important piece of a Mutually Responsive relationship. When we recognize and allow children’s desire to help, we are being responsive to them in fulfilling this Universal Need. It also fosters their sense “being a helpful person,” which allows them to be responsive to us when we call on them to be helpful in other areas of life: say, when we’re trying to get out the door in the morning. Just like in last week’s lesson where we respond to their need for connection to let them say “yes” to our requests, this week we respond to their need for contributing to encourage them to become more responsive to us as well.


How to Set Yourself Up For Success

OK, so how do we incorporate children successfully? If it were simple, everyone would be doing it, right? How do we reconcile the process-oriented nature of the young child, with the goal-oriented nature of getting tasks done, and preferably done well?

There are practical aspects of helping things go well, which I’ll get to in a moment, but even more important than those is to cultivate a Sense of Spaciousness. What I mean by Spaciousness is the feeling that you have enough attention for your task AND to interact with your child or children. With a sense of Spaciousness, you know that you have more than enough time to get things done. There’s no rush. With a sense of Spaciousness, you can be both process-oriented AND results-oriented.

Most of the time, having a sense of Spaciousness means slowing down, but it doesn’t have to be slow. You can be quick and spacious at the same time if you’re still connecting with your child. Perhaps you and your three-year-old are “racing” to get the table set as quickly as you can.  But rather than just focusing on the table you’re hamming it up, making zooming sound-effects, with lots of eye contact and smiles, and a big hug when it all gets done. You have enough attention for the task AND your child. Even though you’re rushing, it doesn’t feel rushed, it feels fun! You have done it with a sense of Spaciousness.

What else can you do to help everything go smoothly? I did my dissertation on Pitching In: Toddlers Helping with Household Tasks, and I learned a lot about what helps or hinders children’s successful interactions in household chores.   Here are a few suggestions that can help things go smoothly:


1) Set everything up before bringing children in. In my research, almost every single time an adult said, “Would you like to help me ______?” before they started their task, the child would say, “No.” However, once the adult started doing the task, if they did it in an inviting way, the child would still join in. Another thing that tended to trip things up was if an adult invited a child to join a task, but then asked the child to wait while they collected supplies. Things went most smoothly when the adult collected everything they’d need, got started doing the task, and THEN invited the children to join.


2) Make the activity fun and inviting. Weave in as many of the five ways that kids feel connected as you can, and don’t forget to SMILE: Singing & rhymes, Movement & touch, Imagination, Love & appreciation, Exaggeration & humor. Cultivate your Sense of Spaciousness and have enough attention for your task AND the child. In my research observations, I saw that when adults used imagination, sang silly songs, and gave their children love during the tasks, then children stayed engaged and were able to take direction on how to do the task.

One mom shared: “The other day I was trying to pull my older daughter into folding the laundry with me. Of course at first she didn’t want to help, but then the cloths became all kind of sea creatures and each and one of them had to get back to its special underwater home. So I showed here where the sea cat (the towels) live and where the little fish (underpants) live, etc.  That was the first time ever she helped me with the laundry! a big success.”

3) Use imagery to form and correct children’s behavior: “This little fishy [the sponge] needs to stay underwater in his home! He’s looking for some yummy food to eat. Can he find any on these dishes?” Or, “You can tap that egg so gently on the side of the bowl, like a baby bird that’s tapping his way out of the shell. Like this: tap-tap-tap. Now you try, baby bird!” Make an image of what you want, rather than talking about what you don’t want.

Of course, sometimes it’s too late.  “Oh no!  That milk went everywhere!  Next time you can pour slowly and carefully, just a drip-drop at a time.  Now, we’d better get our rags and wipe it up.  Come on!  We can polish the floor till it shines like the floor at Buckingham Palace.”


4) Keep It Small. Only have as much work sitting out as you wouldn’t mind if it got undone. So instead of folding all of the laundry and then putting it all away, fold a little bit with your child, and put it away. Fold a little more, then put it away. Children love making “deliveries” and soon will be able to put things away for you. Likewise, when sweeping the floor, don’t sweep the whole floor and then get the dustpan. Instead, sweep a little and throw that little pile away. Sweep a little more, and throw that little pile away. Even very young children love holding the dustpan, and you can help them hold it steady as they walk to the trash can until they gain the skill to do it themselves. Also, keeping things small enables you to step away if another child needs you, or the doorbell rings, etc. When I wash dishes with a child and get pulled away, I’ll have my helper child sit down on their stool (as if their bottom were glued tight to the seat) to await my return, or I’ll have them come with me. If I’m chopping veggies for a meal outside, I have a safe place to put my sharp knife if another child needs me.


5) Try to avoid the “Good Job” trap. Don’t praise every little thing your child does; I find that an appreciative smile or a “Thank you for your help” when they run off to play is quite enough. When you do express appreciation, express appreciation of a child’s effort, or appreciation of their company.   A woman named Carol Dweck has done some really interesting research on the effects of different types of praise on children, and one of her findings is that when children are praised for “being good” at something it makes them risk-averse (because if they have to struggle they’re clearly not actually good at it), whereas children praised for “working hard” were much more likely to try harder things.


So, enough description, what does it all LOOK like when it’s happening?  In order to show you, I’d like to share the transcript of one of the observations that I did for my dissertation, which is called,  Pitching In:  Toddlers Helping with Household Tasks.  This particular mom that I observed just completely blew me away.  She worked outside the home four days per week, and the fifth day was her “cleaning day,” which she did with her little boy who I call Oliver, age 29 months.  And boy, did they clean!  They vacuumed, they scrubbed, they took the food out of the fridge and wiped down the shelves, and it was clear that they did this every Friday.  This little boy was not a particularly easy or compliant kid, he was a pretty average two-year-old, with his share of “No!” and “Me do that!”  She worked with him when he wanted to be involved, she worked around him when he took a break to play, and she redirected when he wanted to take over.  Now let’s look at one interactions between them. Notice all of the elements of SMILE that she incorporates!

Setting the scene:
This incident is with Oliver (age 29 months) and his mum in their home in London. I had gone upstairs briefly and, upon returning, found Oliver and his high chair outside on the wooden patio. It had been raining and the patio was wet, although it was not raining at the moment. Oliver was spraying the high chair with a spray bottle and swiping at it with a brush; the spray was clearly much more interesting to him than the brush, however. There was a bowl of soapy water and a few scrub brushes on the patio next to him. His mum was in the kitchen, but walks out along with me:

Mum (to Oliver): ‘We’d better get your apron on!’

(She steps inside to get a plastic apron and brings it out to him. He holds out his arms and she puts it over his head. He immediately goes back to his task of cleaning his chair; he sprays and swipes at it with the brush, then sprays again. Mum joins him and they clean together, Oliver mostly spraying and mum scrubbing.)

Mum: ‘Look, I see some noodles! What a mess we have to clean up!’
Mum: ‘Who sits in this chair? Who made this mess?’

Oliver (proudly): ‘Me!’

Mum (pretending shock): ‘You? This is your chair?’

Oliver: (grins widely and continues to spray)

(A little later)
Mum: ‘Okay, one last spray and then it’s time to do some scrubbing.’

(He sprays again and Mum starts scrubbing in an exaggerated fashion.)

Mum: ‘Get down to the real cleaning now. Use your muscles. Put your back into it, that’s what they say! Scrub-a-dub. Scrub-a-dub. Scrub-a-dub-dub.’

(She starts hamming it up, scrubbing really hard. He starts doing the same, scrubbing really hard.)

Mum: ‘Oh, I think I see a noodle! And there’s a bit of orange! Scrub-a-dub.’

(They scrub together for a while.)
Mum: ‘Oh, she’s looking better. She’s starting to sparkle!’
Singing: ‘Scrub, scrub, scrub-a-dub!’

Mum: ‘What about her ears?’ (They scrub the top of the chair.) ‘What about her feet?’

Oliver: ‘Yeah.’ (They scrub the chair’s legs.)

Oliver (Quietly, to himself): ‘I’m washing her.’

(He continues to scrub as Mum goes inside and puts on the radio to a classical music station. She comes back out, and he is still scrubbing.)
Mum: ‘Is the sun trying to come out? I think it may be!’

(She picks up a scrubber and starts singing a song about the sun as she joins him. They continue to wash together. After a while):
Mum: ‘Is she ready for a rinse now?’

Oliver: ‘No.’

Mum: ‘Let’s do our last scrubbing.’

(They scrub for just a moment, then mum begins to rinse. Oliver participates and does not complain. Mum picks up the chair brings it back inside. Goes back out.)
Mum: ‘OK? It’s been cleaned?’ Oliver nods.

Mum: ‘Good news!’

(Oliver falls over onto his bum.)
Oliver: ‘I’m wet now.’

So, that was how she did it! Notice how pretty much every time she was ready to move on to the next thing, he wasn’t ready yet. But she’d move on and make the next thing enjoyable, and he’d move right along with her. Things didn’t ALWAYS go this smoothly for them; for example, at another point in the day she ended up putting the vacuum away to come back to it later when his mood had shifted, because he kept trying to lift the vacuum head and bang it down. But look at the SMILE techniques she used: All of them! Singing (twice), Movement (scrubbing really hard), Imagination (“what about her ears?”), Love & appreciation (“she’s starting to sparkle!” ), Exaggeration & humor (the scrubbing again, and also, “Who made this mess? You?!?”). It was so impressive how she used all of those things to keep him on-task, and to keep things moving.



More Household Magic: Promoting Independent Play

Sometimes, no matter how spaciously you do things, or how inviting you are, your child just doesn’t want to join in. The good news is, that’s fine! Because it turns out that when we do household tasks while the children are present, there are really two ways that children can benefit. One is by involving them and letting them contribute, as we talked about in the previous section. The other way children can benefit from our doing household tasks in the spacious, expansive way we talked about is that it allows us to become “invisible” so that our children can dive into their own deep, imaginative play. This type of play allows children to explore their world and gain competence, and it’s one that everyone benefits from when we encourage its development in our children.  We’ll talk more in depth next week about how to foster independent play, but we’ll get a leg-up on it this week because it can allow children to come in and out of our work as we get things done.

We’ve all experienced the times when we see our children playing happily, and we think to ourselves, “I’ll just try and get such-and-such a task done while they play.” We know that as soon as a child senses us doing work, they are likely to come and bug us.  So we do our task as quickly as we can, to get as much done as possible before they notice and come pull at our attention.  Right?  Well, only partly!  It turns out that what the children are responding to is not the fact that we’re doing work, but the fact that we’re rushing! Children cannot abide rushing, and they will do whatever it takes to get us to stop, even if that means leaving their play, or pitching a fit. When we are rushing, when we have lost that sense of Spaciousness, then children feel the need to come and remind us that they’re still there. But when we can do our tasks in that spacious manner, when kids know that they can join in or not, as they choose, then they will be able to get on with their play. They might come and join us for a few minutes, getting a dose of connection as we incorporate them into our task in a connecting way, and then they’ll wander off again, back into their play.

So do your tasks spaciously, and trust your children to know what they need. Sometimes we really wish our children would interact with us more, but they’re not interested in doing anything besides running back and forth, back and forth. Other times we wish that our children would go off and play independently, but they’re sticking as close to us as they can. Trust your children to know what they need! When we do our work in this spacious way, where kids can join us or not, then they will choose the exact right balance of interaction for their needs. As long as they’re not pulling you and bugging you to leave your task, you’re not “doing it wrong.” If your child IS pulling at you to leave your task, he’s telling you that he needs a dose of connection, so weave that connection into your task, whatever it is: if you’re washing dishes, tell a story about a mama raccoon teaching her baby raccoon to wash its food. If you’re sweeping the floor, tell a story about a squirrel trying to collect nuts on a windy day, and he can be the squirrel getting the ‘nuts’ into his dustpan and depositing them safely into his winter hiding spot of the trash can. When you bring humor and imagination into your task, children will be happy to do it with you, and feel connected with you.







  1. Alexis Schrader says

    Thanks so much for the story! The concrete examples make it much easier to conceptualize cleaning with a toddler!

  2. One mom shared this question:
    “I’m having a little problem which is that when I engage my daughter (20 months) in helping with something–usually cooking–she loves it but then it leads to a mini meltdown. For example if I am cutting veggies and her job is to put them into the salad bowl, when she is done she wants “more” and loses it when there is no more. She was helping me make quinoa and when we were done dumping the grain and the water in the pain, she was a wreck! She’s pretty easy to distract in these situations so the meltdowns don’t last for long, but I wonder if there is a way that I can eliminate them all together or maybe that will just happen over time.”

    Here was my response:
    “So, what she’s telling you is that she LOVES this feeling of connection/competence/contributing that her involvement is bringing. She loves it so much that she doesn’t want each task to end. You can totally say “yes” to the desire to do more, even if an individual task (like pouring the quinoa, etc.) has ended. “You wish there were more quinoa to pour? I do too! That would be fun! … I wonder what ELSE we could find to do. I know! We can start the salad. Now, what will we need for a salad? A bowl…” etc. Or set the table, or telling Daddy that dinner is ready, etc.

    “And yes, she will get better at moving on to the next thing with experience. Right now she’s living SO much in the moment that it’s hard to move on to the next thing. One important thing is that you don’t need to convince her to move on to the next thing, you really just need to start it, in a way that’s spacious and inviting. Then she will discover that she’s in THAT moment, and it’s enjoyable too.”

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