Enhanced – printable
Drawing of bird sitting on pennant banner
Cultivating Little Learners typography
Kathy Eggers & Lesli Richards
“Try to focus on the effort rather than the outcome. The consistency of the practice is key, and the precision of the skill will improve as they age.”
a graphic of two trees
Empowering our youngest learners subtitle image
Father cleaning dishes with young daughter and son
When we become parents, we immediately become responsible for another human being. Every parent can relate to that moment of realization when their baby is born! We think about all the things that we need to protect little ones from and all of the things we must teach them before they leave the nest. Not only can that be overwhelming, it can actually be paralyzing!

Fortunately, we have about eighteen years to teach our children these things, and when we hold a balance between steady progress and lightheartedness, they can leave our home prepared to take care of themselves and others.

One of the beautiful things we get to model and teach our children is how each family member helps with the care of the home. Many people call these actions chores, but we like to think of them as contributions. In a family, everyone contributes according to their abilities. Everyone needs to play a part in making the home run smoothly. In our family, contributions look like making your bed, washing and putting away your clothes and dishes, sweeping the floor, wiping the counters after dinner, and cleaning your room. Chores are jobs that children can do if they want to earn some spending money, such as picking up pine cones in the yard, weeding the garden, deep cleaning the bathrooms, or washing the car. We believe that contributions and chores are a great way to train and empower your children as they grow closer to independence.

We are often asked when you should start having children contribute to taking care of the home and where they should start. The leader of the elite Navy Seals says, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” I think we would all agree that we want to raise world changers, so as soon as you move your children out of their baby beds, encourage them to “make their bed” every morning. Some of us parents get ourselves and our children in trouble because our expectations are too high for what a bed made by a two-and-a-half-year-old will look like. Please don’t expect them to tuck the corners and chop their pillows. Their version of a made bed will look like covers pulled up and pillows somewhere on the bed. One of the best ways to teach them the importance of a made bed is simply to make your bed every morning, inviting them to help you make your bed. And then you help them! This lighthearted teamwork approach will be a memory they can carry with them into adulthood, and the consistent, repetitive nature of this contribution will stick with them as they approach other tasks in and out of the home.

If we want our young children to contribute, we need to make things accessible to them. When my children were preschoolers, I (Kathy) kept their plates and cups in a low level drawer. Lesli moved all her dishes to two low shelves on her center island. This way they could get their own plates and cups for making themselves a snack or prepare for mealtime. They could also help load and unload their items into the dishwasher. You will find that most children actually want to help because it often means spending time with their parents and siblings. We just need to guide them and make things available to them. When children are young and can’t quite read, pictures are the best way to remind them of their daily contributions. You can even make a chart with pictures so your children can have the satisfaction of checking off their task as contributions are completed. For preschoolers, a contribution chart might include making their beds, putting the dishes in the dishwasher, brushing their teeth, putting their pajamas away, and setting the table.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to teaching your little ones to contribute is that unrealistic expectations ruin relationships. Please keep your expectations low when it comes to the quality of their work. If they spill the milk while cleaning up their cup, be lighthearted, and use it as a time to remind them that accidents happen and simply clean it up. A lecture is not necessary at this time and will likely do more damage than good. Try to focus on the effort rather than the outcome. The consistency of the practice is key, and the precision of the skill will improve as they age.

In our book, The Homegrown Preschooler, Lesli and I share several ideas for empowering children as they contribute to the care of the home. One of our favorites is the Clean Floor Dance Party. Mopping the floor is Lesli’s least favorite activity, and turning it into a fun and silly playtime activity was as much for her benefit as the children. Purchase a big pack of white men’s tube socks at your favorite discount store. Add spray bottles of vinegar and water or your favorite non-toxic cleaner, and some fun music, and voila… you have a bunch of happy kids doing the twist in their socks and sliding around on the damp floor. Drag the baby and toddlers around on a beach towel to dry everything up! You will end up with lots of laughs, fun memories, and a sparkling clean floor.

Another way to include little ones is to give them dishes to wash in a plastic dish bin on the floor. We love the gray heavy-duty ones that we find at Sam’s Club or other restaurant supply companies. If you fold up some beach towels on the floor and add a few inches of soapy water, a toddler will happily wash the breakfast dishes while you read aloud to older children. We did this often, placing the dish pan in the middle of the family room while we started the day’s reading. We praised our toddlers heavily for their contribution!

Folding laundry is one of our favorite activities with little ones! Newly talking babies can help identify clothes to people. We became amazed at how much detail our toddlers were taking in as we asked, “Whose shirt is this?” and they were able to match all the clothes to the people in our family as excitedly as though they were on a TV game show. We would help little ones fold towels saying, “First in half, and then in quarters.” This was a natural way of even introducing basic geometry in daily life. Learn to talk them through all of the household activities, even though it takes longer. Label things, invent fun, silly jingles, and keep a smile on your face!

Some children can become very easily overwhelmed by mess. Lesli has memories of being paralyzed when her mother sent her to “clean her room” and had no idea where to start. We want to offer you some specific solutions for kids who are easily distracted and don’t know where to start. For some children, the idea of cleaning their room seems like endless time-sucking torture. One strategy is to use a timer to teach them how long things should take when you are moving quickly. We use a fun relay race game to teach this at home. We take the same items you would find strewn around a bedroom… a bin of stray socks, a bin of building toys, a bin of hot wheels, and a bin of books and lay them outside on the lawn. We call “GO!” and all race around trying to get the items back into the right bins. Our kids can visually see that all those items strewn around look worse than they are, and it really doesn’t take more than a few minutes to collect each category. We generally do this in the beginning of the school year to be able to use this as an object lesson when kids get overwhelmed, and then can challenge them to “mini-scavenger hunts” and say, “Go find all the books and put them on your shelf!” or “Go put anything away that is the color red!” to make it more manageable.
Gold drawn leaves
As your children grow, you will find yourself changing things up. We have used several different systems over the years, depending on the ages of our children. We started with simple picture charts. We took pictures of the family room when it was nice and clean so the children could “Eye Spy” what was out of place and fix it. We liked to do this just before Dad came home from work.

Later we moved to a daily/weekly chart for the children, rotating the chores occasionally so that everyone got to learn different skills. Now we are in the more challenging time of having many teenagers and young adults in the house whose varying work schedules and activities make it harder to “schedule” tasks. Lesli has found that it works to make a list of items that need to be done, and as the teenagers wake up, they pick several items off the list. She has noticed that they are more inclined to not sleep in late if they know they are going to get the last pick of the housekeeping duties! Do not be afraid to adjust or try different systems in order to find something that works for your family.

It is also important to have good tools readily available for little ones. We purchased child-size brooms when our children were little. An old-fashioned carpet sweeper is a great tool for little ones to use. Thankfully, there are many wonderful recipes for non-toxic homemade cleaning products online. You can put together a little cleaning caddy of everything you need to clean a bathroom and walk your children through the process. It is very inviting to have tools and potions ready for the task, arranged in an attractive manner. Our children loved simple aprons and colorful feather dusters! Lesli’s grown children were recently arguing about which one would inherit the purple feather duster. It is amazing the things that your children will attach fond memories to!

Again, we cannot overemphasize keeping a light heart and being very playful with your children as you instruct them in contributing to your household and doing chores. They will be able to take this attitude into their own adult lives and others will want to hire them and work for them.
Activity from A Year of Playing Skillfully:
Helping Hands: Trace your children’s handprints onto a colorful piece of cardstock or construction paper. Let your children cut it out. Let them decorate their “hands” with stickers and markers.” Talk about the ways they are (or could be) contributing around the house! Write the ways on each finger of the hands.
Kathy & Lesli typography
Kathy Eggers smiling with a green scarf on

athy Eggers has been in the field of early childhood and homeschooling for over thirty years. She is the mom of ten children, ranging in age from fourteen to thirty-six. Her family has grown to include three grandchildren, with number four on the way. Kathy has taught her children at home since the very beginning, and each year has looked a little different. As a child development specialist, young children have always been her passion. Kathy believes the early years should be full of play and concrete experiences. When given the chance to discover and experience the world first-hand, wonder grows in a child and provides them with a foundation for abstract thinking as they mature. Children who are encouraged to play and figure things out for themselves in the early years are more willing to take risks and problem solve as they become adults. As Mr. Rogers put it, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”

Lesli Richards smiling, outside

esli Richards is the co-author of The Homegrown Preschooler and A Year of Playing Skillfully and co-host of the Playing Skillfully podcast. She has had the pleasure of teaching her five children at home for the past eighteen years. Lesli has been married to Brendan for twenty-six years and lives in beautiful North Georgia. She has always loved children and dreamed of having a large, happy family. Her oldest son has autism and had to be taught to play, which sparked her interest in how children learn. Lesli believes that children learn best through play and exploration and loves researching and presenting her findings to parents in a way that is practical and easy to implement. There is so much to discover about how God has wired kids to learn!