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Home Family Parenting Advice Expect messy clothes from a day of play — Good Parenting

Expect messy clothes from a day of play — Good Parenting

preschool kidsDear Dr. Debbie,

My 4-year-old son attends an all-day program while I’m at work. I know he loves it; he’s been there since he was 2. Is it asking too much to expect his clothes to be in decent condition when I pick him up? The paint they use is supposed to be “washable” but some colors just don’t come out in the wash. I also find food, mud, grass, and other unidentifiable substances in his clothes.

Working Hard for the Money


Don’t miss last week’s column Strategies to ensure a summer beach trip everyone can enjoy — Good Parenting

Dear WHM,

Too much to expect? Yes, of him as well as the staff.

Children at Play

The work of children is their play. They are curious, they are driven toward independence, they are not well-coordinated, they are hands-on learners. Therefore, you can expect to find a partial report of his day on his clothing at the end of it.

There will be paint from learning how to control the movement of the brush to create lines on the paper. The first few times a child experiences the squishy, gloppy, spreadable consistency of finger paint there is a good chance he will apply some to the backs of his hands, and on up his arms to his rolled up sleeves.

Mud play is an ages old form of sensory and social play which can impact the clothing worn during its execution. If encouraged, its benefits are many, including increasing learning power and calmness.


“By myself” is one of the slogans preschool-aged children live by. Early childhood is a period of life in which adults must gradually back off from hovering over children, while supporting more and more independence. This can include letting him pour juice from a pitcher into his cup, letting him use a serving spoon to put food onto his plate, and at some point, declining to wipe his behind. As a child’s dexterity increases, there is less and less evidence of the skills he is working on each day on his clothing.

Yes, the clothes would be cleaner if the staff did these things for the children, but the loss would be each child’s growing sense of competence that he is a self-reliant individual who can responsibly manage his own affairs.

Quality Child Care

A child care teacher who understands child development knows the importance of supporting growing independence. She also has as many as 10 preschool children to supervise, or up to 20 children between two staff members. Teachers have safety and sanitation guidelines to follow throughout the day. They plan and facilitate engaging lessons across topics in math, science, creative arts, language, social studies, and physical education. They are expected to keep notes on children’s attainment of knowledge and skills as part of Maryland’s recently rolled out Early Learning Assessment. That’s a lot of observations to keep track of, plus a lot of juice to pour and behinds to wipe, so, no, it is not realistic to expect that keeping clothes clean gets treated as a high priority.

Tips for Children’s Clothes

This leaves parents with the wisest recourse to protect precious clothing by keeping it at home. Dress children for school in clothes that suit the environment. Teachers will appreciate seeing their students arrive properly dressed for a day of (often messy) eating, art, and outdoor play. A plumber, a surgeon, an auto mechanic, and a plein air painter all use workable work wear to do their work. Preschool children should similarly dress to suit their work environment. If you’re not already in a chain of family and friends for hand-me-downs, find children’s clothes at yard sales and second-hand stores. Save the precious outfits for very, very special occasions and for picture day. Even then, your money is best spent on a beautiful ensemble that was only worn once or twice already by another child.

To manage those persistent stains from a good day of play, try vinegar or choose a product designed to tackle those tenacious traces of your child’s time at preschool. Or better yet, savor them as souvenirs.


Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.

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