Jobs for Kids: Creating Community Through Meaningful Work
Jobs for kids! What a thought! It conjures up images of assembly lines with children chained, or at least velcroed to their seats. Not a pleasant, or even, legal image. Children are beautiful, full of life and fun. They are creative people with amazing minds. Why should parents and teachers yoke them to responsibilities aside from cleaning up their own messes, which they aren’t usually enamored with?
Many parents, including those I’ve met in conferences, are mind-blown by the idea. “We make her clean up her toys. What else should she do? She likes to play.” Yes, the children like to play and, in fact, that is how they learn to learn, learn to think, and learn to work with others. This is, or should be, a big part of early childhood. It is, in fact, crucial. But another thread in the fabric of learning needs to be a child’s meaning to the group beyond the personal. A child who feels that his or her meaningful contributions to either family or classroom are needed will have a greater sense of self-worth than those who are raised only to be future Yale grads, for instance (no offense to Yale grads—my favorite director of all time is one). I once recommended to the parents of a young girl that she have a job that was meaningful to the rest of the family. Something that, if she didn’t do it, would interrupt the flow of the family’s life as a community. “She picks up her toys. What else can she do?” It turned out that this girl, the youngest of three, sister to two older boys, hungered for work to do that was as beneficial to the family as that of her brothers. The parents decided she could fill the napkin holder. That was a start!
I like the image of woven fabric, because each thread is important to the whole. In the family, each child is as important to the fabric of the family as the parents are. The classroom, or center is also a piece of fabric, interwoven with threads that have different colors and textures, but that each give strength and beauty to the whole. Teachers, children, administrators, and parents are all part of this beautiful fabric. Most good centers have job boards (you don’t?! Get with it!). These daily jobs are like trophies to the children. Jobs are rotated each day or week, and each child has a job that is important. A job chart can be constructed many ways.
Jobs are posted for children to make them feel included and important. Becky Bailey, of Conscious Discipline, has been instrumental in encouraging teachers to use job charts for creating a classroom family. In my experience, this is a powerful strategy for encouraging children to contribute, many of whom might otherwise feel disconnected, leading to acting out and attention-seeking behavior.
In a center where teachers have a rotation schedule, like mine did, each teacher has a job important to the center. One day I would open, another day I would close. “Are you closing teacher, Gail?”, the children would ask. When they found out I was, they would want to choose the “last story”, to help me in my job. Every day, part of the lunch clean-up teacher’s job was to sweep. To give those pea-spilling children a chance to work, we made using a whisk broom and dust pan under the tables a job for children. They learned to be reasonably conscientious about getting every green pea up off the floor.
My favorite story from child care is when children did jobs that teachers normally did. If the weather didn’t permit going outside, we had activities set up in the room for children to do, while the teacher responsible for lunch clean-up/cot-making was working. Our children asked to help with the real work. After some discussion, we began allowing them to work in teams to make each cot up with a sheet and blanket. Oh, the joy! The enthusiasm! Teams spread out to conquer the cots, stretching out fitted sheets, analyzing and discussing (arguing) how a sheet should be stretched to fit (The cot’s a rectangle! The sheet’s a rectangle! We need to match the sheet to the cot!). I loved to see the pride the children displayed after doing real work. Making a job a group effort gives everyone a light-hearted feeling of accomplishment.
It is a disservice to young children to see them as only cute, funny and enjoyable, but separate. They are future adults in training, and they are establishing their identities. Children being responsible within a loving community, being colorful threads in the everyday fabric of life, is best for all of us. Just ask the children.