You Can Do It! Teaching Kids Everyday Skills

There are probably a few things your child would like to be able to accomplish but can't yet -- and that can be frustrating. Here, how to help your child overcome common stumbling blocks so she can master skills like learning to tie shoes, read, swim, and play soccer.

Learning to Tie Shoes

The challenge: You finally bought your child his first pair of shoes with laces, but he can't tie them.

How you can help: Give him one of your sneakers to practice on since it's bigger and easier to manipulate, says Felice Sklamberg, a pediatric occupational therapist at New York University Medical Center, in New York City. And consider stringing two different-colored laces together so your child can easily distinguish between them as you're explaining what to do.

"Break the process up into small steps," adds Sklamberg. To explain crisscrossing the laces and pulling one through, tell your child that he's building a tepee and you want him to come inside and close it tight so he can hide. To get the hang of making the bows (which is a little harder), tell him to make one ear for listening (the first bow), then wrap the string around the ear and pull it through to see what he can hear.

Learning to Read

The challenge: Your child can't read much, yet her best friend breezes through The Cat in the Hat.

How you can help: Although your kid's friend is more of the exception than the norm, the summer before kindergarten is an ideal time to start pointing out some common words to your child as you're reading books together, says Shannon Ayers, PhD, a reading specialist at the National Institute for Early Education Research, in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

These common words -- which kindergarten teachers call "high-frequency words" -- include as, the, this, that, I, you, me, could, should, what, and see. The idea: Your child won't even have to sound out these words; she'll know them immediately from memory. "Companies sell flash cards with high-frequency words on them, but learning in context is more fun for kids," says Dr. Ayers. "For instance, say, 'Oh, did you notice the word see in the story? It comes up a lot. Let's trace its letters in the air, and tell me when you spot it again.'" You don't even need to be reading a book to point out these words, either. "In the car, say, 'Everywhere we go today, let's look for the word the,'" suggests Dr. Ayers. "That way, it becomes a game that kids can't resist."

Learning to Swim

The challenge: Your 4-year-old talked about swimming in the pool all morning, but now he won't go past the first step.

How you can help: Ideally, a preschooler should be able to swim 10 to 15 feet, either kicking like a frog underwater or dog-paddling, says David Marshall, MD, medical director of the pediatric sports medicine program at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. To get your child to that point, make going in the water fun. "I tell preschoolers to put their face in the water and look for fish," says Linda Pourchot, aquatics director of the YMCA of Greater St. Louis. "Kids have super imaginations, and searching for purple fish with red fins distracts them from getting their face wet."

Another way to get your child comfortable around water: Pretend that you are tulips, and use a plastic watering can to take turns pouring water over each other's head to make both of you grow. Next, make a big deal out of blowing bubbles underwater. Show your child how when you put your face in the water you hum through your mouth and exhale through your nose. Once your kid is comfortable, you can start teaching the basics of swimming. "Don't worry if her knees are bent when she kicks or her arms don't come out of the water," says Pourchot. "Strokes are a big-kid skill -- and the goal is to get her to move through the water on her own."

Learning to Kick a Soccer Ball

The challenge: Your daughter seems to have two left feet when she tries to kick a soccer ball.

How you can help: Get kicking with her! A 4-year-old should be able to run and kick a ball, says Sklamberg. To teach the skill, hold your child's hand and together "walk, walk, walk, kick." Make the kicking motion next to her as she kicks the ball. (Your child's kicking foot is the dominant one that she leads with as she goes up and down stairs.) A 5-year-old may even be able to run and kick a ball into a net.

To teach a soccer dribble, first take some air out of the ball, since the less inflated the ball, the more slowly it will roll, says Sklamberg. Show her how to gently push the ball with the sides of her feet. Then stand behind her as she alternates feet and "step, taps, step, taps" the ball down the sidewalk. With practice, she'll be able to jog while dribbling the ball with her feet.

How to Encourage New Skills

When your child is learning a new skill, praise the process (how hard he's working), rather than the end product (a base hit, for instance), suggests Sklamberg. Banish your kid's anxiety with these confidence-boosting comments.

  • That was really good concentrating.
  • I'm so proud of the way you tried.
  • I know this is hard, so I think it's terrific that you didn't get frustrated.
  • I really like the way you thought about how you were going to do this.
  • How exciting that you got as far as you did -- you should be proud of yourself.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the June 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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