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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 s