How little chores help develop a child’s sense of responsibility

Nathalie Buhagiar takes a look at school life from a different perspective as she delves into childhood school occupations and why they are important for a child’s development
Play is central to early childhood and beyond. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Have you ever thought of your child as an occupational being? Occupations are traditionally associated with adults but children have occupations too.

What are childhood occupations?

Childhood occupations are the ordinary and familiar things that children do every day, and include both everyday activities and routines, as well as the out-of-the-ordinary events taking place at school (Townsend & Polatajko, 2013).

One may note several similarities in the occupations of children, irrespective of age. School life contains social, recreational, communal, creative, civic and academic elements (Simeonsson et al., 2001; Chapparo & Lowe, 2012; WHO, 2012). Activities students carry out in their daily routine include educational tasks, both academic and non-academic, such as reading and writing, crafts, play, recess, lunch, and field trips (AOTA, 2016b; WFOT, 2016).

Occupations in schools may also be “in-between” moments (Bazyk, 2015) that the pupils experience, including drop-off and pick-up time, walking to class, waiting to use the toilet, fruit or milk break, circle time and assembly .These routines characterise the school day of every child.

Roles and routines of children have been explored in different cultural contexts and were identified as important for children’s participation in school life (Maciver et al., 2019a). Children assume different roles within the school setting – of friends, players, students, learners and self-carers. These roles enable children to develop autonomy, self-actualisation, as well as leadership skills.

Chores have already been identified as significant work routines that are acknowledged in different cultures as important occupations. They may be associated with home occupations, however, there is place for these in the school setting too. Some examples include clearing up the classroom and keeping it clean, organising one’s belongings, running errands for the teacher, or being responsible for recycling, watering plants etc. Chores develop children’s sense of responsibility in everyday life.

The occupation of ‘play’

The occupation of play is central to early childhood and beyond. It is meaningful to the child and a fundamental occupation in cultures across the world. It provides an overall sense of well-being, happiness, satisfaction and joy, while supporting both the development of children’s identity and their learning (Moore & Lynch, 2018). It is a mode of learning and should not be extrinsic to academic work for young children, when doing is part of learning

Some studies − albeit from different geographical and cultural context − explored the everyday environments and activities of children and teachers. They have particularly identified the significance of physical play as an occupation relevant to the preschool years. They acknowledged the importance of indoor and outdoor play as well as the importance and nature of routine-based activities: dressing, eating, waiting time, table tasks, art and learning time for young children (Astrom et al., 2020; Lundqvist et al., 2018; Yan et al., 2005; Ziviani et al., 2006a, 2006b).

“Older children’s own perspectives on the occupation of free play during recess was studied. Recess [known and termed ‘break time’ in the Maltese context] provides an opportunity and the freedom to make choices, socialise and make decisions, as well as provided personal satisfaction, partly derived through practising playground occupations that involved competing and winning.”(Prompona et al., 2019).

“Childhood school occupations need to be varied, provide fun, enjoyment and satisfaction, and be practised in the right dose”

Children perceive play occupations to be more those that were carried outdoors in the playground. These include free and self-chosen play that is child directed and voluntary, as well as sensory play activities and active play, including swinging, jumping, running, climbing and sliding. Studies determined that children associate sit down table-top activities at school with work occupations (Lundqvist et al., 2013; Pyle & Alaca, 2006). Play for the sake of play, and not as a tool for future learning, is an important consideration.

As a standalone occupation, play supports the development of skills and social participation and, most of all, it provides enjoyment and opportunities for engagement.  

In a Maltese context (Buhagiar, 2021), young children were also found to value play occupations such as physical play, for example, play on playground equipment and playing games or a sport. Imaginative play, playing with toys,  colouring and painting are other occupations young children valued and enjoyed, as well as the more social occupations of “being”, such as making and having friends and socialising .

“Children desire to have fun, have a calm environment and to have more choice and control over their learning. literacy and numeracy are  two important occupations, as well as  learning to read and write but parents and children also  consider trust, happiness, safety and caring key in the execution of school occupations.” (Buhagiar, 2021)

Finding the right balance

Occupational ‘balance’ comes about when children spend enough time engaged in activities that provide meaning, fun and satisfaction to them, and which are intrinsically motivating.

In the school setting, there may be the danger that an over-focus on one activity, such as academic study, reduces or eliminates altogether other important activities which provoke a deeper sense of enjoyment, such as playing and socialising with friends or engaging in other age-appropriate occupations, which are ultimately important for all young children to integrate and be part of society. This balance may be affected by disability, which imposes on the child a slower tempo; more dependence on adults; reduced diversity; less involvement in activities  and less involvement with friends.

Impairment does not dictate function, but universal design and accessibility do. This means that if the physical and social environment of the school are well adapted, then all children − including those with neurodiverse needs    − can participate gainfully in school life.

In conclusion, childhood school occupations need to be varied, provide fun, enjoyment and satisfaction, and be practised in the right dose. This would contribute to a more holistic development, as well as ensure engagement, involvement and a sense of fulfilment in each child.

In raising children, it is important to give the same importance to all of children’s school occupations: play, social participation, self-care,chores, education and learning, as well as to keep in mind the importance of routines, roles and rules. This may better prepare children to navigate the real world successfully.

Nathalie Buhagiar is a resident academic at the University of Malta and  specialist paediatric occupational therapists . She holds a PhD in occupational science and has been working with neurodiverse children for more than 35 years. Kindly contact the author on nathalie.buhagiar@um.edu.mt for references in this article and any other queries.

In her next article, Buhagiar will focus on tips to support the various childhood occupations at home and in school.

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