Monday, June 11, 2007

Handwashing For Toddlers

Waterplay On A Mission: Handwashing for Toddlers.

As all you Montessori kids know, washing things is a big part of the Montessori life. Practical life includes "Care of Self" which is basically grooming, the central activity of which is handwashing; "Care of the Environment" which, while sometimes ecology-oriented, usually means washing things and tidying up after yourself; and "Grace and Courtesy" which involves the development of other-regarding habits, otherwise known as good manners, only with philosophy attached. Other-regarding-ness comes back around to hygeine and tidiness, and so there you are at handwashing again. See?

Hence we introduce handwashing as an activity (not just a means to an end) early on. Young infants get a quick wipe from an adult before and after meals and after diapering, but the toddler activity is a big step. When first introduced, handwashing is an annoyingly attractive activity, by which I mean that it's hard to get the child to do anything else besides splash in the water and make a sodden mess of everything nearby.

For this reason, I have seen it omitted from many infant communities (Come on, you know who you are!), and underutilized in many primary communities. Just for fun, Montessori parents, sneak a peek at your child's classroom handwashing station. Check it for dust. If you find it's not being used much, it's because while it's a really great practical life activity, many teachers consider it a colossal pain in the ass. It was always a challenge for me to encourage teachers to use it.

To set up toddler handwashing at home, I give the materials list and "simplified" handwashing procedure below.

Parents of older kids: If you have a child in a Primary Montessori class (ages 3-6), I recommend checking with your primary teacher to get her exact handwashing procedure before setting it up at home. Lessons vary in detail from place to place, and the primary handwashing ("involved" handwashing) has a very specific choreography. If your Montessori teacher is using it, she will appreciate your getting it right.

Materials for handwashing: You can order handwashing stations all set up and coordinated from Michael Olaf or other Montessori sites, but I consider this a silly expense for a home setup. I feel a little differently about dishwashing, but we'll get to that.

1. a low table or washstand. I am using my abandoned weaning table (see "Weenie Whiny, Whoa!)

2. a wide, shallow bowl. Mine is enameled, but you could use plastic or ceramic, depending on your tolerance for replacing broken pottery.

3. a small pitcher, manageable by the child, and with a capacity that will give you an inch or two of water in the bottom of your bowl with only one pour. Same considerations about materials as the bowl.

4. a small piece of soap. I like Burt's Bees baby shampoo bar, because it's solid, non-toxic and doesn't sting if it gets in the eyes. You could also use those little flower-shaped guest soaps, or whatever. just make sure the piece is small, so your child can manage it easily. I do not recommend liquid soap for this activity. I'm sure I don't need to explain.

5. a hand towel on a bar, or two baskets and a couple of hand towels. I find the towel bar more convenient for just our family. I have the station set up next to the dishwasher, which has a little towel bar that is at a good height. If you don't have anything readily available, you could install a bar at your child's height, or use the two-basket method. The first basket is for clean towels, the second is for used ones.

6. A little sponge. Probably half of a kitchen sponge will be adequate. A whole sponge is too big, but you will need enough sponge to sop up some water.

7. A bucket with a handle. This is a running theme in Montessori water activities. It is the "slop" bucket. Children learn early in Montessori school that clean water comes from pitchers, and dirty water is carried in buckets. Yes, it is a job to keep a toddler out of the slop bucket. Just empty it every time they use it.

Montessori teachers will carefully color-coordinate all the elements of the handwashing station, and other stations in their classrooms. In addition to eye-pleasing, this is so that it is easy for a child (or teaching assistant) who is tidying up an activity station to see what goes with what. My handwashing station is made up of cute little things I have on hand, and is not particularly matchy.

I admit that for my own toddler (Nuvy is 17 months old), who has just been introduced to handwashing, I keep the station "dry", that is, with the pitcher empty, and I don't have a water source within her reach. She brings me the pitcher if she wants to wash her hands (saying "hands? hands?"), and I fill it for her and supervise the activity closely. Orthodoxy suggests having a water source (like a drink cooler) within the child's reach, but I am just not ready for that kind of insanity yet. Maybe when we get to dishwashing.

You set it up like this:

Starting at the left, place the pitcher, then bowl, then soap, then sponge on the table. Hang the towel above the table, and slightly to the right. Place the bucket on the floor to the right of the table. (If you are using baskets of towels, place them under the table, basket for clean ones on the left, for used ones on the right). This way, the whole activity moves from left to right (an early preparation for reading, I'm told).

Here's the "simplified handwashing" procedure:

Invite the child to wash her hands. Then demonstrate how it is done.

1. Remove the pitcher from the left side of the bowl. Fill it with water.

2. Pour the water into the bowl. Place the pitcher to the right of the bowl. (If there is room on your table, great. If not, I have seen many people just replace the pitcher in its original place. This kind of thing is a typical point of hot debate among the Montessori gurus I know. Personally, I like to move the pitcher to the right. The reason is below.)

3. Dip your hands in the water, deliberately, and only once. Take the soap. Give it three strokes across your hand (count them aloud) and put it back in its place.

4. Rub your hands together to make a lather however you want (Again, Primary handwashing will choreograph the lathering, but for toddlers, we try to respect their limited patience.)

5. Dip your hands in the water again to rinse. Dip them three times. You can count them aloud, or you can flip your hands over for the second dip ("front, back, front").

6. Take them out, fingers pointing down (so that the water drips away from your sleeves). Dry them on the towel. If you are using towel baskets, put the used towel in the right-side basket.

7. Pour the used water into the bucket, then replace the bowl where it was.

8. Use the sponge to wipe off the table, bowl, and pitcher. After you wipe the pitcher, replace it on the left side of the bowl. (So, placing it at the right side is a visual reminder to clean up the handwashing station. Right?). Replace the sponge, and you're done.

The Words: Montessori teachers usually have words to go with each lesson, but I am not giving you any. You know how to talk to your kid. I would only suggest that fewer words are better than more, because they'll stick out better, and the child will learn them easily. Please do use complete sentences, though. For example:

No: "Wet." "Rub." "Dry." "Wipe"

Yes: "I wet my hands." " Here is the soap." "Now I will rinse." "Now I clean up."

No: "Ok, Sweetie, let's wash our hands now. Are you ready? Ok. Now put your hands in the water like this. Goood! Ok, ok, ok. Now here, here, take the soap--- right! No, like this. Now rubrubrubrubrub, and rinse, and rinse and rinse. Great! Now it's time to dry..."

So, I have got to be kidding, right?

No, I am not kidding. Older toddlers can do this pretty easily after a few tries. Little ones, like mine, should not do this activity over, say, hardwood floors, but perhaps over a shower curtain on the floor. Actually, a big towel under the whole thing will help with the watery mess that an 18 month-old will not have the patience to clean up.

If the child takes off in the middle of the activity, it's ok. Just let it go and clean it up, then do it again another time. I really don't suggest that you try this at a time when your child actually NEEDS to wash her hands, for this reason. If you try to keep her there longer than she wants to be there, you kill the joy of the activity. Getting all the way through takes a while.

If the child just wants to pour water between the bucket and the bowl, I would recommend cleaning up the handwashing and putting out another activity for pouring water between two vessels. I have two bowls and a towel in my kitchen for just that purpose. It happens to me every time.

Good luck and have fun!


Anonymous said...

all that trouble just to was hands oh my god !!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sarah said...

I love that Nuvy is into this and brings you the pitcher. That is just too cool.

BTW- I'm digging the new look of the Mommybahn... and the picture with this post is darling. I love the orange wall.

testdriver said...


Are you my mother in law???


BABA said...

Are you kidding? Since when is your mother-in-law anonymous? She thinks you are pretty perfect and your daughter even more so. So let her spill the water or whatever else she wants!

daniela said...

Testdriver, do you remember the thumbsucking issue??
it is red hot at home, were we have the old factions (grandmothers & such) vs ths new: me (the mommy) and the older brothers and sister (15, 13, 11 & 9 years old) they are basically cheering me on as they always do, and the dad is apparently Swiss for now...meanwhile Josephine (3 months old) the child in question devours her hand and I’m not doing any thing to stop her....
I read you handwashing post, I had the same pitfalls with Flopsy (16 months) could you walk me through the water pouring vessel activity and I`ll report back..maybe a picture or two….

meg said...

Thanks so much for sharing your lives with us. We are a group of Montessori mums and toddlers, and have loved following your journey. It helps to get another perspective sometimes!

Erin said...

dear testdriver - i love your blog and was so excited to stumble upon it! i have an 11 month old named Anika, and we are having our own fun experimenting with a host of montessori concepts (just started the floor bed, and Ani has spent most of her nights in the middle of the floor...). Anyway, I have not been officially trained in Montessori, and although I've done lots of reading, I frequently feel all by my lonesome in this rather "alternative" method of child-rearing. I need community! Do you have any suggestions? Also, where did you get your training? Thanks much.

testdriver said...

Hi, Erin--
Ah, community! When you have a kid too young for the toddler playgroup, it's all too hard to find, isn't it? I think that's why I'm here, shouting into the ether...

That said, lots of Montessori schools have infant-toddler playgroups, most of the ones I know of start at about 18 months and are "mommy and me" style, but you might find one in your area that starts younger.

I trained in Gaithersburg, MD at Montgomery Montessori Institute, which is associated with the school I directed back before I was a mom. There are training outfits everywhere, though, I suggest googling "American Montessori Society" or "Montessori Training" to find one in your area.

I remember the rolling out of the floor bed thing. Nuvy sleeps in it well now, but when we first put her there, I used receiving blankets rolled up under the sheet to make a kind of bolster around her, so that she wouldn't roll out in her sleep, but could get out on her own steam if she wanted to once she woke. Let me know how it works out for you. I love hearing how folks go about solving the little nuisances of trying to raise an independent child!

testdriver said...


Sorry to be so long in answering. I remember the thumbsucking issue well! I hope it's settling down, and Flopsy can enjoy her beloved thumb in peace! At some point, of course, she will develop other interests, but in the meantime, you will get all kinds of remarks about the future cost of straightening her teeth--if your experience is anything like mine...

The water-pouring activity is so simple that I'll bet you can do it without pictures. I use a big bath towel, two identical enameled metal bowls, and half a kitchen sponge. I place the bowls side by side on the towel, with the sponge centered between. I use the handwashing pitcher (just to keep it in play...) to put a little water in the bowl on the left, then I remove the pitcher.

I usually set this apparatus up very quietly, which draws Nuvy to see what important thing I am doing. Once I have Nuvy's quiet attention, I pick up the sponge (saying "Here is my sponge.")and put it in the left bowl, where the water is. (saying "I put it in the water")

I lift the sponge out of the water with both hands (as I want her to do saying, "I use two hands"), move the wet sponge over the empty bowl (a few inches up, so the water makes a nice sound when it falls into the bowl) and squeeze it with the fingertips of both hands into the empty bowl on the right (you might say, "I hear the water!" if you want, but I usually don't say anything, and let the water speak for itself). I keep doing this until Nuvy tries to grab the sponge from me. Then I say, "Would you like a turn?" and hand her the sponge. Some Montessori folks will tell you that you should make the child wait until you have entirely emptied the left bowl into the right one and have switched the bowls before you relinquish the sponge, but for me, it's usually become a sponge tug-of-war by then. We're working toward understanding what it means to "finish" something. Hell, I'm STILL working on that one!

If you use just a little water, the child will be able to empty the entire contents of the left bowl into the right in only a few passes of the sponge. If that happens, you just say, "You're finished! Would you like to do it again?" If the child is still interested, just switch the bowls so that the full one is on the left again.

Of course, often Nuvy will just transfer water left and right between the bowls with no thought of finishing, which is fine with me (you will find folks for whom this is not fine, and who will take up the activity once the child 'misuses' it in this way. It's a matter of opinion about readiness and forming good habits. You must be your own judge.) I just let her do it until she manages, either with the sponge or by pouring out the bowls to get all of the water out onto the towel--or until she starts carrying it all over the kitchen--at which point I just say, "Looks like you're all done now." and put the whole thing away. I bring it out as often as she seems interested in using it.

You could also set this up without the sponge, and just let her pour water from bowl to bowl, which I have done, but I find that the sponge adds interest and keeps the activity more contained for a longer time (always good!) Either way, it's much simpler than the handwashing, which I still introduce periodically, but which Nuvy is still not able to do from start to finish. One day, right?

daniela said...

testdriver where are you????
its been forever
hope you are well

Montessori Mama said...

Hi I just found your blog and love it! Thank you for sharing of yourself and your treasure box of knowledge wow! I am also a Montessori teacher (now home) and a mom of an 19th month old little one + two big boys :). Visit me when you get moment at
Thanks again, if it is okay with you may I post your blog on my list of Blogs that Inspire? Thanks Jennifer aka Montessori Mama

Marisela said...

This is just what I was looking for...THANK YOU!
I am 27 weeks pregnant and I cannot hold my 22 month old daughter over the sink to wash her hands anymore. She is so short even with a stool she wouldn't be able to reach the sink. I always wanted to teach her how to wash her hands Montessori style. Your recommendation about not trying to teach the child when you actually need him/her to wash their hands was very useful to me. I'll keep it in mind.
I have a question. What do you do when the child does not wait for you to demonstrate an activity, and immediately wants to touch everything?