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School Readiness Series - Encouraging independent dressing - it’s all in the core! (cert-4-£1)

Updated: May 15, 2021

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Putting shoes on independently.

(image credit: Metro)

Parents, early years educators and reception teachers often express concerns over children who struggle to put their shoes on and off and fasten them independently.

It goes without saying that shoes with Velcro fastenings are by far the most sensible option for young children. Once they have mastered tearing these open and closed with much delight it’s time to focus on the real issue of putting the shoes on and off independently.

In my experience, I often observe the following things when young children attempt to put their shoes on:

  • They sit on the floor to put their shoe on but their foot keeps slipping from their fingers causing frustration.

  • They reach for their foot and then roll backwards to the floor (we used to call this ‘the tortoise’ at my setting)

  • They keep their shoes fastened and then jam their foot into their shoe each time they want to put it on or use one foot to step on the back of the shoe to take it off rather than using their hands.

We could all be forgiven for assuming that these children are having difficulty with the fine motor skills involved in putting on and fastening their shoes.

But here’s the secret…young children who are struggling with putting on, taking off, or fastening their shoes are often actually experiencing core muscle weakness.

During my early childhood studies training way back in the 90s, one of the first things I remember was my tutor quoting the likes of good old Mary Sheridan and Bruce and Meggit, chanting “Children develop from the inside to the outside and from head to toe”. This is really useful when considering what’s going on with these children. If we look at the first part – “Children develop from the inside to the outside”, what she was referring to is something called ‘Proximal-Distal development’. This means that development starts at the centre of our bodies (proximal) and gradually spreads outwards (distal), like a chain (Gessell, 1928). For example, when a child uses the tiny muscles of her hand to pick up a pea from her plate and bring it to her mouth, she must have a stable chain of muscles running from her core - to her shoulder - to her elbow - to her wrist - to her fingers. If that chain of muscles, beginning at her core, isn’t stable and strong, it will be very difficult for her to get that tiny pea to her mouth.

So picture a child sitting on the floor, putting her shoes on.

What’s at the start of the chain of movements? Is the child able to remain stable enough in her core which then allows for the action of using her hands to pull the shoe onto her foot? Let’s break it down into separate tasks:

  1. Sit on the floor,

  2. Bring the foot very close to the body,

  3. Bring the hands very close to the foot whilst holding the shoe,

  4. Use force to pull the shoe onto the foot

Try it – noticing that all of these actions start with a HUGE amount of core strength!

You may think that it’s a case of ‘practise makes perfect’ but in my household, mornings with a pre-schooler aren’t exactly the best time to learn any new skill as we are all rather busy trying to get out the door in time for work or preschool. Plus, if like my child, they have sensory processing issues, tactile hypersensitivities or are just very cautious about practicing new skills, its best to work on the skills they need through play and at a time when the routine is relaxed and calm.

As explained in previous posts, I’ve been fortunate enough in my work to see some fantastic activities for developing core strength and over the years I’ve collected hundreds of ideas from SENCOs, occupational therapists, early intervention teams and of course the internet but I only want to share the very best activities that I know work! All of these ideas target core strength, but they specifically target the positioning and movements related to putting on and fastening shoes. They are play-based and achievable, parents can work on them during lockdown and the summer holidays, and early years educators can embed these sorts of activities according to the needs of the children.

Please remember that helping children to achieve school readiness is not a tick-list or a way of judging our children. Putting on, fastening and taking off shoes is just one of those skills that will help make reception year that little bit easier for children and parents. It’s just one of those skills that, in my experience seems to be so challenging for lots of young children who need to be able to do it in time for school PE lessons when you won’t be there to help them!

So please remember to have fun, relax and enjoy watching the children grow and thrive!

1 Popoid loops

Show the child how to attach the ends of a Popoid to form a loop, then encourage them to practise putting the loop around their feet and pulling it up to their knees (for practise with dressing too!) Then have them take it off and repeat. This will help build the exact same core muscles needed to put shoes on, without the added awkwardness of shoe fastenings etc. You can do it with them, have races, make it fun but try to avoid forcing them to do it as you’ll then have a potential battle on your hands with demand avoidance. Most early years settings will have these or you can purchase ‘Pop Toobs’ online for a fraction of the price of Popoids.

2 Elasticated bracelets and anklets.

You can make your own with the children using elastic and beads or you can buy them. I like to use the sweetie bracelets with my own child to increase motivation and they act as their own reward but I’m not sure I’d do this in the setting! Have the child practise putting the bracelet on her ankles and taking it off by pulling it over her feet. (Supervise to avoid strangulation/ choking)

3 Slippers

Practicing with slippers is a fun way to work on developing the strength needed to put on and take off shoes. They’re usually a bit easier to get on and off and choosing a pair that the child likes (favourite character) can increase interest and motivation.

4 Dress-up/ grown up shoes

I never have trouble encouraging my child to put on her plastic princess shoes. She also loves putting on my shoes and hobbling round the house in her dad’s size 11s! This is another really motivating way to provide practise with dressing skills. Try funky socks to work on core stability as the child pulls them on and off of her feet/legs.

5 Painting with Feet

Early years practitioners - I'm sure you've done plenty of foot print crafts in your time but the key here is to let the child paint their feet themselves rather than doing it for them. It’s the exact same strength-building movement they need to be able to put on shoes and socks.

6 Sensory bin

Encourage children to put their feet in water, sand, rice, underwater pearls, or any other sensory material in a deep tray, large plastic box or baby bath. Just use feet instead of hands! Encourage children to pick up objects from the bin with their toes to bring them to their hands.

These tasks are great if you have the time to practise (at the time of writing we were in lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak so time with our children really isn’t an issue for non-keyworkers) however, it is very important to remember that it takes time to build core strength, so while we may be working on these things with children at home and early years settings - if you need a more immediate solution, it really helps to give the child something to lean her back against while she puts on her shoes (and socks). This could be a wall, sturdy sofa, or the bottom step of the stairs (this is a great one because it is usually near the front door.) If none of these are possible, use your own body for the child to lean against but remember you won’t be there during her PE lessons at school when she will need to be able to do this herself!

Don’t forget to give the child time to practise with different shoe fastenings such as Velcro, zips or poppers (laces should be reserved for older children). There are several books and toys out there specifically designed to help children practise with different fastenings. My little girl loves this old book we picked up at a boot fair for 20 pence!

And a final note! Please don’t forget to give the child plenty of time to ‘play’ with her new school shoes and PE plimsoles before her first day of school!

Getting dressed

Here’s the scenario: its Monday morning, parents across the globe are making breakfast, answering emails, packing lunches, taking out the meat to defrost for dinner, putting out the bins, packing rucksacks, reminding children about book-bags, homework, PE kits, icing the cakes for the school cake sale, letting the dog out, double checking the calendar and trying to get out the door in time for school and/ or work. Sound familiar? Parents can be forgiven for hurrying things up a little by whipping their children’s clothes on and off for them in record speed because in the short term, its quicker than spending what feels like hours while their little one painstakingly tries to dress them- selves! Yes, this is quicker, yes this is easier in the short term but at some point, these children are going to have to learn to dress themselves! (especially if they are starting Reception and will need to put on their PE kit). So, it’s really important to practise at a more relaxed time of day when there is no pressure and time constraints.

The same applies in the early years setting, I remember when hoards of children would all try to put their coats on and off at the same time before/after outdoor play, blocking exits and needing one-one help, I’d find myself becoming quite overwhelmed! So, I used to plan small group activities with my key children that involved taking their coats on and off, practicing with their fastenings etc. I’d spend one-one time with the children, asking them to retrieve their coat, put it on the table in front of them, explore the zips, buttons, pockets and hang it back up again. All of which reduced the chaos before/after outdoor play because they had mastered the fastenings (until they bought a new coat the following week!)

Promoting independence with dressing skills is so important for children’s self-esteem and for being able to function independently when they start Reception, and once it’s achieved, it’s very helpful on a busy school morning and during the nursery / school routine.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the standard advice regarding laying out clothes the night before and encouraging children to sit when they get dressed to increase balance etc. There are so many great tips and advice that you share with parents already so for fear of re-inventing the wheel, I’m going to share some of the more unique tips and tricks that early years practitioners can share with parents and implement in the setting once you reopen. These points build on the more traditional, popular advice:

Exercise bands – these are bright, colourful and feel nice to touch. Tie a length of exercise band into a loop large enough to fit around the widest part of the child’s body, but not much bigger than that – you want there to be some resistance for the child to have to work against. With careful supervision to avoid strangulation, have the child take the loop of exercise band and pull it over her head and down over her entire body to her feet and back up again! See how quickly she can do it, and repeat several times for practise. Early years practitioners can incorporate this into obstacle courses, races and fun games.

Body Sock –

These are excellent resources that provide all-over sensory and proprioceptive (bodily awareness) input for children. They are often used with children who have SEN - particularly autism because they provide that comfortable pressure and sensory integration that they often crave. The benefits of body socks are endless and they offer so many play opportunities – in fact body socks are worthy of a separate blog post altogether because they are just that fantastic! But for the sake of keeping this post brief, let’s focus on how they help with getting dressed – it’s simple, getting them on and off the body is great practise for getting dressed! Early years practitioners can use these with all the children in the setting in the book corner or carpeted area (because they can be slippery underfoot), creating a protective, imaginary space for children that encourages body awareness, strength and creativity.

The flip trick – Very popular among parents – place the child’s open coat on the floor with the collar facing them. Encourage the child to put her hands through the arms, then flip if over her head! ‘Tah-Dah!’

Fastenings – Loose parts - Provide loose parts that resemble fastenings – raid your haberdashery boxes and introduce children to buttons – big and small, various hook and loops, poppers, zips etc. Allow children to explore them, test their ideas, mix them, fasten them, discuss where we would find them and become familiar with them. My daughter sits for hours exploring my sewing box (no needles or scissors!) It’s so therapeutic to watch her thread ribbons through her fingers, hide buttons in her pockets and comment on the ‘shiny treasures’. (Supervise and beware of choking or strangulation).

Books – We are spoilt for choice when it comes to books that provide practise with buttons, poppers, zips etc.

Clothes bundle – This trick is really working for me and my little girl at the moment! Start by selecting an entire outfit for each day of the week (or less if you run out of clothes) pants, socks, shorts/trousers, t-shirt, cardigan/hoodie etc.

1. lay them out as shown:

2. Then roll them into a neat bundle (thank you Marie Kondo).

3. Store them at the child’s height on a shelf rather than in a drawer so they can access themselves with minimal intervention from an adult. (Our drawers are really awkward to open so I took them out of the equation).

As you can probably tell, I started with clothes featuring my child's favourite TV characters to increase motivation. Create different bundles for different weather and adapt as you go. Each morning, encourage the child to choose a bundle, roll it out and put the clothes on in order. Be patient at first and enjoy making the bundles together once a week or so, with practise during lockdown / summer holidays, children will be expert independent dressers in no time! Early years practitioners – share this tip with parents – they’ll be eternally grateful!

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