Guest Post: Meaningful Work For Toddlers

(I asked my dear friend Liza to write this guest post because she has experience in weaving a life full of meaningful tasks that her twin toddlers do to help nurture their home.  What a wonderful experience they are having, and I thought her experience could help some of you out there who might be wondering about what kind of work toddlers could do!  Enjoy!)


Dear Friends,

I am a new mom, almost three years into parenting twins, and am humbled each day by what my children teach me.  How it is the simple things that bring them the most wonder:   the slow and steady journey of a snail’s trek across the patio, grandmother moon shining bright on a sunny day, how every flower on our morning walk is met with reverence and a deep inhale.  From them I am learning to slow down and settle into the sweetness of their early years.

I have also come to learn that time spent with my children at home is ultimately the most rewarding, for them and for me as well.  It is better than a visit to the playground, an organized class, or family adventure.   A bowl of sudsy water and a cup is like a trip to the ocean, dawdling around in our urban backyard feels like foraging through the forest and work- real work done with their hands (and mine) is deeply enriching. So we nest a lot, building and strengthening our home, caring for the objects and animals that surround us and attending to our rhythm.  Basically…doing lots of things with our hands.

When Hannah and Eli were born I joined the Christopherus Waldorf at Home Forum and there (enter angels singing and skies parting), was a group of mothers whose wisdom, humor and intelligence cradled my nascent mothering soul. Carrie was one of these inspired mothers/mentors.  I brought to this group my deepest anxieties, my ‘silliest’ questions, my fears and self doubts.  And trust me, there were a lot. But ultimately I brought to them my children to help me nurture, support and love more fully.

The sub-forum for those with children under seven was a particularly lively and active group.   We discussed everything about living with small children- from the practical aspects of coordinating nap-time, to building rhythm into our days, to finding love for your children when they do not seem so lovable. Overwhelm, burn out, and irritability came to the forum most days, right along side sibling conflict, strong emotions (formally known as tantrums), and whining.  From beneath the words of encouragement showered on each mama’s struggles you could almost hear the soothing siren song of this unspoken mantra:

slow down sweet mama,

take a deep breath,

you are doing a great job.

look gently within (take responsibility for what you might be contributing

and then forgive yourself),

connect back in with that little spirit who wants only to be loved.

And find some work to do with their hands

And so while the first four tasks are surely all parents’ karmic work (we have chosen the ultimate “path of service” it seems- the one that gives us access to expansive love…and a whole mess of other feelings), I leaned into the challenge of finding jobs for my children. And you know what?  It works.

At eighteen months we started small: stirring mama’s tea in the morning, grinding daddy’s coffee beans, making the morning eggs.  That bowl of sudsy ocean water soon had spoons and a sponge in it- a towel on the side to dry them with. The spray bottle entered our world and washing windows began- bliss was known.  Folding laundry became a game of discovery, an opportunity to run through the house delivering missing washcloths to the bathtub and napkins to the napkin drawer.

As time passed we found more work to do.  We stirred pancakes, made endless batches of muffins (and delivered them to the neighbors promptly lest they were all eaten by mama), made soup, pickles and bread.  The salad spinner is just as likely to be found on the countertop as it is the floor, the back deck…the living room.  Did you know you can spin almost anything?  We learned to pour with a pitcher, cut with a knife, peel with a peeler, use the cherry pitter, cheese grater and whisk.

We wash woolies in the bathtub, then wrap them in towels, stomp on them like grapes and hang them from a makeshift line under the kitchen island. That is a full morning’s work.  Bringing in the groceries one by one down our long apartment hallway to the kitchen still ranks high in the ‘fun things to do with daddy’ category- running fast like kitty cats with the apples, slow like turtles with the eggs.

There is a pride that emanates from a little one who has just accomplished a task they have watched you do over and over.  You can see it in their faces, their bodies and their spirit.  When they ask, “Mama, I do it!” I nudge you to let them try.  It is indeed messy, there is of course some risk, you may need to come back later and do it over.  But really, the rewards are huge.

I am still working to “de-mechanize” our day so that my daughter, whom I keep close to my side lest she finds her very capable hands pulling her brother’s hair or knocking over his carefully constructed ‘hayride’, is included in my housework.  Then my son who is only sometimes interested in working can play nearby and join in when he is inclined- apparently they have an agreement that he has claim over the salad spinner when the time comes to use it. And so it goes that sibling conflict is greatly reduced when we are busily working.  Self-esteem and positive exchange between all family members swells.

I recently bought some special wool felt to make a banner for the children’s play space- an attempt to add crafty to my day.  I put this little project in a basket in the living room so that I could attend to it when there was a free moment- idealistic I know.  When my daughter happened upon the basket of carefully folded rainbow felt she exclaimed, “my laundry!” as if it had been missing for years.

Yes, love, that is exactly what it is.

She has since added some kitchen towels, a couple of matchbox cars…a wooden chicken.  I often find her in the window folding her laundry and singing a little song. “Just a moment,” nodding over in my direction, “I am almost done folding the laundry”.

And so it is that imagination trips on the heels of imitation.

The forum ended a few months back and I missed the chance to heart-fully thank the women for all they had given me, to my children…to our family.  When Carrie asked me to write something up about work and toddlers I thought- what could I, fledgling mama, share with you?  And then I heard that siren song and I remembered the mantra, the trick that helps me shepherd two  often cranky toddlers through the day… and helps them back into their much more important work of play.  Thank you Carrie.  And thank you mamas.

Here are some ideas for including toddlers in your work…and play.  I would  sure love to hear what you are all up to!

  • Load/unload the dishwasher with supervision
  • Wash silverware ( in a little basin)
  • Learn to use a sharp knife; grating
  • Practice pouring into a glass
  • Stir, pour, play with flour/dough, etc.
  • Make coffee for daddy- press button on grinder
  • Spread butter on toast
  • Pick the leaves of kale, tear lettuce, spin in dryer
  • Shell peas
  • Scramble eggs
  • Unload groceries
  • Spray and wipe windows and bathroom walls
  • Wash tub with sponge and baking soda
  • Polish wooden toys/furniture
  • Hand me items from the laundry basket as I fold and then help carry to each room/drawer OR I have a basket ready in each room and I hand the kids an article each from the clean laundry and they deliver it to the appropriate room.
  • Sweep
  • Help take out garbage cans/bring back in
  • Get napkins and silverware for table
  • Water plants outside
  • Dig hole for new plants
  • Practice training dog with treats
  • Learning to iron
  • Polishing silver
  • Help make bed

Some additional resources have supported me:

Allison Carrol, Director

http://www.sfwaldorf.org/programs/earlychildhoodprogram.asp

And this verse by Steiner:

Into my will,

let there pour strength.

Into my feeling,

let there flow warmth.

Into my thinking,

Let there shine light.

That I might nurture this child

with enlightened purpose,

caring with heart’s love

and bringing wisdom

into all things.

With love,

Liza, mama to Hannah Simone and Elijah Moon

Thank you Liza, for sharing your experience…

Many blessings to you all,

Carrie

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33 thoughts on “Guest Post: Meaningful Work For Toddlers

    • I scooped this off your blog- how lovely and timely!
      Handwork
      My hands help,
      my hands play,
      My hands are busy,
      all the long day.

      My hands give,
      my hands are kind,
      With my clever hands,
      I make and I find.

      with love,
      Liza

    • Oh, Liza and LIsa, I am so sorry to have been momentarily confused! But, wisdom flows from both of you…
      Thank you so much for contributing to this space.
      Much love,
      Carrie

    • Dear Carrie,
      I am flattered to be mixed up with Liza! I love the verse! Is it from Diana?
      Warmly,
      Lisa

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful, practical post. Finding the right level of work for my toddlers has been one of my biggest challenge as a mom, with each of my three (now 18 months, 3 and 5). Without it, home time is frustrating, as of course they want to be with me while I get housework done. With them working too, we are in wonderful harmony. Other tasks I have given them with success: handing clothespins to me as I hang the laundry and hanging the washcloths on a nearby rack on the lawn, tidying doll beds while I make beds, and course putting away groceries. My now-five-year-old is proud to know where all of the groceries go and loves this job when we get home from the store. We have rearranged our pantry so that he can reach most food shelves. Gardening with children deserves its own post, but that’s another kind of work that takes real planning to do with young children!

  2. Thank you for this post Liza (and Carrie)! I like to be reminded of how to involve my children in my work, and this post is a gem. A few other “chores” my children like to help with include washing clothes and shoes by hand (especially doll clothes), checking the garden for ready veggies, picking basil, feeding the fish, and dusting.
    Thanks again! :)
    Courtney

  3. This is wonderful and an inspiration to me for where I would like to head with my 2.5-year-old son. I also feel a little wistful and lost because my son (a 26-weeker miracle born weighing not quite 1.5lbs) is pretty delayed with speech and generally has the maturity of an 18-month old. He is not yet able to handle one-step requests consistently, nor does he put 2 words together. Sometimes it feels like the world is passing us by because we are moving in slow motion. I got to meet him in the outside world 3.5 months early and yet here we are 2.5 years later and almost a year behind his peers. :-C

    Thankfully, we start speech therapy *today* and in a few weeks we start OT (for what I’m calling “sensory-based attentional issues” because there doesn’t seem to be a name for what he needs help with… they’ve said he’s “internally disorganized” though he’s not sensory seeking or averse in the traditional sense of Sensory Processing Disorder as I understand it). I am hopeful that these therapies will help both of us – him to connect some of the dots that are not connecting on their own, and me to have more tools to help teach and connect with him in purposeful play/work-based learning.

    (My pride feels compelled to clarify that we *are* connected throughout the day in terms of love, affection and attachment, it’s just that it can be hard to engage him in an activity that is not of his choosing… he simply doesn’t respond to you (like he never heard you at all) if he isn’t interested in your invitation –or- maybe he simply doesn’t understand because of the language delay… I’m not sure…it’s strange and frustrating at times… thank goodness we are about to start getting some help!)

    This article has inspired me to start looking for the smallest ways that we can practice some of what we learn in therapy on the activities you listed above. Most he is not ready for but I suspect that there is something on that list that would be a good starting point.

    This article also reminds and challenges me to “look gently within (take responsibility for what I might be contributing and then forgive myself)” –I can see that as I’ve become more discouraged and lost, I’ve given up a bit on rhythm and reached more and more for ways to passively entertain him (DVDs). It has been hard because none of my mom-friend peers are on this preemie/delayed development journey where things come much slower or don’t seem to come at all. Lately I’ve been yearning for models. I think his lovely therapists, this article and this blog hold the inspiration and guidance I’m looking for – I just need to trust myself to put it together as he needs it.

    Thanks for reading this long-winded comment! It was some good processing for me! Any words of wisdom or encouragement will be welcomed. Thanks again for sharing your story and experience!

    • Erin,
      In the Early Years of Waldorf, we look toward doing our own work and involving our children not through verbal means, but imitative means. You may even take your son by the hand, set him on a chair by the sink, and put your hands over his to wash a dash. If you do this at the same time every day, it will become a rhythm in your home and it will become a habit. He will start to pull his own chair up to the sink. But you have to be the one doing the real work, and setting the rhythm of doing this every day within the same general flow.
      You probably are aware of my background in preemie land, and you know I have such a soft spot for my ex-NICU mothers. You can do this!
      I will write more about this in a future post!
      Many blessings,
      Carrie

    • Have heart Erin,
      The wee wee littles have so much to teach us. I am the Mom of a 32 weeker who once weighed 2 lbs 11 ounces and had the-thing-that’s-hard-to-name with sensory processing, he is very sensitive and this is his gift. I know he will do important deeds in the world with this gift.

      I encourage you to surround yourself with people who really see and love your child just as he is and hang out with them. Love him and enjoy him where he is at. My little one was little for years and years. And now little no longer I realize how lucky I was to savor those long days and years.

      Vision therapy and cranial sacral work helped us as did a deep understanding of the senses from a sensory integration perspective and a Waldorf or anthroposophical look at the four foundational senses: touch, life, movement and balance which took time and is an ongoing process. This is where the wee littles need our support and tender protection from too much stimulation.

      Go easy on yourself. Maybe you might model the example for him, “time to tuck Dolly in ` ah goodnight Dolly, sleep tight” each night and each morning check on Dolly, change her diaper and swaddle her lovingly. Sing a little song with dishwashing and set him up with a little basin, one to wash, one to rinse and a place to put the dishes. Don’t worry he won’t get it spit spot you can re do at nap time, but he will “get it” in time.. There is a lovely photo of children washing dishes here: http://thewonderofchildhood.com/2011/02/spotlight/
      it’s about midway down, Another gem of children grating. Remember it is the process but the product that matters with the little ones. Take it up with love and joy and find the support and time you need to feel the love and joy.

    • Liza and Erin – YES, and do read through the articles on the 12 senses on this site. Also, there is a post about movement for children ages birth through two and a half you may find helpful, Erin. I think if you use the blog search engine it should come up.
      Hang in there, Erin, you are doing a great job!
      Many blessings,
      Carrie

    • Erin,
      In case there is any confusion, it was Lisa’s ( from The Wonder of Childhood) sage wisdom, not mine that Carrie was agreeing with.

      I just wanted to add that my son, while not a preemie, falls into the sensitive category and is on a different developmental trajectory than my daughter. He really only participates in work sometimes and does not share the same level of fine motor coordination as Hannah. It is not a gender thing at all. I often find myself wanting to jump ahead with him, mostly in the area of developing comfort out in world- he is much happier at home. It is a place where I too compare him, and myself, with others. And yet, he offers so many other gifts about what is truly important about life- deep connection and love, slowing down, patience. I love what Lisa said about surrounding yourself with people who love and appreciate your son ( and you!) for who he is. That is what I hope for us all!

      Love,
      Liza

  4. What a beautiful post Liza! As your cousin, I have been honored to watch the beauty you have created for your children. Reading your post has inspired me to find ways to include Jamison more in my “chores”. Perhaps they won’t be such a chore if I am getting to share in the sweetness with him!

  5. This is perfect. Our begin to the summer life-which has been very nonrhythmic (with visits to family, a car accident, and summer colds/allergies) lately has hopefully taken a turn for the better this week. My two year old has discovered washing dishes, and I’m inspired to reengage my five-year-old as well. Thank you for reminding me about these things. I love the mantra and will post it in my home now!

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  7. Just as I feel there needs to be a better way I come across this post. I have a 2.5 yr old who is constantly seeking my attention but between her 7 month old brother and housework I feel as though I am always telling her to just wait a minute. I have involved her in work in the past but things always take twice as long so I often just end up doing them myself. What a timely reminder this post is that I can include her in The day to day running of the home and use this time to connect with her rather than it being a barrier between us.

  8. Beautiful post! Thanks so much for these tips. Circumstances largely outside my control led me to step way back from social stuff this past Lent & Easter season and it WAS really nice to slow down, reevaluate, focus inward, stay home, & truly bond more with my now 3 year old. I do however really struggle with rhythm & housekeeping (never my strong points!) so aside from some healthy home cooking & daily gratitude for the many blessings in our life I feel quite unworthy of imitation for my now 3 year old. His wonderful daddy at least is totally together in spite of working full time. Hopefully I can pull it together and figure it all out soon enough BEFORE he picks up my poor habits, and I head back to work and have another child.
    Also love Allison Carroll from the SFWS parenting program! She is wonderful.
    Thanks Carrie!

  9. Thanks for this post. L and I do some of these items but it’s nice to have some new ideas. And to have validation on even Including him in the first place.

  10. Liza, this is beautifully written and what is more, it oozes with truth! What a gift it has been to share a little bit in your parenting journey. Many blessings to you and your little ones.

    Lisa Marshall

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  16. PERFECT! Have been having so much fun finding the play in our daily lives with my 22 month old. These are some great new ideas! Her favorite activity at the moment is stirring, shaking, whisking, and pouring corn kernels back and forth into a variety of bowls and measuring cups. And then sweeping up the strays with a small hand broom.

  17. I just really love this article! My son is 10 months old today … and he seems to think he is a 2 yr old :) He’s so determined, strong and loving. I cannot wait to give him such responsibility and pride … thank you for the ideas here! I love that they’re so gentle and still deeply motivating too!

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