Dressing independently is an essential part of children’s daily practical work
Here’s how to help them figure it out
It often seems like the most potent learning moments sneak into the simplest, most quotidian parts of our days. I think of our classroom “cubby room time” like this: so transitional as to be overlooked when I’m quickly writing out our rhythm, yet an incredibly rich learning experience! Having supported children across the age spectrum of early childhood as they learn to put on their own raincoats and tie their own shoes, I’ve come to see providing opportunities for children to develop these skills requires (a lot) of patience and a bit of a shift in how we very practiced adults think about getting dressed in the morning. Just like everything else in the world, putting on clothes is a new experience for young children. They’re going to be terrible at it at first, then they’re going to get better, with tons of mistakes made along the way. That’s just how learning happens, and it can’t be rushed. Below, I’ve shared my top ideas to support this learning process.
Time seems to be the biggest barrier to allowing toddlers to dress themselves. I always hear from caregivers that their toddlers want so badly to get themselves dressed, but it takes forever and will make them late so they just do it for them, often resulting in a tantrum of grumpiness. The simplest piece of wisdom I can share with you is to allow more time. Build transitions into your daily rhythm intentionally and allow good chunks of time for your child to try to get dressed. Knowing when to cut them off is another facet of this, and we’ll get to how to offer help in a productive way later. But if you want to help you toddler gain independence, start by giving them the time to work at their own pace.
Create a space
A well-designed, intentional space for dressing will do a lot of the work of holding the activity and helping the child organize their process. This need not be a complicated set up! For getting ready to go outside, I recommend finding a spot by your door to hang one or two child-height pegs, then placing next to them a child-size stool, short enough that their feet can be fully on the ground, and a designated shoe tray or spot. A little rug can be helpful too if your space is more open, both in holding the space and in keeping the rest of your house less muddy! (Try: “boots stay on the rug.”). For putting clothes on in the morning, a designated stool or rug in their bedroom/wherever they usually get dressed will do nicely, as well a basket for you to put their outfit in.
Consider choices carefully
Too many choices are overwhelming for anyone, and for children in particular as their capacity for logic and judgement hasn’t developed yet. As a general rule, the younger the child the fewer their clothes choices should be. For toddlers and nursery aged children, I generally recommend that caregivers just pick out their clothes for them or put out two or three weather-appropriate options for them to chose from. Older children might benefit from having a designated shelf or drawer of “school clothes” that you’ve okay’d for the season, and getting free reign to choose as they please from those (limited!) options.
Read more about choosing clothes intentionally here.
As much as possible, try to prepare things ahead of time, the night before is best. Check the weather and chose their outfit/options to put in their dressing basket, and select whatever outdoor play gear they’ll need. Put only that gear on their peg. Before dressing begins in the morning, you can give them a head start if they need it by laying things out and unbuttoning buttons, unbuckling buckles, un-velcro-ing shoes, etc.
Have an order
In our classroom, I have a flowchart in my head of the order in which the children get dressed. Rain/snowpants day? If yes, put them on, if no, skip directly to… Boots/shoes. Then coats, if needed… and so on. It’s a pretty logical order that transitions easily from season-to-season. Find an order that makes sense to you and be consistent, so your child knows where to start and what to do next—that mini-rhythm will orient them as they gain independence.
“You can always try”
This is my mantra in the cubby room, and the best piece of language I can give you to support this journey. When a child comes to me asking for help, my response is always: “show me how you’re trying.” Often they need my attention and presence more than my physical help, and trying while sitting next to me will result in them just doing it! Just as often, they’ll say “nooooooo I caaaaan’t!”—they don’t even feel like they can try! For this response, I first center myself because whining is annoying, then tell them: “you can always try. If you try and can’t do it, I’ll be here to help.” Much of the time, when they do finally feel confident enough to try, they can totally do it! It’s much more often a confidence and fear of failure issue than it is a lack of capacity. And when they actually are trying really hard and can’t quite to it, of course I offer a guiding hand, a zipper start, or a sleeve untangle. My goal is that they feel safe trying and feel safe failing, because that is quite literally how learning happens. If they feel confident in trying to start their zipper even though they’ve never gotten it started before, they’ll feel confident trying to bisect and angle even though they’ve never done that before!
(for toddlers, mostly)
Start zippers for them, then hold the bottom as they pull up.
Balancing to put one leg in at a time is hard, the floor or a low stool is often the best place to put on pants.
Lay rain/snow suits on the floor, unzipped, and have them sit in the body while they put their legs in, then stand and do the arms like a coat.
If they’re being pokey or stubborn, hold a coat out behind them like a matire-d and touch one arm hole to their hand—usually they’ll finish the action and put the coat on before they even think about it.
Usually putting the first arm of a coat in is easier, the second (where you have to bend it behind you) is harder. If they’re stuck, try holding the collar so the coat stays up and open behind them while them try.
Hold the bottom of a buckle steady while they put the top in.
Un-do shoes and pull the tongue out wide before they put them on.