Planning: A trip through the car wash

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Although I generally try to plan a week or two ahead, a primary goal of this curriculum is to be responsive to B’s interests and to capitalize on those. This week’s tour was one that caught me by surprise… I hadn’t even considered it as an option until B started showing interest in the car wash. After our recent vacation our car was filthy – dirt roads, highway bugs, snacks in seat crevices – you know the deal. We’re condo dwellers so a hose and bucket in the driveway is not an option for us. Instead, we headed as a family to a local car wash, an errand my husband usually completes solo. We got out of the car and let the crew do their thing, watching as they vacuumed and scrubbed. Betsy was interested and asked a lot of questions. Not surprisingly, she related the car wash to her baths and showers – soap, bubbles, spraying water.

I didn’t think much of it until a few days later when we were at the library gathering books for another topic I had intended to cover this week. As I was seeking out titles I’d bookmarked, B came upon the book Car Wash by Sandra Steen. She was fascinated! She immediately started talking animatedly about our visit to the car wash and noticed from the illustrations that the kids in this book stayed IN the car during the car wash.  Despite our already-pretty-clean-car, I knew that I should plan for us to visit a drive through car wash.

Book Recommendations:

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Car Wash by Sandra Steen

This book largely sparked our tour this week. It’s the story of 2 kids and their dad going through a car wash on the way to lunch. They liken the car to a submarine and compare the various parts of the car wash to items you might find in the ocean. The illustrations are fun and colorful mixed media. The text is simple yet clever. This book is highly recommended.

With the impromptu nature of this trip, I was unable to find any other books about car washes available at our local library during the planning stage. However, a quick search of both and our library catalog shows that there are several options out there. I would love to seek out a book that shows children washing a car by hand, with a hose and buckets perhaps and to offer B the opportunity to experience the various ways that a car wash might occur. Additionally, any books about cars would enhance this unit.  

Suggested activities:

Exploring the Car: Before going to the car wash we’ll look over our car and notice the various parts. Wheels, hood, drivers seat, trunk, roof, antenna – all of these are great vocabulary. Understanding systems and how parts of a whole work together is an important STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skill.

At the Car Wash: Go through the car wash discussing what’s happening at each stage. How do the various parts of the car wash work together to get the whole car clean? If your car wash offers them, you might vacuum out the car before or after the trip to the carwash. How do the vacuums here differ from a vacuum used at home? How is it similar? You might also check tire pressure, oil or other systems sharing information with your students about what you’re doing as you go through the routine.

At home: Revisit the experience! Set up a car wash for toy cars in the kitchen sink, bathtub or yard. Ask your student to plan for and gather needed items. Consider how you might represent the various parts of the car wash – scrub brushes, washcloths, sponges, etc.


Notes about your child’s learning:

Social Studies:

Depending on the car wash you visit, a discussion of jobs might be a part of this experience. Paying for the car wash is a simple exploration of commerce.


Understanding systems and how parts of a whole work together is an important STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skill. Opportunities to explore this are inherent in both exploring the car and the car wash.


As always, reading related books and journaling about this experience are strong literacy experiences. Additionally, you might seek out environmental print as you go through the car wash. Many have signage throughout; in the first car wash we visited each sign lit up as that particular application was being completed (e.g. special soap wash). Noticing signs such as these and hearing as others read them is a great pre-literacy activity.


The car wash offers a great opportunity for sequencing.  First soap, then the brushes, spray with water, then the dryer.  Can your child repeat the sequence experienced in the car wash during his or her play?

Additionally, your child will have an opportunity to discuss positional words as they explore the car wash.  Is the soap on top of the car, underneath it?  Are the brushes on the right or the left? These are early geometry concepts.


Re-creating a car wash at home has great potential to be both an artistic and sensory activity. I recommend taking it a step further and exploring the various “car wash” materials such as sponges, scrub brushes, wash clothes and toy cars with paint and paper. No need to worry about the finished product when completing art experiences such as these, the process of exploring these materials and their capabilities will be a valuable learning experience in and of itself.


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