Much of what I do as an occupational therapist aims to help children improve their independence in what we call Activities of Daily Living (ADL). While this includes a vast array of skills, one common activity I frequently address is the task of self-dressing. Sometimes kids are very set on dressing and undressing themselves, and they have the fine motor and cognitive skills to easily accomplish this. But sometimes kids need a little extra support to develop these skills, especially when it comes to figuring out how to open and close the fasteners that allow them to take off or put on a particular item of clothing (e.g., pants, shoes, jackets, etc.).
While it’s certainly worthwhile to practice the actual act of undressing and dressing, it can be pretty boring. But take heart, becuase there are actually some fun ways to sneak in self-dressing practice into a child’s day without them even realizing it!
Here is one simple trick for improving kids’ self-dressing skills that I have found to be extremely effective:
Consider the container.
I imagine the child you care for likes to play with toys, right? Well, what kind of container are the toys in? Are they easily accessible, requiring little to no fine motor effort to obtain? Or are they stored in bags requiring them to slide, zip, tie, and snap?
Here are some examples of how you can store kids’ toys such as playdough, mechanical animals, Potato Head, and puzzle pieces (click on image for larger view):
I have found that simply by keeping toys in individual bags/containers such as these (most of which you can obtain by saving the packages of commonly purchased items you would normally just throw away, like curtains or baby clothes), it gives kids the chance to practice operating various fasteners relevant to self-dressing. All their experience with zipping, tying, and snapping in order to access the toys has the potential to carry over to being able to open and close fasteners on their own clothes and, what do you know, suddenly their self-dressing skills improve even though they never “officially” worked on them! Funny how that works. Keep in mind that undressing typically comes before dressing. It’s easier to take off than put on (e.g., socks, shoes, shirts, pants) and, similarly, it’s easier to open fasteners than to close them (e.g., unzip, unsnap, untie).
As an added bonus, storing the toys in separate bags/containers makes them much easier to clean and keep track of. My speech therapy colleagues would also add this provides kids with increased opportunities for communication and language development as they ask for help, identify/imitate words and phrases such as “open”, “close”, “in”, “out”, “more”, “please”, “thank you”, ”all done”, “clean up”, and imitate/produce multi-word phrases either verbally or through signs and gestures such as “want more” or “open please”.
So the next time you are going through your child’s toy bin, consider the container. Ask yourself whether your current toy storage situation will encourage your child to practice the skills necessary for self-dressing. If not, then what are you waiting for? Make this one small change and watch to see how it affects their fine motor skills and the development of their ability to tackle the big kid task of putting on and taking off their clothes all by themselves!