Living Arts Weekly: Encouraging Independence

November 17, 2019

It is not until you become a mother that your judgment slowly turns to compassion and understanding   – Erma Bombeck

As the weather cools in the Northern Hemisphere, getting children ready to go outdoors takes longer.  Wise caregivers and parents know that getting one’s self dressed for outdoor play is a skill, and we like to encourage the children to learn to dress themselves.  Sometimes this is easier said than done.

How do we know how much the child is capable of doing for herself?

What if she is crying and asking for help?

What if he is simply uninterested, waiting for us to dress him?

This past week in our online course “Learning to Observe Children”, Belinda Kenwood, a master caregiver from LifeWays Early Childhood Center in Milwaukee, shared her own journey with helping children gain independence while getting dressed to go outdoors.  It was such good advice, I asked her if I could share it with all of you!

Getting Children Dressed to go Outdoors

“In the past, I realize I was a bit dogmatic and firm in my approach to what allowing a child to ‘struggle’ looks like…even with my own children when they were young. And then a couple of years ago, I realized that I was expecting too much from a little guy who was 2.5-years at the time.  I was expecting him to be able to dress himself for outdoors, so in my impatience (because I was helping the littlest ones get dressed), I would tell him to keep trying as he continued to struggle to the point of dissolving into tears.  And I still expected him to ‘keep trying’ as he cried and my frustration grew! Not my finest moment, I know.  I took this into my sleep that night and when I awakened, I realized that I was expecting too much and pushing the little person too hard to do something he clearly was not able to do all on his own yet.  I needed him to be able to dress himself because I was dressing so many little ones, and I was hurrying the whole winter dressing process in order to get outside.

So, I slowed myself down and became present to C. and the rest of the children when we readied ourselves for outdoors.  I gave a big hug to C. and told him I would help him.  I took the time to help him do what he was unable to do each day, and it didn’t take long before he was dressing himself on his own.  And now that he’s almost four-years old, he’s our ‘go to’ friend whenever anyone needs help with zipping up their coats and jackets.  He is one amazing zipper helper!  This also helped us all to get ready for outdoors in a more peaceful and joyful way.  It was a great reminder that dressing for outdoors is an important and worthy activity in and of itself…not to be rushed through.  I also found that when I took the time to help each child dress, they learned how to dress themselves much more quickly and with very little frustration.  Just stopping for a moment to help the child actually takes much less time because I’ve given the child the connection they’re seeking which seems to help them move forward.

I have arrived at the place where I, more times than not, will show the children what to do when they ask and will give them help when needed throughout the dressing process. During one of my Waldorf early childhood trainings, a wise early childhood educator said that whether we know or think a child is capable of/can dress themselves isn’t really the point. The point is that we all need help at times…when we’re tired at the end of a long day, when we’re frustrated, when we are missing our moms and dads, when we are seeking connection, etc.  Children really do seek independence and want/know how to do things for themselves, so our helping them out when they ask will not hinder that process.  It’s how they learn.

When they are ready, they will end up dressing themselves.  Through our own observations and experiences of the child/children in our care, we know who needs help and what kind of help they need, right?  The type of help we offer may look different for a four- or five-year old than for a one- to three-old.  Just the same, they will all seek some type of help/connection at some point.  So no harm in giving it.

During a training, one of the instructors said to please take the time you need to dress with the children.  If you miss some outside time that’s just fine, because when you’re looking at the bigger picture, dressing/heading outside/heading back inside/getting undressed is all part of one big process. And – the bonus is, since I’ve been taking the time to work with this rhythm, the children learned how to dress themselves much more quickly.  Being present with them is a huge gift for everyone.”

Belinda’s “Getting Dressed”Process

“Our outdoor dressing rhythm:  Before we head to the bathroom to wash up for snack, I ask the four- and five- year olds to get their winter gear (save for boots) and bring it into our suite to place in an area of the room where they will dress after snack.  Some three-year olds are fully capable of gathering their gear, and I’m there to help them when needed.  I also bring in the outdoor gear of the one- and two-year olds and place it in a space on the floor.  As each child finishes clearing their dishes and using the bathroom, they each enter the room and begin dressing themselves.  When I’m finished cleaning up our table, I enter the room, sit on the floor and begin helping the one- and two- year olds dress.  The older children do what they can do and wait for their turn if they need help with a zipper or getting mittens on, etc. Two of my older girls have started helping dress the younger ones, including tucking on mittens, hats, zipping zippers and tucking boots on little feet.  Another almost four-year old boy helps his friends out with their zippers when needed.  As each child finishes up dressing and helping, they go out by their hooks and sit on the rug to put their boots on and voila!  After I’m done getting dressed, we all head outdoors to the play yard.”

Managing the Chaos

“Because I’m in a childcare center, I stop and picture what it means to be in a home-like setting.  I allow for more free movement through the process and don’t expect them to be quiet and sit and wait.  The little ones follow me around as I’m cleaning up, because little children need to move.  It definitely feels more relaxed and homey when I don’t stress about some of the chaos.  In fact, it’s the reason we dress in our suite now, instead of out in the larger gathering space where their outdoor gear is kept.  Because we have three different suites of approximately six to eight children each, it can get quite chaotic and distracting when everyone is getting dressed at the same time.  When the children and I are in our cozy room with the door closed to eliminate extra noise and distraction, we get the job done with little stress and each child is able to focus more on the task at hand.”

Belinda serving snack at LifeWays Early Childhood Center in Milwaukee

What are some tricks and tips you’ve learned in helping children learn to dress themselves? Share in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “Living Arts Weekly: Encouraging Independence”

  1. This has definitely been a struggle for me in my home daycare, and I’ve come to the same conclusions: to focus on the process and remember that dressing and I dressing for winter is a vital skill they need.

    Luckily, I have a deck area with a gate that I can use so that, as the children get all their clothing on, they can head out on the deck and play, and avoid overheating. That’s helped.

    1. This is a great idea about the deck — an enclosed outdoor area for those who are ready is a wonderful suggestion, Ashley!

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