Helping Children Meet Therapeutic Needs Through Chores

Deanna Macioce, MS, OTR/L

Cleaning seems to be a never-ending item on our to-do lists. For many of us, long gone are the days of having a cleaning schedule. Our days are so packed and busy that we squeeze a toilet cleaning here and a floor wash there. Since we are “fitting” our cleaning in, we often perform these chores quickly and without the help of our children. If we do, we see chores as a way to build character and teach responsibility as well as to get a little bit of help. However, if we break apart many common chores, we can see that these daily tasks offer a wealth of benefit to our children with sensory processing issues as well as being very therapeutic overall. So, as we look to develop a functional home exercise program, look no further than developing a chore list.

Therapists can be a very influential piece of this puzzle. They can assist parents in determining the tasks that will offer the most therapeutic benefit. By reviewing a chore list with parents and developing any adaptive strategies, therapists can then have the child build these skills as well as practice the chore during sessions. In addition, the therapist’s input can help parents have a better understanding of their child’s sensory and strengthening needs.

An appropriate level of expectation has to be met and accepted by parents. This is probably one of the biggest roadblocks that keeps parents from handing chores over to children, because they are not done to a certain “level of perfection.” So, as a team, the right chores need to be chosen so that parents are comfortable with how they are performed, yet they are age and skill-level appropriate and provide benefit for the child.

Below is a short breakdown of many common chores and the therapeutic benefits they provide.

Cleaning up toys: Just like playing with and manipulating toys is beneficial to hand and grasp development, so is cleaning them up. Many times, taking apart toys such as blocks, puzzles and games requires additional fine motor strength and dexterity. In addition, having designated spots for items assists with sorting and direction following.

Dusting: Whether you use a dusting wand or cleaner and cloth, dusting promotes crossing midline while increasing stability of the shoulder and elbow. In addition, dusting can also be a great visual scanning activity by helping children learn they have to scan an entire table or shelf to make sure the dust is gone. Remember that it is ideal to make sure you are practicing this using both hands.

Cleaning widows: Just like dusting, this is another way to address midline crossing and shoulder stability. But by throwing in the vertical component of standing, the challenge and benefit increase.

Laundry: By simply cleaning those dirty clothes off the floor, direction following and sorting are addressed. Pushing or carrying the laundry baskets to and from the laundry room can help achieve proprioceptive input as well as bilateral coordination, shoulder stability and grip strength. For higher-level children, folding helps improve shoulder, wrist and hand development as well as dexterity and precision. For this skill to be the most successful, starting with towels and progressing to pants and shirts is best. And who doesn’t want help with matching those socks, which improves visual and sorting/matching skills? This is a great task for your littler ones. Sequencing of a multiple-step task can be addressed by having your child actually use the washer and dryer.

Vacuuming: This is a great bilateral coordination task that provides proprioceptive input while improving shoulder stability. In addition, hand strength is addressed, as children have to maintain their grasp for a prolonged period. Again, visual scanning is required to ensure a full room is cleaned.

Emptying the dishwasher: Even for children who cannot reach the cabinets, emptying the dishes and sorting them on the counter provides practice in grasping items of different sizes and weights. Bilateral skills are required to perform this task, especially if children have to dry off excess water. Like so many of our chores, this is another one that helps improve shoulder, elbow and wrist stability.

Taking out the trash: Whether your child has to push the garbage cans to the road or carry out the bag, this is a great proprioceptive, strengthening and bilateral coordination task.

Feeding pets: Not only is this a great task to teach responsibility for others, but feeding pets also addresses sequencing and multiple step-following skills. In addition, based on how it is set up, carrying food and water bowls improves shoulder stability and balance, a functional skill that can be similar to carrying a lunch tray at school.

Yard work: The list of benefits is long for these tasks. From raking to lawn mowing to weeding, children can work on bilateral coordination, core stability and strengthening, as well as grasp development and strength.

Occupational therapy is all about being functional in our daily routines, and so often we overlook the component of chores in our children’s profiles as we try to make aspects of therapy creative and fun. However, these tasks can be so beneficial for sensory organization as well as improving hand- eye coordination and overall strength and stability, thus improving a child’s performance at school, on the field, and at home.

So, now the challenge is how to put a “fun” twist on something that is so often dreaded at home…the CHORE list! Helping establish a routine/schedule or developing a game approach can be helpful based on the child’s personality. From trying to “beat the song” when cleaning up toys to making a game spinner to choose the chore to be done, there are plenty of ways to help make this a win-win experience!