Toddlers & paper towel— it would amaze you how many schools butcher this detail


Here are some tips on the use of paper towel in a toddler Montessori classroom environment.

~ Wherever there is a sink for hand washing, there also needs to be a source of paper towels where the children can fetch their own paper towel independently. This is a non-negotiable environmental preparation rule. I once worked at a place where there was an outdoor bathroom with an outdoor children’s sink—and no paper towel dispenser.  #fail.  It was super annoying having to hand out paper towels every single time a child used that sink and it became a major waste of adult time when helping children.  It frankly drove me nuts.  Sink= paper towel dispenser.  These two things go together like bath and bath towel.


~ When you install your paper towel dispenser, consider the flow of traffic in the bathroom during the process of hand washing.  You want to drive the flow of traffic from within the bathroom to progressively closer to the bathroom’s exit as children are moving through the process of hand washing.  Take notice next time you’re in a public bathroom.  So if the door is on the right, you want the soap on the left, the sink in the middle, the paper towel dispenser on the right, and the trash can for the paper towel right next to the door so paper towel can be thrown away on the way out.


~ To reiterate, wherever there is a source of paper towels, right next to the door on the way out of the bathroom, there also must be a trash can. The paper towel trash can should preferably have a lid and a foot pedal to open the lid.  That way, children don’t have to touch the lid to open the trash can.


~ The paper towel trash can and the diaper trash cans should NOT be the same trash can.  This is also a non-negotiable environmental preparation rule.  You do NOT want toddlers sticking their hands into a trash bin that also contains urine or fecal-filled used diapers.  Sadly, not all staff know to wrap up diapers well before tossing them in the trash can (you want to roll up the diaper from front to back, and then wrap the tabs tightly around the rolled up core so that the used diaper is basically like a tight diaper burrito velcroed shut by the tabs).  Not all staff know to double-glove-cover fecal-filled diapers after a BM change.  So if you don’t want toddler hands in used diapers, you want a separate paper towel trash can.

Another consideration for maintaining separate diaper and paper towel trash cans is that trust me, opening up a diaper-filled trash can over and over and over all day long for both every single diaper change required and for every single paper towel that gets used will make your bathroom always smell awful.  Especially when you consider how many children attend Montessori toddler programs each day and how many diaper changes must be done.

~ Because I was raised in California and my inner hippie will never die,  I like to think of every sheet of paper towel as a thin slice of a tree trunk, because that’s basically what they are.  Pulverized tree that is then rolled out into thin, soft sheets we use to wipe our hands on.   That being said, toddlers need to be shown to a) shake the excess water off of their hands by whatever means suits you; and to then b) use only one paper towel per wash.  The older child might be shown how to fold the paper towel in half before wiping to get that interstitial space going on.

~ Some toddlers will really get a kick out of making paper towel sopping wet in the sink, or by laying out a sheet of paper towel over the sink drain so that it causes the water to pool in the sink basin.  When they do this (which I promise you someone will), I remind them that paper towel is for drying our hands, and/or that when you’re done drying your hands, paper towel goes in the trash can.  Most times, I just say “trash can.  Trash can!”. And it helps them remember where the paper towel belongs: in the trash can, not in the sink.

~ Buy thick enough paper towel that doesn’t rip easily.  If the paper towel you choose to use is too thin, the children (and the staff) will inevitably feel inclined to take two paper towels per wipe.  You need to decide as the director whether you want to be cheap and buy too-thin paper towel, or not.

~ There is a variety of paper towel that comes in a tissue box, made by Kleenex and Viva.  This is a great option if your head of school refuses to buy paper towel dispensers.  You can buy it at Target or on Amazon.   This can be your paper towel dispenser if you don’t have a mounted dispenser on the wall.

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~ The paper towel dispenser needs to be mounted low enough for the children to not struggle to reach it.

~ The children need to be shown to pull paper towel out of the dispenser using two hands on either side of the paper towel. Otherwise, the paper towel tends to rip.

~ Some programs choose to go the sustainable route, and not use paper towels for wiping hands after hand washing at all.  Instead, every child receives two color-assigned reusable wash cloths, usually with loops sewn onto a corner, and hung up on hooks.  Reusable hand towels are then changed out mid-day if they become too saturated and wet; and they are washed daily with the laundry.

If you choose to go this route, you might consider how many children attend your program every day, and if this is a reasonable endeavor.   I’ve seen it used in a primary environment with about 24 children, and I’ve seen it used in a toddler environment with 12 children attending daily. So it is feasible even for a good-sized classroom.

If you choose to go the reusable assigned hand towel route, you also need to make sure you produce at least 3 hand towels per child in total; because inevitably the laundry won’t be able to keep up with your class when you share the washer and dryer with the entire school.  You will also have to consider ways to hang up your hand towels.  Metal hardware hooks seem to work best.

Happy hand drying, Montessori fans (:

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