Any mom with a young child will tell you, life is busy. And hectic. And HARD. Some days, making sure my two year old is dressed and fed is a struggle. So the thought of adding additional “teachable moments” into my day often feels…ambitious. But as an early childhood researcher, I know how critical it is to incorporate social emotional learning into my child’s routine. The good news? It can often occur in our small moments together. As an example, here are five “hacks” that help me turn everyday activities into learning opportunities to help my toddler grow smarter and stronger emotionally.
1. Setting and clearing the table.
Helping set and clear the table at meal times is a task that can teach children manners and kindness. It’s not just about completing a task for the sake of following the rules, it’s about understanding the importance of helping others. Young children are the center of their own universe, so it’s important to frame the activity through their perspective. Your child might understand that they need a napkin and a fork, so asking them questions like, “if you need a napkin and a fork, what do the other people at the table need?” This can help them learn to think about others’ needs.
This activity can also build self-confidence. Helping others and taking on small responsibilities can make your child feel like a “big kid.” Doing things for others gives them a sense of accomplishment and the self-esteem to believe that they can do things that older family members can too. While it might take a little longer to let them set the table, a little patience can go a long way.
2. Having conversations while eating meals and snacks together.
Eating meals together is a great time to work on conversation skills, but talking to younger children in a way where they can truly participate and engage can be challenging.
I recently experienced this first hand. I interact with children at work on a daily basis, I sometimes struggle to have a logical conversation with my two-year-old…because well…he’s two. One night, when I was having dinner with my son and my husband, I noticed that as we carried on a conversation, my son would interject by shouting out names of dinosaurs. He wanted to be a part of the conversation, so he started with words that he knew, and a topic he was interested in.
This is key when helping younger children develop language and conversation skills. Talk to them about things they know and love, to meet them at their level. Asking your child, “how was your day?” won’t yield much of a response (as many of us already know), but asking “what is your favorite color?” will. With younger children, it’s less important to focus on substance—it’s about fostering the exchange and dialogue. When they say something and you respond, they learn that there is a cadence to conversation, and that it’s about giving everyone the opportunity to share, whether it’s about dinosaurs, unicorns, or their favorite color—embrace the opportunity to talk with your child about things they love!
3. Feeding the family pet.
Taking care of animals is a great way to develop empathy and nurturing skills. However, as I mentioned before, children need things to be framed in a way they understand, which starts with their experience. Drawing connections between what they need and what the family pet needs can help them step outside of their own perspective and understand how their needs are connected to others’.
A good way to frame this is to say things like, “the dog needs to eat so he can grow strong, just like you need to eat to grow strong.” Feeding time can also take place when your family eats dinner, so they can further draw the connection between caring for the dog and caring for themselves.
4. Playing at playgrounds and parks.
As a parent, I understand the impulse adults often feel to follow their children around at parks and playgrounds. Monitoring your child for safety is important, especially with a younger child like my son. But I’ve noticed that when parents hover too closely, their children lose out on the opportunity to interact with their peers and engage in social play.
When you give your child a little space to roam and play independently, they are much more likely to approach other children and play with them. This creates opportunities for learning social skills, how to respect others and take turns on playground equipment, as well as conflict resolution skills.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t watch your child—you know your child best and understand when they need to be watched more closely. However, try to take a step back when you can and you’ll be amazed to see how their play can change, and how their social emotional learning can flourish as they play with other children.
5. Putting toys away.
Let’s be honest, as an adult, I don’t enjoy cleaning my house and I definitely don’t love doing laundry. These are things we do because we know that we have to do them, and they need to get done. This takes self-control and a sense of responsibility, skills that younger children need time to develop, and the practice of putting toys away is a great way to foster them. The battle of clean-up time is a constant struggle, one I am living myself right now with my own son—but the more we work at it, I realize he’s learning how to be responsible, patient, and control himself at the same time.
I encourage the children I work with to put a toy away before taking another one out to play, not simply because it’s a rule they should follow, but because it keeps the space clean and safe for everyone. Building this routine takes a lot of patience—having the ability to stop, think about it and follow through with this task is a high executive function skill for a young child to develop—but you’d be surprised to see how children slowly, but surely, start putting things away naturally and it becomes less and less of a struggle each time.
The most important thing to remember about integrating social emotional learning into your child’s daily activities is that it takes time, and trust me, A LOT of patience. You won’t always remember to call out certain behaviors, and sometimes, your child may not respond the way you’d like them to as you work on these skills. However, if you are persistent in thinking about how you can put these concepts into a perspective that your child understands, you’ll be amazed to see how they grow and learn. You don’t have to be an expert to foster social emotional learning—you just have to be patient and willing to learn along with, and from, your child.
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