At face value, dishwashing probably doesn’t scream out as a creative thinking or problem solving activity, but for young children, washing dishes can be full of opportunities to play act, test new ideas, experiment, explore, and think creatively. Personally, I’m not too fond of washing dishes, a problem further compounded by the fact that we don’t have a dishwasher. However, in every problem lies an opportunity, and while I’m obliged to spend and hour a day at the sink (I actually timed this one day — it was a full hour!), I saw that I could bring my daughter into the experience to make the time fly by more quickly. Also, at the ripe ol’ age of two, she’s fully invested in the world of play acting, and is enthusiastic about driving cars, putting her dolls to bed, baking cookies, and grocery shopping. In essence, kids begin learning by imitating their parents and caregivers, and this is one activity that not only appeals to her, but also helps her learn how the world around her operates.
While my two year old may not be the most efficient dish washer around, she enjoys playing with water, squeezing soap from the sponge, pouring water from one container into another, and fitting all of the pieces into our drying rack. She started out as my rinser, and quickly demanded her own sponge and apron. We have a few rules that she caught onto pretty quickly (instigated by a couple of broken glasses, of course), which are:
- She can only wash plastic and metal. No glass or ceramic.
- No knives.
- Before something goes in the drying rack we check it for soap.
Some of the learning outcomes that I’ve noticed (and I’m sure there are more) follow:
- Pouring liquid from one container to another teaches a child some of the characteristics of fluids. For example, what a fluid can do in its natural state, how it can fill and then flow over the edges of a container, and how gravity effects the fluid as it pours…all entry points into the world of physics.
- Manipulating all of the pieces (i.e. sponge, dishes, utensils) with two hands encourages fine motor skills and problem-solving. For example, my daughter recently figured out that she had to put the soapy sponge down somewhere so that she could properly rinse bubbles off of a cup.
- As the drying rack fills up, the child is challenged to figure out how to fit all of the dishes in a place.
- Playing with water can be soothing and joyful. When it’s not warm enough to jump in a sprinkler (or you just don’t feel like dealing with a fully wet child), kids can get their water fix indoors.
- Apron (not necessary, but be prepared to a lot of water to spill all over the place. Naked works, too.)
- Sponges. One for you and one for your child. I like to cut my daughter’s sponge in half to make it more manageable for her tiny hands.
- Step Stool. We have this one, and it seems to be the perfect height for our kitchen. It comes unfinished, and to keep it from getting moldy with all of the water that would inevitably soak it, I painted the sides and covered the top with some lacquered Japanese paper. If you’re inclined to go this route, there’s a great tutorial here from Prudent Baby.
- Fill the sink with a pool of water, and give your child a few dishes and spoons to wash with a little sponge.
- Add some soap to the water for a different sensory experience. It’s fun to find dishes that are hiding under soapy bubbles.
- Let the water run so your child can learn about rinsing.
- Offer your child a variety of containers such as bowls, spoons, cups, funnels, and measuring cups.
- If you have a dishwasher, have your child help you fill it (and empty it, of course!).
- Move this activity outdoors by filling up a big tub with water and soap.
- Rather than wash dishes, wash plastic baby dolls.
Looking for more ideas related to this topic? Check out Twenty tips for engaging young children in the kitchen.