Playing Smart: Learning from Chores

By Susan K. Perry

Adults tend to think of chores as tasks that must be completed before moving on to more pleasant activities. However, with some imagination, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are countless ways we enhance our children’s learning, as well as everyone’s fun, by involving them in everyday chores from an early age.

From a child’s point of view, even the most mundane task can be a window into adventure. Try out the following activities with your kids and tune in to the learning that’s been hiding all along, just underneath the dust cloth or around the bend of the supermarket aisle.

Around the House
You can introduce household maintenance chores to your kids from preschool on, but it’s best not to assign jobs to a young child and expect them to be completed without your involvement. Instead, have your child work alongside you, enjoying your company and absorbing your positive attitude.

  • Measuring Up – Get your child some measuring tools and watch the learning add up. Begin with a ruler, a yardstick and, for the most fun, a 25-foot children’s tape measure. Have your child measure the length and width of the rooms you’re about to dust or vacuum. Older children can figure the square footage (length times width). When your child picks the toys up from his room, how many square feet did he tidy? Use the bathroom scale creatively: On garbage day, have your child weigh himself, then do so again while holding the full garbage bag. Suggest keeping track of how many pounds of trash your family tosses in a week. A longer-term project might be to reduce that poundage by more careful buying and recycling.

  • The Joy of Imperfection – Doing things correctly is sometimes less enlightening than imagining doing them wrong. At laundry time find out how many different ways your child can think of doing the wash incorrectly: “Fill the pockets of all the pants with chalk.” “Use one teaspoon of soap.” “Load the machine so full that nothing can move.”

    While you’re discussing possible errors, you can also bring up reasons why various chores are managed the way they are. “We separate dark colors from light ones because some dyes aren’t colorfast.” That way, you’re introducing and defining new terms as you talk about how to do chores correctly.

  • Bill-Paying for Amateurs – Enlist your child’s help with monthly bill-paying. Pile up the bills that must be paid, and have your child count out and date an equal number of checks. After you show her how to do this a few times, you may be able to trust an older school-age child with the job of filling out the checks, leaving you to read over them and sign them. She could also record the checks in the checkbook, as long as you check for accuracy. If your child is interested and able, you might tackle some financial software together. Not only does helping out with financial details teach math skills, but your child will be better able to grasp what you mean when you say the family can’t afford something.

At the Grocery Store
The trick to happy, educational shopping trips is to plan ahead. Avoid starting when you or your kids are tired and hungry. For your child’s convenience, bring along a clipboard packed with paper and a smooth-writing marker.

  • Coupon Capers – A school-age child may enjoy the task of organizing the family’s grocery coupons. A coupon file with compartments or an index card box will suffice for arranging coupons by either product category or expiration date. Choose a week’s newspaper coupons and have your child cut them out. When you shop, put your young organizer in charge of the coupon file so she’ll be usefully focused.

  • Grocery Bingo – For the younger child, cut out photos of common grocery items from newspapers or magazines. Tape the pictures to 3-inch-by-5-inch cards. Hand the pack of cards to your child as you enter the store and ask her to tell you whenever she spots one of the items. Take back each card as she finds the item, and she can call out “Bingo!” as she locates the thing on the last card. For the reading child, print a list of common items found in your grocery store, whether they’re items you’re thinking of purchasing or not, such as “paper towel,” “green pepper,” “magazine” and “cheese.” Give your child the list and a pencil to check off each item as she locates it.

  • Treasure Hunt – No prep needed for this one: Set your preschooler on a quest for the red peppers or the blue can of soup. Can she find the smoothest fruit, the ripest bananas, the biggest box of soap? Is the biggest box the heaviest? Read the weight statement. Find the smallest bar of soap. How many ounces is it? A beginning reader will delight in hunting out specific letters or words. “Do you see an ‘O’ anywhere on any of these cans?” “Find the cereal that has the word ‘natural’ in its name.” You might write unusual words down for your child to find in the aisle in which you’re currently shopping.

  • Calculating Shopper – Give your child an easy-to-read calculator. As you make the rounds of the market, announce prices as you put items in the basket. Your child can then enter all the prices into the calculator. You can ask for a subtotal as you approach your limit or as you approach the checkout stand.

  • Scale Savvy – Teach your child to estimate. Fill a bag with an item that costs $1 per pound. Ask, “Do you think these are over or under one pound?” Your child can guess how much the bag weighs and then read the scale for the correct answer. How many do you have to take out to make the rest equal a pound? If you get two pounds, what will it cost?

Errands Around Town
Adapt the following ideas on any outing with your child, from a quick stop at the dry cleaners to a lengthier run to the pharmacy or post office.

  • Surrounded by Shapes – Have your child make a collection of every possible shape, or else notice repeating patterns of shapes. Don’t miss the hidden shapes, such as a lamp that’s diamond-shaped or the base of an ashtray that’s a circle. What shape is the mail slot at the post office? Have your child peek inside before dropping in a letter. Can there be shapes within shapes?

  • Career Conversation – Talk with your child about all the different jobs that are involved in operating a supermarket or a shopping mall or any individual store. How many kinds of helpers can your child locate, aside from the obvious cashiers? What is the job of the produce manager? Can your child recognize any security personnel? What might go on behind the door at the back of the post office or the pharmacy?

  • Fix-It List – Ask your child to point out things in the mall and in the individual stores that could use some fixing or changing. For instance, a missing letter on a sign, a rest-room trash can that’s overflowing, a stroller wheel that squeaks, a display of toys that’s badly out of order. What kind of repairperson would be suitable for such jobs?

  • In Round Numbers – A mid-elementary-school-age child may enjoy learning how to round off numbers. Ask him to round off your purchases to the nearest five cents, nearest half-dollar or the nearest dollar. If, for example, a new hammer costs $3.29, that can be rounded up to $3.30 or $3.50, or down to $3.