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Teaching kids skills: toddler and preschool life skills made easy

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Let’s talk about the stress-free way of teaching kids practical life skills through real-life – What toddler and preschool life skills kids should really be learning.

picture collage, mother and daughter baking cupcakes together, learning life skills
pictures in this collage by Jenn Bakos Photography

Has anyone ever looked at their kid, as they yell across the room “I NEED WATER”, and thought “Don’t you have hands and feet of your own that work?? Why are you asking me for help when you are more than capable of handling this yourself??”. I certainly have! And also, thought when our kids beg to help, “no thanks, it’s easier if I do it myself”. These two thoughts put together are the biggest barriers to our kids’ learning basic life skills. Whoops, it’s us! Have no fear there is always a new day and we can teach preschool life skills!

Before preschool life skills

It starts, as  most things do, at the beginning

Infants are takers. That’s how it’s supposed to be, it’s the phase they are in (except for those little smiles that melt your heart and occasionally make the middle of the night wake-ups less painful, they are good at giving those). They bring their needs and we answer them. This is not really so surprising for parents, though most of us are not prepared for the intensity of infancy … and of course sleep deprivation.  But we get into a rhythm. And, as parents this becomes our pattern. In this first season of parenthood, we as parents learn how to be givers. We give all of ourselves, change our whole lives, and give everything to these little humans.

Then we wake up one day, our infants have grown into toddlers and preschoolers and we wonder: why isn’t my kid doing more for themselves? Why are they yelling from the other room for me to get them water like I am their hired help? Why is my constantly problem solving son suddenly not able to put his shoes on without help?  He can design and build a double-decker fort with his grandpa, but he can’t put his socks and shoes on without crying:  “I can’t do it! I need help!’.

toddler helping in the kitchen and learning life skills

Adapt to teaching our young children skills as they grow 

Did we teach them to help themselves? Did we show them what to do? Kids can be taught to care for and think for themselves at an early age or they can be taught to sit , wait and be served… 

We teach them their value to the family, and how capable they are with our response to their offers to “help” or “I can do that!”. How do we respond? Well, sometimes the answer is YIKES, not well! We can be honest here and say their “help” is not help the first time or the fourth time. Chores take twice as long, aren’t done as neatly, and require much more patience when our little helpers are there. It is not easier for us as parents to have their little helping hands in the toddler and preschooler phase, but it is the new season of parenting. The wonderful thing about parenting is that just when you understand a season of it, your kids grow and start a new season that you don’t understand again… (please read with heavy sarcasm!).

quote on blue background: Kids can be taught to care for themselves at young ages or they can be taught to sit and be served

New dynamic

If we do not start to shift the dynamic as they grow, then our young children will only know how to be served, they won’t learn how to care for themselves or see the needs around them and  care for others. Let them move toward independence, and learn how to care for themselves and learn how to care for their family in daily life.  In this post, I talk about how being a family is like being on a team. When it works, everyone benefits. The whole team shares in the work (the older children help the younger children too which is always beautiful to see) and shares in the benefits.

What toddler and preschool life skills should we be teaching

I am not yelling at you, but DO NOT GOOGLE A LIST. Protect your own sanity! Never once has googling a list of what I “should” be doing as a parent helped me actually feel better as a parent! There is a more natural way to do it. Kids are so different that viewing a set list will inevitably bring on the parent guilt that your kid should be doing more, should have more life skills. So resist that google search! 

The easy way for toddler and preschool life skills at an early age

The easy way: Basically, you do real life together. Switch your relationship so it isn’t all kid things their way all day to keep them happy and any real life activity is a struggle. That is exhausting, and it’s too easy to resent your toddler and your role as a parent with that mindset. 

So, how do you teach life skills and involve your toddlers and preschoolers in real life?

Step 1: Make space

Making space in your day for teaching kids skills. You need the space first. As I said earlier, their “help” often makes things take twice as long. See my blog here on how to simplify life to learn how to create this needed space.  It takes toddlers and preschoolers more time to do things, they are learners. They need the space to learn. It is painful to rush them and is a frustrating experience for all involved. So start by making the space then come on back here! If you already have plenty of space then keep on going reading.

mother and two children slowing down and reading books together on floor
slowing down and enjoying our time together

Step 2: Slow it down

Ok, you have the space and time to involve your toddlers! Yahoo let’s do this! (as my nearly 3 year old likes to say every time we set out on an adventure!)

Slow down real-life tasks and do them as a group. Remember kids are learners. They are learning these new toddler and preschool life skills. So you need to take it slow, show them over and over, let them ask questions, try it their way.

Time to empty the dishwasher? Everybody is emptying the dishwasher. Find small tasks each child can do or help with within the larger task. My two year old can pull out the dishes from the dishwasher and hand them to me to be put in the cupboard. My 4 year old can put away all the silverware independently. They both can put piles of their clothes away in their drawers (my two year old needs a little direction still, but often her older brother can help her and provide that direction…feels kinda like magic). Incidentally, these are all pre-academic skills that prepare kids for school: sorting, matching, following directions. Now you are getting your little ones ready for school and making positive connections. That’s a winning plan that can’t be beat!

Step 3: Stay connected

Don’t turn on the TV or wait for them to be out of the house to do all the chores or family tasks. Remember, the theme of this whole website is family connection: work together, play together.  Bring them into the daily chore list (the parts that are developmentally appropriate), and let them see the work it takes to run the house. Do it together and start young. Teach them age-appropriate skills so they can be working members of the family. This teaches independence, self-reliance, and self-help skills it helps them feel accomplished and gives them something to be proud of. It’s also very nice when your 4 year old can take out the recycling independently so you don’t have to! Might teach him the garbage next so I never have to go outside on cold winter mornings…

No time for toddler and preschool life skills?

Now you might be thinking: I don’t have time for that! Well, you are right, most families have too much going on to actually teach toddler and preschool life skills well. So, go back to step 1 and slow it down! 
You also don’t have to do every task together all at once. You can take your time and start with one daily chore, once you are all used to doing that together start with another. Doing it all at once is overwhelming. It’s always wise to start small and then add things in once success has been achieved (that’s what I always try and tell myself as I dive headfirst into everything). Also, give yourself some grace here. You are learning too! Learning how to slow down, learning how to teach wild souls, learning to be ok with imperfection (because those clothes never stay folded when they are put away by little hands..and that’s ok!). So start small not just for them, but for you too. You are doing a good job!

Learners vs experts

It is important that as you are doing life together they are learners at some things and experts at other things. For young children, they will be learners at almost every real-life task, so it’s important to balance that by reminding them what they are experts in so they don’t get frustrated.

For example, teaching my two year old to put away the silverware and sort it into the right spots. I give her praise when she gets it right and gently correct her if she sorts a spoon into the fork spot (whoops, that looks like a spoon, which spot should it be in?), if I see her get frustrated I say, “you are a learner at this and you still have more to learn, that’s great! You are an expert at other things. Everybody is a learner at some things and an expert at others. You are an expert at building blocks. You made the biggest block tower earlier today. Now it’s time to be a learner though”, I might also say “sometimes it’s hard to be a learner, when we are learners we get things wrong and have to try again”.

Start talking to them about the things you are a learner at and how it feels to you: “I am a learner at being a parent, i get it wrong all the time!” Kidding…maybe…

Independent tasks

If you have been including your toddler from an early age then by 3.5 to 4 years old they will be ready to do some of those tasks completely independently. In our house, we set up a short daily chore time after breakfast, this is the space where my son (4yrs old) does 1 to 2 independent chores that since he has practiced he is now able to do independently.

He takes the recycling outside and empties it into the big bin outside and he then comes in and puts the silverware away in the drawer (the rest of the dishwasher my daughter and I do as an all play, she is almost 3yrs old). Both of these he needs no help or queuing for. It is so cool to watch him completing these tasks by himself. He is building into his family already! As he grows his tasks will continue to grow. 

It is good to make sure there is a combination of expert/independent and learner activities in the day. As the kids grow they will be experts in some family tasks and be able to do them independently. But, for little ones, their expertise will be in things like: free play, art, gross motor (climbing, balancing, running). Make sure to acknowledge and praise these things as essential life skills they have. This sets them up with the confidence to be able to take in new and learning activities.

All play life skill time

This time is for two things: 1. Kids too young to do tasks independently, or 2. Kids learning a new life skill and still in the practice phase. These tasks are done as a group. So my daughter is almost 3 years old. She helps empty and load the dishwasher as an all play. This looks like: she hands me each dish and I put away the things that go in upper cabinets and she puts away the things in cabinets she can reach. We enjoy doing this task together. She is really proud of herself. Yesterday she told her Grammy, “I am getting taller and I can reach things now.”

toddler stirring ingredients in a bowl

Life skills: all play all day

Those examples were during daily chore time. At these ages we don’t have a long list of chores. Just a few simple things we do in the morning that keep the house running. What about everything else?? That is all day group learning. Time to clean up from lunch? All play! Time to clean up from play time? All play!

So, think through what you really do in a day, and what your house really needs to run smoothly. Start with one or two tasks. If you want some ideas, here a list to help. THESE ARE NOT A LIST OF THINGS YOU SHOULD DO. Was that too loud? These are just everyday things to help you get you thinking about what you do everyday in your own house. I do not do every single one of these. Nobody does. Just start small. Its ok!

  • Personal hygiene
    • Brushing teeth
    • Washing face
    • Washing body in the tub
    • Pulling pants down and using potty
    • Wiping their own bum (this is on my goal list to teach next!)
    • Brushing hair
  • Clothing
    • Putting on their own clothes in morning (you can even have them practice this by having them dress dolls)
    • Putting on socks
    • Putting on shoes
    • Folding laundry
    • Putting clean clothes away in drawers (sorting into categories)
  • Food
    • Putting snacks together
    • Helping with meal prep
    • Serving meals
    • Cleaning up from meals
    • Loading and unloading the dishwasher
  • Adventures
    • Packing water
    • Packing snacks
    • Packing extra clothes
    • Getting coat on
    • Zipping or buttoning coats

Go slow (notice the theme)

Start with one or two areas. Do what feels natural. Listen to your intuition. If you start trying to teach something and it doesn’t work then just move on to something else.  It can still be an all play, where you talk through the task and go slow, but you are doing most of it. They just might not be developmentally ready to wipe their own bum or just not have the coordination quite yet. Release your self from all the “They should be” or “I should be”s. You and your kids are doing just fine! Do not let external pressure ruin these beautiful moments. There is no rush, no timetable here. Just start connecting with your kids

Also, remember to include lots of physical movement and free play into their day. There should be plenty of time for those things around the daily chores or life skill teaching. Even during life skill teaching there should be lots of physical movement and doing. Most young kids won’t be able to sit still and listen to long explanations. . 

mother and two children working together in the kitchen teaching life skills
pictures in this collage by Jenn Bakos Photography

Beauty in the small moments

It feels so nice to have a team working with you instead of wild tornadoes working against you (of course there are still tornado days). Also it just feels nice to be doing real things in my day and sharing that with my kids. I am not a cute crafty person, there are only so many block towers or games of tag I can muster up. But, what I can do is gently and passionately do real life with my kids. And these simple acts of inviting them in and teaching life skills does make a difference. 

In the long run you have kids at young ages that actually help the family! AND they have begun to develop a positive self-concept. 

Check out my articles on how to be on a team and start working together as a family here.

Want to dive more into chores and life skills? Check out my articles on 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, and 5-year-olds!

What things are you currently teaching your kids? What are your thoughts on trying to do real life with them? Keep me posted!!!

Post Disclaimer

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice.  Consult you health care provider for your individual nutritional and medical needs.  The opinions are strictly those of the author and are not necessarily those of any professional group or other individual

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