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How we encourage young children to clean up a spill (or breakage) - Montessori style

Montessori child cleaning floor spill with cloth and spray bottle at How we Montessori three year old

Do your children willingly and enthusiastically clean up spills and breakages at home or do they need a little prompting? To encourage our young children to clean up spills and breakages at home we start with good role modeling and continue will a lot of patience and a few child-size tools. We consider:

  • Good role modeling - clean up our own spills slowly and precisely if the child is observing.
  • Starting young -  once the child can walk confidently, they can swat down and swipe up a spill, from around 18 months many children will be able to wipe up a small spill independently and can get a feeling of satisfaction from it. 
  • Small, child accessible cleaning tools - it's really not about the 'stuff'. A small cloth is essential though. Make sure the child can reach it without any adult help. The child needs to know where the cleaning materials are and be able to independently reach them. Other cleaning tools to consider include;
    • spray bottle (with water and a little vinegar or essential oil)  can help clean sticky spills.
    • dustpan and brush can help with broken plates or dishes.
    • a bucket that the child can fill can help with big spills.
    • cleaning mitt or small sponge can also help clean up.
    • a mop can also help with the bigger spills or cleaning generally.
  • Verbal prompts - if my child isn't cleaning up a spill I will give a verbal prompt, "I see you've spilled the milk, let's find a cloth and wipe this up".
  • Cleaning up together - if my child isn't interested in cleaning up I will suggest we clean up together  "do you want to wipe or spray", "do you want to sweep or hold the dustpan?".
  • Reassessing the reason for the spills - if spills are happening frequently we need to assess the reasons, is the pitcher too full, is the child's glass too large, is the table too high for the child to see when the glass is full, does the child need more pouring practice?
  • Supporting and allow the child to have ownership over their own spaces - if a child has ownership over an area they are more likely to take pride in the cleanliness and order of that space and are more likely to clean any spills. 
  • Development of practical life skills - children need practice to develop practical life skills like pouring, wiping, sweeping. These all require strength, coordination, and concentration. Mistakes or spills are a part of the process that we can, if possible, embrace. This is a learning process and children can learn a lot from spills and breakages. 
  • Staying positive and embrace the cleanup - spills and breakages will happen, we can teach children to be resilient and clean up the spills without drama. 

Otto squeezing out cleaning mitts at How we Montessori cleaning up spills

My experience is that toddlers and preschoolers really enjoy the cleaning up process. They love using spray bottles and getting out their little cleaning cloths. They can take pride in their work as cleaning up a spill is visible and tangible.

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I'll often offer or suggest using the mop after a spill as all of my children have loved using a mop and it extends the cleaning up process and gets my floors super clean. 

Otto mopping floor at How we Montessori three year old practical life

Resources: Mini Spray Bottle, Cooking Table (UK)(similar here US). Child size pitcher. Child size cloths and mitts are from Etsy but are no longer available (similar here).

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