Learning at the Car Wash

It's one of those old-school, Sunday afternoon with Mum or Dad memories. A bucket of water, a hose pipe, a sponge, and a dirty car to clean. Break this family chore down as an EY professional, and it turns out to be a versatile and engaging activity.
What you will need:

To deliver this activity, you simply need all the things you would normally use to clean a car:

  • A dirty car! (On a serious note; given the risk of a minor scratch, best not use the boss's brand new motor)
  • A few buckets; get some here
  • Vehicle shampoo; like this
  • Sponges for all; get some here
  • Warm water
  • Ideally, a hosepipe (If you need to connect it to kitchen tap, try this)

Preparing the activity

Preparing for this activity is really just a matter of a simple risk assessment. To be able to dedicate your focus to helping the children get the most from the experience, plan carefully the location for the activity. You need to be able to have the filthy vehicle parked up somewhere safe, and ideally properly enclosed behind some gates. The last thing you want to be trying to do is keep track of a group of wet children with sponges in an open car park!

Get all the equipment, especially the warm water and hosepipe all in place before you add the children into the mix. Depending on the practical circumstances of your set-up, this might be an activity where it's easier to have a second adult helping, even if it means increasing the number of children involved too.


Doing the activity:

Engaging a group of children in washing a car provides ample opportunity to explore their development in terms of listening and understanding what you're saying. Some pointers to get you going:

  • Ask younger children to fetch different items such as a sponge, a brush, or the hosepipe. You can also ask them to show you different parts of the car as you name them; the wheels, the windows, the mirrors and so on.
  • For somewhat older children, extend the starting point by giving them two-stage instructions like, "Use the watering can to fill up your bucket, and then use your sponge to clean the wheel"
  • If you're working with preschool aged children, try using questions to promote their use of positional language. For instance, set your bucket on the car roof, and then feign confusion at having lost it - children will hopefully tell you where to find it!


The whole car washing process is a naturally physical one, and some simple extensions from the basic starting point can open a range of additional teachable moments for children of many ages. Again, so simple ideas to get you started:

  • Giving younger children a nice soapy sponge, and/or a particularly muddy bit of car, encourage them to make marks as they clean.
  • Try taking a step back from the scene once the children are well underway with their task. You should be able to observe how children are transitioning between different body positions as they work.
  • With older children taking part, try replacing their sponges with paintbrushes and water so that they can practice forming letters and numerals as they clean.


A big car being cleaned with small sponges. Buckets, jugs and cups of soapy water. Circular wheels and rectagular windows. Cleaning a car is a treasure trove of opportunities to explore simple mathematical concepts with children. Here are some ways to give it a go:

  • Starting with one large bucket of soapy water, support younger children to fill various smaller containers for them each to use
  • At the start and/or end of the car washing experience, ask the children to lay out all of their tools in a big line with the biggest items at one end, and the smallest at the other.
  • Engage the older children in the group more directly with the shapes they can find in this special environment. You might even consider using laminated shapes and bluetak so that they can stick shapes onto matching parts of the vehicle.

Tracking the activity:

16 - 26 months

Communication & Language, Understanding; "Selects familiar objects by name, will go and find objects when asked or identify objects from a group"

Physical Development, Moving & Handling; "Makes connections between their movements and the marks they make"

Mathematics, Shape, Space & Measure; "Enjoys filling and emptying containers"

22 - 36 months

Communication & Language, Understanding; "Understands more complex sentences"

Physical Development, Moving & Handling; "Squats with steadiness to rest or play, and rises to feet without using hands"

Mathematics, Shape, Space & Measure; "Beginning to categorise objects according to properties such as shape & size"

30 - 50 months

Communication & Language, Understanding; "Shows understanding of propositions such as 'behind', 'on top of' and 'under'"

Physical Development, Moving & Handling; "Handles tools with increasing control" and "Begins to form recognisable letters"

Mathematics, Shape, Space & Measure; "Shows interest in shapes in the environment"

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