How One Mom Turned Errands Into Learning-Filled Fun

A little innovative thinking turns one family's supermarket runs into learning-filled fun.

Illustration of fruits and veggies
Photo: Illustration by Macrina Busado

By the time my son, Gavin, was a toddler, he had already made his mark at the local supermarket. There was that bloodcurdling scream when he was told no in the cookie aisle, and the tomato that catapulted across the produce bins to be run over by a fellow shopper. And let's not forget the bread I had to buy after Gavin squished it into a sad lump.

Shopping with one little one was tricky enough for my husband, Jon, and me -- then along came baby Emma. By the time the kids were ages 2 and 4, I was desperate to find ways to entertain, distract, and, yes, bribe them to behave on trips to the grocery store. They may have seen food- shopping as an adventure, but all too often it was an ordeal for me.

Luckily, after hearing my complaints, my friend Courtney suggested an idea that has turned out to be the perfect solution.

It begins each weekend when the kids and I look over ads, coupons, and circulars for pictures of food we'll need for our grocery list. Gavin uses safety scissors to cut out each item (developing his fine motor skills), and Emma glues our picture list into a notepad.

Gavin is learning how to write now, so he can add simple words like apple and banana. Next to each picture he writes the word or the first letter of the word the image represents. We talk about how much money each item should cost and write beside the picture the dollar amount associated with each one. These conversations lead him to ponder other questions, such as, "How do you spell cauliflower?" and "How does the money get to the bank?"

When we arrive at the store, the kids are kept very busy checking off each item as we come across it. Gavin compares the price he has written down to the price on the shelf. He's so engaged in finding the correct items, quantities, and prices that he usually forgets to argue about getting expensive snacks.

My favorite part of our expeditions (besides the relative calm and quiet as we cruise the aisles) is our discussions about the items. We learn new things ("Is a carrot a fruit or vegetable?") and talk about how and why to make healthy food choices: "They give us energy and strong bones." Little as she is, Emma is beginning to get the difference between a snack from the produce aisle and one from the candy aisle. For Gavin, knowing what to choose and why is a real confidence builder.

Back home, we put things away and organize the pantry. If we have any energy left after our shopping trip, Jon and I make this a playful process for teaching about shapes and colors: "Can you find the square blue box?"

I'm pretty surprised by how successful these simple games have turned out to be. Sure, they're fun little ways to entertain the kids and buy me some peace, but I think there's something more going on. Gavin and Emma have already soaked up a lot of knowledge about healthy eating and financial planning -- and I suspect these important lessons are planting the seeds for a good life in the years to come.

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