Helping a Toddler Do It Himself

One morning a couple months ago we went to a parent thing at the Beaner's Montessori school (was it a new parent orientation? I can't remember for sure, but that sounds right), and the subject of independence came up. We started talking about ways that our 3 year-olds could do things for themselves around the house. A couple parents expressed disbelief that their about-to-turn-3s or just-turned-3s could make their own beds or get their own breakfast; others shared some cool stories about the neat things their kids had done, and the Head of School made some interesting suggestions (letting the child be responsible for small chores, keeping a calendar, etc.).

Later, when I went to pick the Beaner up from school, I ran into one of the moms who'd been at the morning session, and she remarked that she'd liked my ideas for helping the Beaner to be more independent at home. I said that one or two we came up with on our own, but the rest came from a colleague of Al's whose own child had been through a Montessori primary program. That's when we came up with the idea of having a parent get-together expressly for the purpose of exchanging ideas for making our homes more kid-friendly, and in the process, our kids more independent. The Head of School said that she'd look into hosting a coffee for that purpose, but it hasn't happened yet, I suspect because the holiday rush overtook us.

In the meantime, I thought I'd post some thoughts and photographs here, describing what we've done in our house. I'm hoping that maybe anyone Googling for "Montessori in the home" or kid-friendly or whatever will find this post and perhaps add their own ideas, too. We can have our own Internet parent coffee! And if the actual parent coffee ever does materialize, I'll have not only my ideas to share, but yours, too. So share away in the comments. Here's what's worked for us:

The trick to getting kids (or just letting them—chances are they're already pretty motivated!) to do things for themselves is in making it feasible for them to do things for themselves. Most of the world outside of pre-school and elementary classrooms is scaled to adults—something we don't even think about, because of course we *are* adults, and everything is within reach for us. Consider all the simple tasks we do for our toddlers today that they could probably do for themselves if they could only reach, and it should be obvious where to start.

stepstools @ IKEA

I'm not exactly sure when our obsession with stepstools started, but I think it was when we first showed the Beaner how to pee in the toilet. With his long thigh bones and solid construction, he was too big for the little potty we got for him, so one day I just whipped out a stepstool and had him stand in front of the real toilet. From there we dragged the stepstool to the sink for him to wash his hands, and soon it got to the point where if we asked him if he had to pee, instead of answering us directly, he'd run and get his stepstool. We put a stepstool in every bathroom, and even bought one for him to use at Al's parents' house. (My mom got a few, too.)

upstairs bath master bath step stool in the basement bathroom

He doesn't need one to pee in the toilet anymore (he's tall enough to clear the rim), but he still regularly uses them to reach the faucets at the sink. One morning back in September or October he came to the top of the stairs to tell me he was awake, and as usual I said to him, "OK, go pee, I'll be right up." Next thing I knew I heard his stool being dragged across the floor and dropped, and then I heard a flicking noise. "Did he just turn on the light?" I asked Al. A quick glance up the stair confirmed that he had, indeed, turned on the light. Never underestimate the power of a stepstool (or of your child's increased reach; make sure anything you wouldn't want him to get into is out of sight and higher than he can reach with a stepstool).

We have a stepstool for the kitchen, too, but it's used as much for toy storage and as a seat as it is for standing. The thing the Beaner *really* likes to stand on is the ottoman that we originally bought so we'd have a place to sit and put on our shoes. (It's supposed to reside under the shelves by the front door, but it ends up being in the kitchen 95% of the time.) I can understand why he likes it; whereas the stepstool lets him *reach* things that are on the counter, the ottoman is high enough that it lets him *work* with things on the counter. From the ottoman perch he can help me measure ingredients and stir batters and wash dishes.

kitchen kitchen kitchen
washing off the flour

We like to take a lot of weekend trips as a family, and I've found that I really miss the stepstools when I'm at hotels. (That's when you realize how much they help, how much your kid can do for himself when he can reach: when all of a sudden, he can't.) I've been leaving comments on physical and electronic suggestion forms that there should be a stepstool tucked under the sink or in the closet of every hotel room (especially in the rooms of chains that tout their family-friendliness). In the meantime, we've added 'stepstool' to our packing list for car trips.

Adjusting Downward
If you can't bring the kid to the things he needs access to, bring those things to the kid. This is one of the suggestions we got from Al's colleague: Rearrange the refrigerator and cupboards so that the items the kid uses most are within easy reach. Al moved all of the Beaner's yogurts (and he eats a LOT of yogurt) from a high shelf to a low rack in the door. We also keep applesauce and his Odwalla juices and soymilks there, and I should really put a container of pre-mixed vanilla and unsweetened soymilk down there too, so he can pour it on his cereal or drink it. (Seems like there's always more you could be letting your child do for himself if only you think about it!)

I don't know what that Snapple's doing there; I buy him cookies and feed him chocolate, but I draw the line at 5% juice drinks.

OK, it's now taken me so long to write this post (and I'm still not done!) that I've actually had a chance to put the aforementioned bottle of soymilk on the Beaner's shelf. As it happens, I did it right after he told me, on the way home from school yesterday, that he'd moved from pouring rice to pouring water. (Montessori is very big on pouring; the kids start by pouring rice and then move up to liquids.) It was so cool to see him pour his own soymilk for lunch without it getting away from him. He put in just a bit, without spilling any.

After rearranging the fridge Al tackled the cupboards, turning a small part of our Container Cupboard into a dishware station for the Beaner. I took it a step further and filled pourable containers (and one with a scoop) with his favorite cereals, so he could serve himself.

lower cupboard, kitchen lower cupboard, kitchen

Heading down to the basement, you'll see a gift from my parents in action: A coat rack that's just the Beaner's size. He retrieves and dons his coat every morning (he still needs help with the zipper), and he hangs it up every day after school. Currently his bin of hats and mittens is above his head in the black corner storage unit; I was just thinking today, when I had to get his hat for him, that we should either hang it on the wall at Beaner height or put it on the floor next to his boots.

garage entry garage entry

One other place where we've totally failed in putting things the Beaner needs within his reach is in the basement bathroom. I painted this room and installed a new mirror, toilet seat, and hardware when I was 8 or 9 months pregnant, and it didn't occur to me at the time that the baby I was carrying might someday want to wash his own hands and then dry them.

downstairs bath step stool in the basement bathroom

We're working on rectifying this oversight; for the time being we're leaving the towel on the sink, but I picked up another towel holder through freecycle, and we plan to install it below the light switch at about sink height (just above the stepstools). At that point we'll have two towels in this bathroom—one for grownups and one for kids.

A Place For Everything, and Everything In Its Place
We've discovered that the more we organize things, the happier the Beaner feels in his space, and the more likely he is to clean up after himself. If it's unclear where something goes, it's likely to stay out on the floor, whereas if he knows where it belongs, he will gladly put it back (and even more gladly tell you when you've put it in the wrong place). We used an Expedit and a couple Billy bookcases with dividers from IKEA to organize the basement playroom; the top shelf and middle baskets in the Expedit are mine, but all the other cubbies belong to the Beaner. The dividers in the Billy were key for storing puzzles, tall books, and car bins. There's a special section for library books, too, so we can find them easily when it's time to return them.

basement/playroom basement/playroom basement/playroom basement/playroom

I think the Beaner's a born organizer anyway—he often spends an inordinate amount of time rearranging items at stores when people put them back incorrectly—but I suspect some of our latest organizational efforts have rubbed off on him. Yesterday morning when I asked him to get out a bowl and spoon for his breakfast, I turned around to find that he'd unloaded ALL of his dishes from the cupboard. "What are you doing??" I asked him. "I'm organizing!" he replied. He then restacked his plates, cups, and bowls by size and color and replaced them. "There, that's better," he said.

Keeping a Calendar
This was a suggestion from the head of school at the parent orientation, and when she said it I thought, "oh, huh, Aura's already done that." I don't think I realized how important it was until the head of school mentioned it, but after she did I started paying attention to how the Beaner and Aura used the calendar. It turns out to be a very useful way to help him understand his daily schedule, what events to expect when, and what day of the week it is.


The paw print at the top indicates "today"; the green cards are added to the calendar when activities are planned for the week. For example, if Aura knows that the books are due at the library on Thursday, she'll put the card with the library icon on it into Thursday's slot, so the Beaner will know the plan. The blue and pink cards are for evening and weekend activities, respectively, but Al and I have been really slack and haven't made use of them at all. We really should; we often know that we're planning to go out to dinner on certain nights, or that we'll be going away for a weekend or playing in a hockey game on a Saturday. These are things I'm sure the Beaner would like to know about.

Seat Yourself
I can't guarantee that providing a "just his size" chair will keep your kid off the couch or out of your favorite leather recliner (it hasn't deterred the Beaner), but it does allow the child to seat himself and feel comfortable in his space rather than drowning in it.

living room living room
putting the candle in

We got a bunch of these little green stools at IKEA prior to the Beaner's birthday party, and we LOVE them. The wicker kid's chairs are great, too, but the stools are just awesome. They're even comfortable for adults to sit on, so they're perfect for whipping out when company drops by to hang out in the living room and there isn't enough room for everyone on the couch.

Helping With Chores
It might not seem like help, exactly, when your child wants to help with chores, especially if you end up having to re-do what they've done. As the Montessori tip in one of the weekly school bulletins pointed out, however, it's often easier to find a way to let children help rather than trying to keep them from getting underfoot (and they will get underfoot, because they want to help!). There are tons of things kids can help with from a fairly young age, and they'll get better at these tasks over time, making for fewer re-dos by you. Until they get proficient, try to think of the time spent doing chores together as just that: together time. If you get something done, bonus!

For example, whenever the Beaner asks me to come down and play with him in the basement, I find myself wanting to do laundry. I mean, it's right there, and it needs to get done, and here I am, available to do it. If I step into the laundry room, however, I feel like I've totally short-changed the Beaner. So one night a few months ago, I asked him to help me sort the dirty laundry. I gave him some rules, like "all the white things go here, all non-white clothes that belong to Daddy go here, and all clothes that belong to you or Mommy go here." Anything that didn't fit one of those categories, I helped by pointing to a pile. He didn't finish the sort, but it kept him busy (and entertained!) for 10 minutes at least, helped me, and gave me a chance to fold what was in the dryer. Likewise, his folding technique isn't that great, but he can match socks and stack his underpants in a pile while I fold everything else.

putting away silverware

Putting away silverware at 14 months; he now stands on a stool and puts the entire silverware basket away. He also knows which dishes are his and puts them away in his cupboard.

washing dishes

Washing dishes at just shy of 2 and a half. About three or four months ago we started asking him to clear his plate from the table when he was finished with dinner. He scrapes food into the trash, throws out his yogurt container, and takes his dishes to the sink. Sometimes he even gets up and washes them; whereas when he started he'd rinse and dry (ew!), he now has the hang of the scrubber and knows not to dry until all traces of food are gone.

swiffering it's HEAVY! mopping vacuuming the stairs

Progress: Swiffering at 16 months; vacuuming and mopping the kitchen floor at 26 months; and vacuuming the stairs at 34 months. He picked up the Swiffer himself, and he begged me to let him vacuum and mop.

The Beaner has also helped me wash the bathroom floor with his own little sponge and bucket, and he's particularly fond of cleaning up with the Dustbuster. A dustpan and brush are also handy for little hands. Oh! And emptying the trash on Trash Night is a good chore for kids and parents to do together: one person holds the large trash bag while the other person empties each wastebasket into it. In season, gardening is fun for the whole family, too.

me and the beaner, planting flowers sweeping up mommy's mess
watering the volunteer tomato plant

OK, I think that's all I've got for you; if you've got ideas for making your home more kid-friendly (and your kid more self-sufficient), let me know in the comments!

Posted by Lori in parenthood and school at 5:58 PM on January 17, 2008


Thank you for this post. We're in need of some child-friendly modifications here. I can't wait to use some of these excellent ideas.

Posted by: girlfiend at January 17, 2008 8:19 PM

This is a great post! I will be referring back to it as my toddler gets older and is ready to do more things for himself.

Posted by: heidivoltmer [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2008 3:48 AM

Awesome post! You've already given me a new evening project for tonight, and plenty of reading material/ideas to implement as Devin gets more mobile. Thanks!

Posted by: Scott Fegette at January 18, 2008 8:26 PM

Really interesting! It drives me crazy when I see those fake plastic "housework" toys for kids that don't work. Why pretend to do housework?!
Also, thanks for your sweet comment on my Wonder Woman jumper!

Posted by: Kirsty (Practical Polly) at January 19, 2008 6:33 PM

Wow, I am gratified to know that we're already doing so many of these things. The main area we're really lacking in is organization. We move every couple of years thanks to the military and we're perpetually trying to find a way to organize the current space without spending beaucoup bucks on new bookcases, containers, baskets, etc. It's amazing how often we find that something which worked great in a previous house is ALL WRONG for the new one.

But I digress. In addition to all the things you mentioned, Annalie loves to help me cook. She started out with simple pouring and stirring, and now at 3.5 is adept at spooning flour into a measuring cup and leveling it off, knows what a pinch of salt is, and loves to try her hand at cutting soft things like bread and cheese.

Posted by: bethany actually at January 22, 2008 1:46 PM

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