Your preschooler is more capable than you realize. From how to treat a wound to making a simple meal, equip small kids for the great big world with these valuable life lessons.

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Diana Torres has fond memories of her mother showing her how to sew a button and fix a hem as a kid. When Torres became a mom, she wanted to share the same experience with her two daughters, 10 and 13. But between homework and after-school activities, it often fell off her to-do list. Until the pandemic hit. Stuck in their Charlotte, North Carolina, home last spring, Torres taught her girls how to hand-sew cloth face masks. And with the younger one, she made a sock monkey—a fun way to practice sewing buttons. "I'm glad I finally made the time," says Torres. "Even if it seems simple, I want to make sure my kids have the know-how to figure things out when they're on their own one day."

girl making smoothies
Credit: Stephanie Rausser

There's so much for our children to learn in today's high-tech world that it can become all too easy for them to miss out on practical life skills. In fact, a study by the security company AVG Technologies found that while 58 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds in the United States can navigate a smartphone, fewer than one out of six (15 percent) could make their own breakfast. "I see many parents doing everything for their kids instead of letting them fend for themselves," says Tim Elmore, founder of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit in Atlanta that works with schools and civic groups to promote leadership qualities in kids. "We must prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child."

By focusing on life skills early on, you can do just that. And with so many kids at home these days, there's no time like the present to get started.

Preparing a Simple Meal

Invite your child to help make meals, assign them jobs to do, and stay calm when the flour spills and the eggshells fly. Kisha Medina-Whitney, a mom in Charlotte, North Carolina, started young with her daughter, Rebeca, 11. She let her, at age 4 or 5, practice cutting bananas with a plastic knife and sealing empanada edges with a fork. Here's what else you can work on in the kitchen at each stage:

  • Yogurt with fruit is a good first DIY breakfast. Preschoolers can spoon yogurt into a bowl and add cut, prewashed fruit.
  • Show kids 5 and older how to make sandwiches and smoothies (monitor the blender closely).
  • Around age 7 or 8, your kid can try toaster-oven faves like English-muffin pizza. By age 10, they can use the stovetop with supervision to make a quesadilla. Under Medina-Whitney's watch, her daughter is even able to fry eggs and bake cupcakes.

Using the Web Wisely

Kids are spending more time on screens than ever, so it's important to reinforce a few rules to help them safely navigate the digital world, says Internet safety and special-needs advocate Joscelyn Ramos Campbell, a mom of four in Clermont, Florida, who blogs at MamiOfMultiples.com. As soon as your child is able to use technology unsupervised, go over these best practices:

  • Choose a password that's hard to guess and always keep it private (except from Mami or Papi).
  • Chat only with people you know in real life, and don't give out personal info such as your birthday, home address, or phone number.
  • Be kind. Remember that anything you send or say virtually is there forever.
  • Get permission or ask for help before you download something or click a pop-up.
  • Most important, let your kid know they can come to you with any issue. "This is a conversation you will have again and again as your children get older," says Ramos Campbell.
boy carrying laundry
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Doing the Laundry

Too many teens head to college with no clue how to clean their clothes. Don't let your child become one of them. You can begin laundry lessons when kids are around 6. If you have a top-loading washer, keep a step stool nearby. Walk them through the process—how to measure and add the detergent, choose the settings, and start the machine. Amy Mascott, who blogs at TeachMama.com, taught her three kids. To make it fun, she chose cute names for jobs: Wash Warrior, Super-Fly Dry Guy, Put 'Em Away Triple Play. Mascott says there have been glitches, like the time a whole load was folded and put away damp. "But I'm not aiming for perfection. I'm aiming for them to get the job done," she says.

girl watering a vegetable garden
Credit: Christine Schneider/Getty Images

Planting a Seedling

Lots of preschoolers learn to plant seeds in class but not how to transfer sprouts into a garden. Whitney Cohen, coauthor of The Book of Gardening Projects for Kids and education director at Life Lab, breaks it down.

  1. Prepare a spot to plant a seedling. If possible, add about 2 inches of organic compost to the top of the soil. Mix it in, break up any dirt clods, and water the soil until it's about as moist as a wrung-out sponge.
  2. Ask your child to dig a hole that's slightly larger than the container the plant is in.
  3. Once you remove the plant from the pot and place it in the hole, have your kid delicately push soil around it and pat it down.
  4. Let your child water it with a gentle stream from a watering can with a perforated nozzle.
  5. By age 6 or 7, kids can remove a seedling on their own. Have your child split two fingers apart so the stem of the plant goes between them. Then turn the potted seedling upside down and squeeze the outside of the container until the plant comes out. If the roots are wound tightly, your kid should loosen them a few at a time before planting.

Writing a Letter

Toddlers can dictate a note to a family member or an amigo (enhanced with drawings, of course), attach the stamp, and drop it into a mailbox. Model for an older child addressing an envelope, and go over the five parts of a letter: date, greeting, body, closing, and signature. You can also have them:

  • Find a pen pal. Kathleen Bedoya, a mom in Montclair, New Jersey, says her daughter, Paloma, 11, enjoys exchanging letters with a good friend in Oregon. To get kids working on Spanish, have them write to relatives in Latin America.
  • Lift someone's spirits. Children can practice writing and do a good deed at the same time. Operation Gratitude forwards letters to members of the military. Love for Our Elders lets you connect with a lonely or isolated older adult.
  • Correspond with the president or vice president. Address your kid's letter to The White House, Office of the President (or Vice President), 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500.

Helping Someone Who’s Choking

Children as young as 9 can learn CPR, according to the American Heart Association. Programs such as Heimlich Heroes offer abdominal-thrust training resources for kids in the first grade and up. Former EMT Andrea Saroza, a mom in Cumming, Georgia, started showing her kids the basics when they were just in preschool. "I had them practice on teddy bears," says Saroza. In 2019, those lessons paid off in a big way when her daughter Kiara Fernandez, now 14, saved her younger sister Jadah, 12, from choking in a restaurant when Saroza wasn't present.

To teach the Heimlich maneuver, tell your kids that if someone can't breathe, cough, or speak, they should first ask, "Are you choking?" If the person nods yes and there's no adult around, they should follow these steps:

  1. Stand behind the person who is choking and wrap your hands around them.
  2. Make a clenched fist with one hand, and place the thumb side just above their belly button but below their rib cage.
  3. Grasp your fist with your other hand and thrust it into their abdomen with quick inward and upward thrusts. Repeat until the object pops out.
boy in flannel shirt with bandage
Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

Treating a Wound

To ensure your child doesn't freak out when they see blood, avoid overreacting yourself. Giving them a game plan, like the following, will also help distract them from the pain and will come in handy when you're not around to kiss their boo-boos.

  1. If the cut or scrape is bleeding, press firmly on the area with a clean cloth until it stops.
  2. Hold the cut under running water, or dab it gently with a wet paper towel.
  3. Apply antibiotic ointment with a cotton swab.
  4. Cover with an adhesive bandage or gauze and tape.
girl looking at map
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Navigating

If you've ever gotten lost following your GPS's turn-by-turn voice directions, you know why being able to read a map is essential (even if it's one on your phone). These activities will build your child's navigational skills.

  • Hunt for treasure. Maps seem boring ... until you use them to look for booty. Hide toys in your yard and then draw a simple sketch to mark their location. Show your 3- or 4-year-old how objects on the map correspond to those in front of them.
  • Have them lead the way. Zoos, museums, and theme parks have colorful, easy-to-read maps. Once it's safe to visit one, ask your preschooler to track their path, and challenge an older kid to get you from point A to point B.
  • Take up geocaching. Kids ages 5 and older love this outdoor treasure-hunt game, which uses GPS tracking to find containers filled with trinkets. Learn more at geocaching.com.

Comparison Shopping

Learning to be a smart consumer takes practice. Try this three-step approach:

  • Explain as you go. Mention prices out loud and talk about choices with your child: "I'm getting gas at the other station because it costs 10 cents less per gallon there." Share with them the things you'd like to have (say, the latest sneakers or tech) but don't buy because they're not in your budget.
  • Let your child pay sometimes. Give your kid an allowance, and then designate certain items that they're responsible for purchasing, such as new toys or video games. That gives your child a chance to manage their own money and also experience the satisfaction of saving for something that they want and then buying it.
  • Play the grocery game. When supermarket shopping, in-store or online, challenge your kid to find the least expensive brand of cereal.

Wrapping a Gift

Your child already loves giving presents, and wrapping them makes it even more satisfying. Preschoolers can help cut the paper and stick on the tape, while kindergartners can complete additional steps with your help, like removing the price tag, finding the right size box, and wrapping paper all the way around the gift to make sure it fits before cutting it.

This article originally appeared in Parents Latina's April/May 2021 issue as "Skills for Life."

Parents Latina