When Work Is Play

Activated - - NEWS - By Cather­ine Neve CATHER­INE NEVE (1951–2003) WORKED AS A VOL­UN­TEER WITH THE FAM­ILY IN­TER­NA­TIONAL FOR 31 YEARS AND IN 12 COUN­TRIES, RAIS­ING TWO CHIL­DREN OF HER OWN AND TEACH­ING SCORES MORE ALONG THE WAY.

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!

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