Picture this. You are playing happily with your child, enjoying each other’s company. You look at the clock and realize you need to… (fill in your chore of choice here) so you tell your child “You keep playing. I’ll be back in a minute”. You have barely started into whatever task requires your attention (dinner, dishes, laundry, etc.) and you turn to find your kiddie still glued to your side; either pawing to get picked up or asking you to do something for them that requires your immediate attention. Then for the remainder of the evening you ping-pong back and forth between your child and all the other tasks you need to get done until you fall into bed.
Does this scenario sound familiar? Well, it happens to me EVERY SINGLE DAY! There are countless comic strips out there about the perils of trying to get things done with kids around (which can be maddening!), but what I’ve come to realize is that if you take a step back you begin to see that most of the tasks you are trying to accomplish can actually be very child-friendly if given a few tweaks. This is great because with child-friendly tasks kids can be included as “helpers” and in doing so a parent can achieve 3 important goals:
1) Give kids the attention they are seeking at that moment
2) Accomplish the task that needs to get done
3) Help develop a child’s vocabulary and language comprehension skills
It may seem so basic, and some of you may already be letting your kids help out every now and then. But if you can include your kiddies as “helpers” during basic activities of daily living, at least once a day for 10-15 minutes, you will be offering a major language boosting opportunity for them. Studies have shown that young children develop language in the back-and-forth interactions they have with adults during daily activities. Of course this includes when we play with our kids, but mostly it involves the language they are exposed to during the common, repetitious daily living activities we do all the time.
Most young children, from babies all the way to school-age, LOVE being included as a parent’s special helper so you should have no trouble finding volunteers. Here are a few tips to get your “helpers” started and find out why “helping” is my fave real-life language learning activity!
Age Appropriate Activity Choice
When you get started you will first have to decide what your kiddo will help with. Consider age, physical abilities and of course safety when making this choice. Remember, your kiddo is a “helper”. The goal is not to have them do a task alone, but to independently complete a small portion, or portions, of the overall task with you.
Here are a few ideas of “helping” activities I have done with my own children at different ages. Please decide for yourselves what you feel is right for your child.
- 6 mths – 18 mths: opening/closing cupboard doors, putting plastic bowls or wooden utensils in drawers, putting fruit or veg in/out of the fridge, putting clothes in/out of dryer, holding the dust pan, push chairs in, open/close the dishwasher door
- 18 mths – 2.5 yrs: putting place mats on the table, putting cutlery on the table, dusting low shelves, sweeping, putting groceries in the fridge, putting toys in the toy box, putting books on shelves
- 2.5 yrs – 4 yrs: making beds, folding clothes and putting in drawers, making dinner, unload safe items from dishwasher to counter, baking, gardening
- 5 yrs – 6 yrs: small home repair tasks, pour drinks for dinner, set the table, pack lunches for school, cleaning/washing the car, changing sheets on beds
Remember to explain to your child what their small portion contributes to the overall task (e.g., opening the cupboard so mommy can get her cup for coffee, putting broccoli in the pot so we can cook it for dinner, putting clothes in the washer to get them clean to wear, etc.) so they can see the value and purpose.
Appropriate Language Level
Now that you know what your child is going to “help” with it is time to think about how they will help.
When kids are “helping” we are offering an opportunity to develop comprehension skills. That is because the task is generally unfamiliar, requiring them to follow directions. This means they need to listen to the instruction given, process the language correctly, then execute the task accurately. As a child’s language abilities become stronger, they will be able to follow increasingly longer and more complex instructions.
In general, one year olds can follow one-step directions, 2 year olds can follow two-step directions and 3 year olds can follow 3-step directions. Children ages 4-6 should be able to follow more complex, multi-step instructions. You can use this as a guideline to help find the appropriate language level to use with your child when providing instructions to them about how they can “help” you.
Don’t forget, little “helpers” love getting praise when they have completed their job! A big high-five goes a long way 🙂
Model – Repeat
When including your kiddo as a “helper” you will likely first need to show them how to do their portion of the task by modeling the correct way. Especially if you are exposing them to new vocabulary or experiences. For example, you could be holding a young baby on your hip and saying “open the door” while you model opening the cupboard door. Or it could be more complex for older children, such as explaining where to hold the peeler, which direction to go in and why you don’t touch the peeling end, all while modeling how to peel a carrot.
Once you have provided your model and verbal instruction give your kiddo a chance to do the task independently. If they can do it right away, great! If not, model again. Repeat until they can do their “helping” task independently. If your child is still struggling to complete the task independently after 3-5 tries, consider that the language level you are using may be too complex for them or the task may be too challenging for them to complete physically.
Expanding Vocabulary With New Experiences
Helping is also a fantastic way to introduce kids to new vocabulary because they are motivated to participate and therefore you will likely have their full attention.
Here are two very easy ways expand a child’s vocabulary as they “help”:
- Expose kids to new and interesting “helping” experiences, which will inevitably hold new vocabulary for them. For example baking a cake for the first time or helping to build a doghouse.
- Select a new vocabulary word to draw your child’s attention to in an activity they are already familiar with and enjoy doing. For example, pointing out the “knob” on the cupboard door your toddler has opened 100 times, or showing them the “stem” on the apple as they put it away.
When it comes to vocabulary the more kids can use all 5 senses to learn the word, the better. Let them hear the word several times. Touch the object or do the action themselves. See, smell, or taste (if possible), to really appreciate the meaning.
Patience, Patience, Patience
Including little “helpers” is great for language development but it is not expedient. Your task will definitely take longer to get done. You will need to repeat yourself a lot, demonstrate several times and it is very likely that it will be a messy experience depending on what your are doing. All I can say is take a deep breathe (or two) and consider this: “helping” is a free, no-prep, easy way to develop your child’s language skills at home, and maybe get a little something done in the process. My favourite reason though; it gives you the chance to share some special moments with your kiddies while they are little and before they decide “helping” is no fun anymore!
For more ideas on how to include little “helpers”, or to share your own ideas, follow us on Twitter @TOTalkTogether.
Apel, K. & Masterson, J. Beyond Baby Talk. From Speaking To Spelling: A Guide to Language and Literacy Development for Parents and Caregivers. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2012.
Kopko, K. (n.d.) Research Sheds Light On How Babies Learn And Develop Langauge. Retreived online on September 9, 2016 at http://www.human.cornell.edu/hd/outreach-extension/upload/casasola.pdf