Learning life skills through play

Today, I’d like to talk about what I consider one of the most important aspects of teaching a preschool-aged child: teaching independence and life skills.

Life skills

When it comes to what some people may think of general preschool skills, one might assume that a four-year-old can use scissors, can write – or at least hold a pencil – and can have a conversation. For me, however, I look more for things like can the child use the toilet, can they brush their teeth, can they put their shoes on, can they ask for help rather than having everything automatically done for them?

I enjoy using dramatic play as it can be used to support the acquisition of what I believe are important preschool skills.

Social skills

A key reason many people send their child to nursery or preschool is so they can socialise. Most parents I have met over the years see this as the most important part of their child’s nursery and preschool experience and I very much agree.

Children develop social skills in different ways and at different times. As teachers, we facilitate this learning by setting examples and encouraging play. This will look different in a toddler classroom – as children are not all ready for this benchmark yet – and a 4-5-year-old classroom, where friendships have been made and continue to develop.

A fun way for children to learn and develop social skills is by using dramatic play and playing “chef”. Here, children improve their listening skills and responsiveness to requests. For example, when baking muffins, we use a recipe.

This is a great activity to develop responsiveness. With the prospect of muffins at the end, children have to wait for, listen to, and follow directions.

In terms of “life skills”, this teaches children to listen, wait their turn, and teamwork skills – all of which are key to forming relationships.

Fine motor skills

Is writing a sentence as important as dental hygiene? As adults, we could brush children’s teeth for them but then how will they learn how to be independent? 

Instead of working on holding a pencil, why not teach your child how to hold and manoeuvre a toothbrush!

Not only is this good for their health, but it also works on their fine motor skills and will aid them by strengthening muscles in their fingers and hands.

When developing fine motor skills through play, I often use playdough. Playdough can be used to make delicious cakes and to play “restaurant”. It can be used to make wriggly worms and to count how many there are. Or used to build a house or as mortar to fix a construction. Maybe it can be used as 3D art.

I use this recipe for playdough, why not try and make your own with your preschooler?

With these developed fine motor skills, a child will have more success when trying to do the zip up on their jacket, fastening the Velcro on their shoes or removing a sticker from the packet.

Gross motor skills

I love to teach using movement and anything that enhances and develops gross motor skills.

A great P.E activity is carrying a ball while walking on a balance beam, or even just a line on the floor. Not only does this aid and develop children’s gross motor skills – balance, strength – but it also gives them the confidence in their skills to do things for themselves.

After practicing, children can try and get their own bike out from the garage, they can carry their own school bag, they can help bring the shopping bags in!

Problem solving skills

This is a huge interest for me when I work with a new or different teacher. I always watch their reaction when a child makes a statement like “I can’t fasten my shoes”.

Sometimes, when a child makes a statement like this, the teacher immediately goes and fastens the child’s shoes. 

Let me ask you, what has the child learnt here? Did they learn how to ask for help, or to solve their own problem? Of course not, they learnt that this teacher is here to do things for them without even having to ask for it. What a great result, eh? 

Please do remember that I generally have classes for at least a couple of years. They are aware of all of my idiosyncrasies and I don’t expect children to meet these expectations straight off the bat.

What I would initially do in this situation is ask the child “and what can you do about that?”. I am still helping the child by facilitating this thought process and these problem-solving skills, but I am not doing it for them.

Not all children will get it straight away, so it is necessary to give clues or to use oneself as an example, acting out ways that you are trying to fasten your own shoes or asking for help, perhaps.

Teaching problem solving can be done at any age and any developmental level, and I like to do this with stories – something I learnt on a Montessori course incidentally.

I once had a class in which our “mascot” was a monkey. I would tell stories with scenarios where the monkey got into all kinds of difficult situations. It was the children’s task to come up with a solution to those different scenarios. Not only is this fun and really easy to do, but it is a lesson in a very important life skill: problem-solving.

Time for “school skills”?

Once these skills have been learnt, you may be surprised by your child’s willingness and interest in certain other “school skills”.

Learning independence often correlates with confidence in a child and, once confident, they will feel more comfortable trying new and more difficult things.

Following the acquisition of life skills, just observe your preschooler. I’m sure you’ll see that they take to holding a pencil, writing their name, or using scissors like a duck to water.

Are you trying to encourage independence in your preschooler? Have you done so in the past? Which activities did you use to encourage this independence? Looking forward to hearing from you!

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