We have learned so much recently about the importance of play for young children that many families may overlook how meaningful work can also nurture development.

Young children flourish when allowed to enter the world of real work that surrounds them - from picking up toys or feeding the cat to grating carrots for salad. In the company of family or other adults, children eagerly engage in work. They want to 'help' with the pursuits of adults, and this work can be a crucial part of their early learning.

If you shield young children from a whole category of activity simply because it is called 'work' and not 'play,' you may be limiting their developmental opportunities.

On the other hand, if you invite children to participate in work and play, you give them many more ways to grow and learn.

Through work that is meaningful and a real contribution to the family or group, even young children can gain a sense of purpose, and come to feel more a part of the family.

With proper adult supervision, there are many types of chores that families can consider for young children, which can help them begin learning about responsibility, independence and caring for themselves. Here are a few examples:

  • Gathering, preparing, and cooking food Even when they are too young to help with lunch or dinner, children can play a role in preparing snacks. And by taking your children to the grocery or market, you can help them better understand where food comes from and how we buy it.
  • Running errands
    Letting young children run errands conveys your feelings of trust in them. When you need something - another family member or the phone or a sponge - tell one of your children you need help.
  • Caring for younger children
    Even simple tasks (like reading or singing to younger family members) help older children learn about responsibility and sharing.
  • Housekeeping
    Children can help set the table and serve themselves at meals. If you are vacuuming the carpet, you can empower your child by letting him run this most-adult-of-all housekeeping tool.
  • Caring for animals
    Pets and livestock require water, food and clean environments. Young children can learn valuable lessons by caring for animals.
  • Gardening
    Nurturing plants helps children learn about the wonders of nature. If you don't have space for a garden, a small window planter can bring opportunities to explore.

In all of these activities, it's important to remember several points:

  • Keep in mind what your children can accomplish, and how much you need to supervise to make sure the activity is safe.
  • Even young children can tell the difference between busy work and real work.
  • Also, remember that many chores actually take longer with the help of young children, but a little patience and a few extra minutes lets them reap real benefits from assisting the family.

By matching your expectations to their abilities, encouraging and approving their efforts, and allowing plenty of time for the performance of each task, you can give your young children many opportunities to learn and grow through work.

Excerpted from "More Than Line Leader and Door Holder: Engaging Young Children in Real Work," by Christine A. Readdick and Kathy Douglas - an article in the NAEYC journal, Young Children.