Often the learning our children are doing, naturally, independently, on a day-to-day basis, goes almost unnoticed in the flurry of daily life. But in fact it is just those day-to-day activities that create the authentic context where so much learning is taking place.
Look for example at a toddler getting ready to go to nursery in the morning. If you had time to stop and watch, you might see them:
Just a typical morning, happening in more or less the same way all over the country. So what is your child learning through this fairly ordinary routine? And how can you as a mother or father help them to ‘do it themselves’? Generally speaking, the best thing the parent can do is be patient, and allow enough time for the child to do things independently without being rushed (often easier said than done!).
· getting dressed: To encourage independence, your child can choose what to wear, possibly from a selection. Offer a weather report in the morning and suggest for example short sleeves or long sleeves, shorts or trousers, etc. The actual act of getting dressed requires quite complex gross and fine motor skills.
· eating cereal and drinking a glass of milk: Again, your child can be encouraged to choose what to eat and drink (possibly from a limited selection) and allowed to get the bowl, spoon and cup from the cupboard or shelf before pouring the cereal and drink independently. Pouring cereal or milk helps develop a sense of quantity: how much will fit in the bowl or cup? How much is a serving? How much milk do I want on my cereal? Eating with a spoon develops good fine motor skills and coordination as does managing a cup with no lid – any spills can be cleaned up by the child, who can be shown where the cloth for spills is kept and how to rinse it out.
· brushing teeth, washing hands and using the toilet: These basic tasks are fundamental to the child’s independence. The key for the parent is to be present enough to help out when needed or offer a gentle reminder when a step has been forgotten, but hands-off enough to let the child do it independently.
· putting on shoes and socks: Again this develops fine motor skills. Shoes for young children are often quite straight forward to do up, either with Velcro tabs or slip-ons, so it is relatively easy for even quite young children to start doing this on their own. Finding a pair also builds matching skills and helps develop the child’s sense of one-to-one correspondence (one shoe for one foot, two shoes for two feet), both of which relate to very early mathematical thinking.
· packing a bag to take: Children have a natural sense of order and will often enjoy making sure they have everything they need for nursery. You could use a picture list hung on the wall to refer to as a prompt. This gives your child a sense of independence and responsibility from the outset.
· leaving the house on foot, by bike or by car: Here your child is practicing gross motor skills as well as orientating spatially to the local area and getting to know the route to a familiar place.
The role of the adult here is partly logistical, creating an environment where your child can access what they need and function independently. This could mean, for example, having low hooks, a dedicated cupboard or shelf in the kitchen, a step stool in the bathroom, a manageable system for finding clean clothes and so on. Also think about providing easy access to the tools to use when things go wrong, such as cloths for spills or a small dustpan and brush.
· Give clear, step-by-step instructions on how to do something, such as pouring cereal into a bowl or washing hands, and be prepared to repeat them as often as necessary.
· Model but also explain polite behaviour, for example how to greet visitors or the table manners that are important in your house, and again, be prepared to repeat the ‘lesson’.
· Allow enough time for your child to do it by themselves without being rushed. Try to build an extra 15 minutes in between the time when all the bags are packed and ready and ‘all’ that is left to do is ‘toilet checks and shoes’ and the time when you actually leave the house!
· Be patient and try to let your child do things on their own without intervening, but at the same time be ready to step in with a helping hand, before frustration takes over.
· Try not to be tempted to do something for your child to get a faster or better result. Remind yourself that the child is learning and that things may not be perfect the first time around, but that the effort being made is more important than the end result.
· If things are starting to go a bit pear-shaped, simple things such as breathing regularly and relaxing your shoulders can sometimes make a bigger difference than you might think.
· Think about your own attitude to household tasks and the message that sends your child. Where is the line between work and play? What can you do to make it fun? Young children often enjoy the process of household chores as toddlers but then pick up on the adult attitude that these jobs are ‘dull’, ‘a chore’ or ‘something we have to do before we can play’ and start to resist helping out. Think about including children not serving children, even from a very young age.