Maths: All wrung out

Hand washing may seem old-fashioned but it is an eco-friendly alternative to using a washing machine. Get children involved and help them to consolidate their understanding of how a series of steps lead to a successful outcome.

Replacing single-use paper items with reusable fabric is central to creating a more sustainable way of life. Gift wraps, kitchen towels and napkins are just some of the items that can be made from fabric rather than paper, and washed ready to be used again and again. Unfortunately, very few activities have no negative impact on our planet and the downside to fabric is, of course, the environmental cost of doing the laundry. One way to mitigate these costs is to hand wash with biodegradable laundry soap, rather than using a washing machine and strong detergents. Handwashing uses far less water and electricity and it is something that they will love to help with. The process enables children to discover that fabric items are reusable, and it also offers lots of opportunity to explore mathematical concepts such as sequencing, capacity and measuring

Playing and exploring

  • Children compare single use paper items with reusable fabric items
  • Children enjoy the process of hand washing dirty fabric items
  • Practitioners highlight the mathematical aspects of hand washing

Compare paper items with their fabric counterparts. For example, cloth napkins and paper serviettes. Use both during a meal and look at what happens to the two substances when they get wet and covered with food. Explain that we can wash and reuse the fabric napkin, whereas the paper serviette has to be thrown in the bin.

Show children some dirty fabric items and explain that you are all going to do the washing. Introduce the hand washing process; measuring out a mild, biodegradable detergent (see Resources), pouring it into a bowl of warm water, rubbing the fabric to get rid of the dirt, rinsing it in a second bowl, wringing it out and hanging it to dry. Ask children to take turns with the activity and allow free exploration of resources and movements (pouring, swishing water, squeezing).

Focus on mathematical elements such as measuring out detergent and comparing the weight of wet and dry fabrics. Help the three-plus age group to count the fabric items. Help the three-and-a-half to four age group to count washed items, items still to be washed, and the total.

Observe if children show understanding that dirty fabric items can be washed and re-used, whereas paper items have to be thrown away? To what extent do they engage with the washing process and can they explore mathematical aspects such as counting?

What can adults do?

  • Replace single use paper, card and plastic items with washable fabric wherever possible
  • Use eco wash cycles, wash at low temperature where possible and use environmentally friendly detergents
  • Check minimum washing power requirements and check that you aren't using more than needed
  • Avoid fabric conditioner - and if you do need it for softening certain items choose an eco-friendly product
  • If you have time, hand wash all lightweight items and items that are only lightly soiled. Hand washing laundry uses fewer resources
  • Wherever possible, line or rack dry rather than using a tumble dryer
  • If you do need to tumble dry, add dryer balls to speed up drying time and use less energy
  • Without compromising hygiene; be selective about what really needs washing

Active learning

  • Children focus on following a logical sequence of steps for hand washing laundry
  • Practitioners help children judge when to move on to the next step
  • Children take pride in washing items so they can be re-used

Washing laundry by hand is a complex process made up of a sequence of steps and actions. Ensure a successful outcome by having all resources accessible and close at hand (see ‘Role-play launderette’ box).

Support children in achieving the goal of clean, washed items by helping them judge when to move on to the next step. For example, checking for signs that the item is completely immersed in the soapy water, properly wrung out, dry enough to put away and so on.

Help them to examine the item they are washing, and decide whether they need to rub for a little longer before rinsing. Give the activity added meaning by looking out for ‘real life’ dirty items such as lunchtime napkins and cloths used during mud kitchen sessions.

Emphasise the purpose of hand washing laundry and highlight the children's achievement by taking ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos. Compare dirty and clean items, and look at how the washing process transfers the dirt from the fabric to the soapy water. Whenever a washed item is re-used, remind children that they have made this possible by working hard at their hand washing activity.

Are children able to recognise that a step is completed, before moving on to the next? Can they identify the differences between dirty and clean items, and take pride in having brought about these changes?

Creating and thinking critically

  • Children predict the outcomes for each stage in the washing process
  • Practitioners encourage children to explore different ways of drying items
  • Children decide how to sort dirty items that need to be washed

Help children to realise that the washing process follows a set sequence every time, and encourage them to predict the outcome of each step. For example, what might happen when they peg the wet fabric on the washing line? With the three-and-a-half plus age group, introduce some simple ‘what if…?’ scenarios to investigate. For example, what happens if we forget to put detergent in the water? What happens if we don't wring out the water before pegging up the cloth to dry? Try different ways of drying, including rolling in a towel to absorb excess water, pegging on an outdoor washing line, using a laundry rack and draping over a radiator (if safe). Encourage children to predict which drying technique will work best and check their predictions. What difference does the weather make to drying outdoors?

If you have lots of dirty washing, ask the children to sort items and make decisions about how to sort. For example, pale coloureds, dark coloureds, whites, muddy items, small and large items. Compare washing dirty fabrics with washing items such as muddy toys.

Role-play launderette

Plan each step of the hand washing activity and put the resources in a row to reflect the sequence of steps. For example, a basket for the dirty washing, a bowl of warm water with detergent for washing, a bowl of clean water for rinsing, a basket for wrung out washed items and a drying rack. Use different coloured bowls for the washing and rinsing, and different coloured baskets for the dirty and washed items. Put down waterproof mats and provide mops and cloths for mopping up any spills. Help children to take photos of each stage to make into a wall frieze, and laminate smaller copies of the photos on separate cards for children to talk about and put in sequence. Set up a role-play laundrette with resources for hand washing, washing lines and pegs, laundry baskets, toy washing machine and toy iron and ironing board (see Resources).

EYFS Early Learning Goals

Following a sequence of steps and actions, and looking at before and after the washing process meets the Understanding the World objective: looks closely at similarities, differences, patterns and change. Participating in the process of hand washing laundry involves listening to and following instructions, and asking and answering questions (CL). You could also think about how it meets objectives for Physical development.

Key leaning points

  • Children compare paper items with their fabric counterparts
  • They learn about the purpose and value of hand washing laundry
  • They follow a logical sequence of steps in order to hand wash
  • They explore the difference between dirty and clean fabrics
  • They explore the mathematical concepts of capacity, volume and weight

Useful resources

  • Wooden role-play washing machines at

  • If your budget is tight, make your own toy washing machine from a wooden crate and tape on a printed washing machine front:

  • Toy ironing at or ‘Casdon little helper ironing set’ at

  • Dr Bronner's liquid Castile soap can be used for hand washing. Although not the cheapest option, it is eco friendly and very gentle on sensitive skin:

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