Hand-washing is a great example of a task that seems simple enough until you realize that everything is set up for adults: the height of the sink, the fine motor dexterity needed to turn the knobs, how easy it is to make the water either too hot or too cold. Breaking it down into small, fun, manageable steps—and setting up a space for your child—can make independent handwashing possible even for your two-year-old.
Here’s how to teach your child how to wash their hands:
Help them reach the sink and towel
Make sure you have a stool that allows them to climb to the correct height of the sink; for most two-year-olds, the right stool is light, stable, and has two steps. If your child still can’t reach the handles of the tap yet, a tap extender like this can help them reach the water, but you will still need to help them turn it on. If you don’t want to put a large towel on the rack, so it hangs low enough for your child to reach, you can put up a small removable hook like this and select a dish or hand towel with a loop on top.
Talk about why we wash our hands
Explain that keeping hands clean is the best way to stay healthy and that we do it before eating, after playing and going to the bathroom, and whenever our hands get dirty.
Go through all the steps
There are actually a lot of steps to handwashing. 1) turn on the water 2) test the temperature 3) get hands wet 4) pump the soap (just two pumps! See below) 5) make bubbles and sing a whole song 6) rinse well (soap residue can lead to painfully dry skin) and 7) dry with a towel.
Choose the right soap
Any kind of hand soap works, but foaming soap is the easiest and comes in refillable bottles. Pump bottles make for great fine motor practice. Bar soaps can get slippery and messy, but are a fun sensory experience 🧼
Count two pumps
At first, you will need to help your child pump the soap with your hand over theirs—this bilateral coordination (using both hands at once, one to pump and the other to catch the soap) is a tricky fine motor skill. Offer to hold the dispenser steady while they pump. Once they get the hang of it, toddlers LOVE to pump and pump and pump the soap. Help them count “one, two” when pumping to prevent waste.
Sing a whole song
Show your child that proper washing takes time—you can sing the ABC song (or any other song your two-year-old knows well) all the way through together to know how long to scrub.
Children at this age typically love to play in the water. If you have the time, plug the sink and let them play with a few bath toys after handwashing.
For your child’s safety, always supervise activities that involve water.
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