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Learning Can Happen Anywhere!

May 12, 2020
By Dr. Ken Montfort

As we all struggle to adjust to the unexpected and unprecedented changes to our daily lives, parents everywhere are being pulled in a dozen different directions simultaneously. Not only are we having to learn how to work from home, maintain communication with our colleagues, and figure out new technology to facilitate that communication, we’re also having to learn how teach our children, navigate multiple online learning platforms, facilitate communication with our kids’ teachers, and organize their materials. This doesn’t even consider the fact that spending more time at home means more laundry, dishes, housekeeping, grocery shopping, and cooking… not to mention dealing with a public health crisis, keeping our families healthy, and staying in contact with family and friends. Whew… just WRITING that list makes me tired!

I think it needs to be stated directly: no mortal human can possibly maintain this lifestyle without letting a few things slide.

What if I told you there was a way to complete some home chores, teach your child important self-care skills, AND help them practice critical social engagement skills all at the same time? Well, there is! By having your child join with you to complete necessary household tasks, you can get extra benefits for your time. Besides, if they’re having fun, odds are good that YOU will, too, and we can all use a few extra smiles these days! The key to successfully achieving this balance is how you set up the interaction. Some ideas to keep in mind are:

Apprenticeship – Many children in today’s world have some confusion regarding social roles and concepts like “authority” or “responsibility.” Setting up a clear, leader/follower style interaction can help kids to practice following an assigned role. For children who have particular difficulty assuming a subordinate or follower position in an interaction, it can be helpful to put them in the leader role for a task they already know well and you can assume the follower role.

Playful engagement – As with any activity involving children, having fun and making it playful is a great way to get their engagement and participation. Silly songs, playful tickle games, or funny word play can occur in nearly every activity and can transform an otherwise dull chore into a memorable, fun time together.

Compromise on quality – Conversely, nothing kills a playful mood quite as fast as being corrected repeatedly over trivial or minor details. When we become overly focused on the product or outcome of the task, we often lose the engagement of our children and consequently their ability to learn the skill or to engage socially with us.

Some specific examples of how this might look are:

1. Folding towels/laundry: For a younger child, you might start with towels while you hold one end and the child holds the other end. Without letting go of your corners, you can give a “high 10” and put the ends of the towel together. Then, you could either have the child hold those corners while you get the bottom/crease of the towel or you can hold the towel while your child gathers the next section. Adding a few playful and unpredictable cues like “1… 2… 3… STOP!” or “1… 2… 3… BLOW!” before giving the expected “1… 2… 3… GO!” can add an element of fun while simultaneously teaching your child the importance of attending to subtle cues in their social partner.  For an older child, you could take turns being a “distraction monster” while the other folds or racing with equal stacks of clothes/towels to see who can fold them the fastest. This racing method can be adjusted so that the winner is the person who folds the “neatest” or some other standard. Bonus hint: kids are more likely to enjoy games that they win… no harm in letting them win a few just so you can demand a rematch… double the laundry getting folded!

2. Washing dishes: Assigning specific roles is a great way to begin an apprenticeship/expert interaction and manage the expectations so that they are appropriate for your child. It also helps keep the interaction social, as it becomes necessary to coordinate your actions with your partner. You can wash the dish and your child can load it into dishwasher, or vice versa. For added challenge, one or both of you can wear a blindfold (beware fragile glasses and dishes!)!

3. Vacuuming/Sweeping/mopping: Physical movement is great for us in so many ways! Feel free to have a dance party with your brooms (extra flair points for a big, dramatic dip!). You can take turns, race, or compete in sweeping. You can move furniture while the other person cleans under it. Word games like “name 3” (name 3 items in a given category within 5 seconds… like cars or types of fruit), rhyming games, I Spy, 20 questions, etc. can make even the most repetitive task more enjoyable!

4. Making a bed: Collaboration works well with this task, as you can each stand on each side of the bed and work together to move each layer and/or pillow. Playful disruptions, like tug of war or gentle pillow fights can teach social engagement and self-regulation (i.e., not hitting too hard or getting upset when you get hit). A version of “red light/green light” where they try to make the bed quickly, but have to stop when you say “freeze!” can break up the monotony and promotes sustained attention and shifting between tasks.

5. Feeding and walking pets: A “word walk” can be fun, where you name things in a given category (all the red things, or things that begin with the letter C). Practice adjusting your speed and coordinating with your partner. Follow-the-leader, with silly moves like stepping up and down on a curb, zigzagging across a parking lot or field, or hopping on one foot is another way to add some fun and practice following others.

Of course, these activities will likely need to be modified slightly to fit your child’s age, interests, and language level, so feel free to take as much creative liberty as necessary. Some trial and error will be necessary as we adjust and learn from our previous attempts. Sometimes, these ideas work well the first time, but more often, we’ll miss the mark several times before we can even get close to striking the balance. My advice is to keep trying and focus on your successes! Many of the strategies above are non-specific for the task where they are listed, so you can borrow and accommodate in as many creative ways as you like.  You might even want to post your own ideas in the comments below. In the meantime, stay well, be patient (especially with yourselves!), and try to have some fun!

Ken Montfort, PhD

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Administrative Director, The Stewart Center