Daily Living Skills

Between twelve and thirty-six months, the educational curriculum for toddlers is focused on learning important daily living skills. These skills include washing their hands, eating, putting on their clothes, picking up their toys, brushing their teeth, and using the toilet.

But these important units of instruction constitute only a fraction of the daily living skills little ones work on. When toddlers wipe the end table with a small rag while an adult dusts, or follow a parent around the lawn with a toy lawnmower while yard work is being done, they are exposed to some of the general methods and specific skills they will need to care for an entire house one day.

Toddlers' dedication to learning is so intense that they are veritable superstudents. Many are so enthusiastic they don't want to pause to eat, sleep, or even use the bathroom.

Parents: The Roles

Just as toddlers are born students who are genetically programmed to learn, parents are programmed to teach. Without even stopping to consider what they are doing, parents automatically begin imparting the knowledge needed to master a host of important daily living skills.

Just look more closely at exactly what you do to teach a skill like hand washing, and you will realize that you can teach toddlers almost everything they need to know:

  • You explain exactly what needs to be done. (“Let's wash your hands before you eat.”)

  • You give instructions. (“Put your hands all the way under the water.”“Let's get some soap on the backs of your hands, too.”)

  • You set limits to reinforce the idea that people must continue caring for themselves whether they feel like it at a given moment or not. (“I know you don't want your hands washed right now, but they're sticky.”)

  • You provide feedback. (“That looks good.” “Oops, your hands still have some spots of chocolate. We need to get those off, too.”)

  • You help when your child is having a hard time. (“Try rubbing your hands together.” “Let's put on a little more soap.”)

As toddlers progress, parents do less for them and spend more time monitoring and giving feedback to help them improve. Parents still need to participate actively in helping three-year-olds with basic self-care skills, but youngsters age one to three can make great progress in handling many self-care tasks.

Parents: The Responsibility

It's given that you will often feel less than enthusiastic about your endless teaching duties. Sometimes you will be as discouraged as a classroom teacher on a Friday afternoon in May. Even educators voted Teacher of the Year are sometimes overwhelmed by their students' apparent failure to grasp what they are trying to teach.

Doubts about having entered the child-rearing business may surface when a parent walks into the bathroom and discovers water all over the floor and dripping down the walls while a proud toddler stands in the middle of a puddle, drying her freshly washed hands. Or when the tot has decided to change clothes and is now clad in an inside-out shirt, mismatched socks, shoes that are on the wrong feet, and no pants.

At such moments it is easy to be so impressed by the extra work that the toddler has caused that her accomplishment is forgotten or, even worse, belittled. But it is important to acknowledge the toddler's initiative in tackling these kinds of self-assigned homework tasks, even if you don't feel inclined to award extra credit for a project so poorly done.

Making an A

Daily living skills are like math problems. Although there may be several routes to solving a problem and there may be more than one correct answer, there are definitely right and wrong ways to do things. The end result can be very good, satisfactory, mediocre, or very far from the mark.

Often students approach a math problem correctly and still get the answer wrong. With daily living skills, toddlers can go through all the right motions with soap and water, make a giant mess, and still not get their hands clean. Mistakes often occur because the task was simply too advanced for the toddler to handle alone or perhaps he misunderstood the directions or needed more instruction and more practice. You must remember that no toddler wants to fail or make a poor grade. In fact, every child wants to do things correctly, to make an A in his own, as well as in his parent's, eyes. When things go wrong, you need to affirm the toddler's efforts, decide what the toddler needs to learn to improve, and dedicate yourself to giving remedial instruction.

And of course, you will have to clean up many toddler messes. But since cleaning up is yet another daily living skill, be sure to enlist your toddler's assistance so he can begin learning how.

Problem-Solving Skills

Since there are right and wrong ways to wash hands, brush teeth, get dressed, pick up toys, and so on, parents must actively teach and constantly give feedback to help toddlers progress in mastering daily living skills. However, when it comes to mastering other intellectual tasks, it is important to let them do the work by themselves instead of giving them the answers.

When children manipulate blocks, they learn about size and shape, weight and mass. They solve a series of visual-spatial relationship problems and develop hand-to-eye coordination in the process. If an adult jumps in and maneuvers the toddler's hand to help stack his blocks, he is distracted from the important preliminary lessons he was working on. He may not yet be ready to tackle the more advanced problem of using mass to counter the effects of gravity to create a stack.

Hands-on help with toys may seem to speed learning, but it actually deprives toddlers of the opportunity to develop the intellect that comes from figuring out how to solve problems, the self-confidence that comes from solving problems without help, and the educational benefit that comes from learning how to learn.

When a child is engrossed in a toy, try not to interrupt. What looks like “just playing” is actually a toddler working at his own pace on important work! However, if a child is sitting down with a toy and becoming restless or bored with it, this is a good time to provide a demonstration. Show the toddler how to operate the toy while she watches, but don't grasp your child's hand to help her manipulate the toy. Give multiple demonstrations if you wish, but don't try to get your toddler to imitate you. This way the child doesn't feel pressured to perform. She can continue to use the toy in her own way and work at her own pace. She is free to attempt to imitate your way when she is ready, but she will have used her own mind to figure out the solution to a problem when she eventually copies your demonstration.

Math Skills

Important math skills for toddlers are much more complex than learning to say, “One, two, three.” To most toddlers, counting aloud is no more than a series of nonsense syllables that mean about as much to them as “Zog, jib, oomp.” The keys to math include understanding spatial relationships, understanding cause/effect logic, and learning to solve problems with physical objects. When children can point to objects as they count them, they've accomplished a major feat!

To help toddlers learn the real meaning of counting, read them Count! by Denise Fleming (Henry Holt & Company, 1997). Long before they're ready for the number concepts, they'll love this book!

Different play activities emphasize different intellectual skills. Children practice convergent thinking skills when they work on tasks that have one right answer, such as fitting a piece into a puzzle, sorting blocks by color, or organizing nesting toys so they fit inside one another. Children practice divergent thinking skills when they work on tasks with many solutions, such as building things with blocks or engaging in creative games, such as playing house. Be sure your child has lots of opportunity to practice both!

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