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Making Laundry Time a Learning Moment for Your Child

Dr. Vicki Collet, Assistant Professor, CIED, College of Education & Health Professions University of Arkansas
By Dr. Vicki Collet, Assistant Professor, CIED, College of Education & Health Professions University of Arkansas

Last week Too Small to Fail Launched “Wash Time is Talk Time” – a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action bringing together exciting partners  – Coin Laundry Association, Jumpstart, Encore.org, Current Initiatives, University of Arkansas, and First 5 Alameda County – to educate and encourage parents to make laundry time a time to talk, read, and sing with their littlest learners. We sat down with Dr. Vicki Collet of the University of Arkansas, who has been an essential advisor on this effort, and asked her three questions about the importance of talking, reading, and singing to children during everyday routines.

1. Why are everyday places like laundromats and grocery stores great places to reach parents and help them talk, read and sing with their children?

Research shows that simple, everyday actions, especially during the first five years of life, can boost children’s brain development.  We know that talking, reading, and singing to young children can increase their vocabularies and build important skills for language and literacy development.

We need to spread the word to parents that simply talking with their children during the early years will help prepare them for school. Public places are a great venue for getting this message out! Public gathering places can offer simple ways for families to build and share language-rich activities—with each other and within their communities. Encouraging parents to talk, read, and sing with their children in public places where they often spend time can help build habits that will extend to other parent-child interactions. For example, many families spend about 2.5 hours at a time in a laundromat. This is why Too Small to Fail has built an initiative to reach parents there.

2. What are some practical tips for parents to help their children learn and have fun while washing clothes together?

The laundromat, or the laundry room at home, provides lots of opportunities for parents and children to play with words and language together. If you think about it, there is so much happening while you do laundry and so many items and actions parents and caregivers can talk about with their children. For example, parents can describe the types of clothes (shirt, pants, shorts), numbers of objects (5 shirts, 2 socks, 1 towel), colors (red sock, blue shirt, yellow dress), shapes of the washers and dryers, and letters of the alphabet that are around the laundromat.

Labelling types of clothes can turn into a game that can evolve as the child’s language grows. At first, a parent might say, “Can you find the shorts?” Later, as the child’s own language develops, he/she can be encouraged to name the objects as they are pulled from the dryer: “A sock!” “A shirt!” “My sweater!” These simple labelling activities help a child’s language grow!

The laundromat is also full of math. There are circles all around (knobs, dryer windows, coins), lots of squares and sometimes even a triangle or two. Children also can count the quarters as they go into the washer or count each item of clothing as it is folded. Sorting by color and putting pairs together are other math skill-builders parents can try. 

Of course, there are many opportunities to talk about color, too. Sorting light and dark colors is an activity that can be paired with language. A parent might say, “Do you think this should go in the light pile or the dark one?” Or a child who is learning her colors could be asked to bring the pink socks, or tell the parent the colors of the shirts she sees. 

It’s never too early to talk about words and share how useful it is to be able to gather information. “This tag says, ’Wash in cold water,’ so I’m going to turn this knob to cold,” a parent might say, as she narrates her tasks while doing laundry. For older preschoolers, pointing out specific words and letters can support literacy development.

There are plenty of things to talk about at the laundromat, so engaging in rich conversations there can promote language and literacy development without taking extra time during a parent’s busy day.

3. What are some things that every laundromat owner could do to turn their businesses into language-rich spaces for children and families?

Simple changes like having a book shelf or magazine rack in the laundromat will encourage literacy-rich activities between parents and children. Families spend lots of time in the laundromat waiting while their clothes wash and dry, so just having print materials available can make a big difference. Keeping a child happily engaged with a book helps the time pass quickly. Having books, magazines, or newspapers for adults—even classified ads or property magazines — is a good idea as well because when children see parents reading, it helps them recognize that it is an important part of everyday life.

We’ve found that schools often want to support literacy in the community—they’re just looking for a good project. If you tell the principal or PTA president at a neighborhood school about a good idea, they’re likely to jump at the opportunity to provide reading materials or sponsor a book drive. Local faith-based organizations are also a great resource. If there is a business willing to provide a little space, there’s probably someone out there willing to provide materials.

Laundromat owners who want to do even more can print out free downloadable posters from Too Small to Fail at www.toosmall.org/laundromats. Hanging up these posters, which include many of the suggestions listed above, can prompt vocabulary-rich conversations between parents and children. And of course, parents can download and print these posters, too. What a great way to brighten up the laundry room and turn it into a learning area! Through the simple act of putting up posters, you can add fun and easy ways to support young children’s early brain and language development.