Check out this occupational therapist’s secret to helping kids learn to put on shoes independently.
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There are a handful of developmental concerns that parents and teachers come to me about time and time again. Some of the most common? Potty training, picky eating, handwriting, and hand strength.
Another huge one is dressing skills – specifically, we hear from a lot of parents asking how to teach their kids to put shoes on independently.
This can be a frustrating skill for kids to learn because there are actually a few different skill areas involved. And we know that when kids get frustrated with dressing skills, getting out the door for school or work or other activities can be extremely challenging.
What Age Should a Child Put Their Own Shoes On?
Kids should begin to try to put on simple slip-on shoes around 3 years of age. They should be independent with this skill by about 4 years of age. It is important to note that all kids develop at their own pace and some may become independent with this skill earlier or later than most other kids. It is also important to note that there are many different types of shoes out there and that the type, style, and fit of the shoe can significantly impact kids’ independence with this skill.
When Kids Can’t Put On Shoes Independently
We might see things like:
-Kids sit on the floor to put their shoe on and their foot keeps slipping from their hands, falling to the floor.
-Kids reach for their foot and then roll backwards to the floor (I call this one the “turtle on his back”).
-Kids tie a knot in their laces and then just jam their foot into their shoe each time they want to put it on or use one foot to step on the back of the shoe to take it off rather than using their hands.
Often, these kids will get referred to occupational therapists like me, because people assume that they’re having difficulty with the fine motor skills involved in putting on and tying their shoes.
But here’s the thing…
Most often when I see these kids who are struggling with putting on, taking off, or tying shoes, putting on or taking off socks, or other dressing tasks, I notice that fine motor skills are actually the secondary issue (or maybe not even an issue at all).
Why Kids Can’t Put On Shoes Independently
So what’s really going on? Three words…Core muscle weakness.
As therapists, when we see kids struggling with a fine motor task, we trace backward through the chain of movements to the foundation of where the movement is coming from. And then we work from that foundation as our starting point for problem solving and treatment. The basic idea is that kids need proximal stability in order to achieve distal mobility.
So picture a kid sitting on the floor, putting his shoes on.
What’s the foundation of that action? It’s the child being able to remain stable enough in his core to allow for the action of using his hands to pull the shoe onto his foot. Those actions – bringing the foot close enough to the body, bringing the hands close enough to the foot, and then using quite a bit of force to pull the shoe onto the foot -all require a HUGE amount of core action.
Try it. Sit in your chair or on the floor, lift one foot, and reach your hands for that foot. Feel it? That’s core strength!
Core strength for kids is a big area of focus for us here at The Inspired Treehouse because we know how important those core muscles are for healthy development and independence. Want to learn more? Be sure to check out our Core Strengthening Handbook and our Core Strengthening Exercise Program!
So now what?
So now we know the root of the problem, but what the heck do we do about it?
We’ve got some really fun ideas that can help kids work on developing the core strength they need to put on shoes and to complete other dressing tasks. All of these ideas target core strength, but they really specifically target the positioning and movements related to putting on and tying shoes, which seem to be so challenging for so many kids.
1 || Pop Toob Loop
Attach the ends of a couple of Pop Toobs to form a circle. Have kids practice putting the loop around their feet and then pulling it up to their knees. Then have them take it off. Repeat!
2 || Theraband Loops
Tie loops in short pieces of theraband (they should fit snugly over the child’s ankles). Have the child practice putting them on and taking them off by pulling them over her feet.
3 || Slippers
Practicing with slippers is a fun way to work on developing the strength needed to put on and take off shoes. They’re usually a bit easier to get on and off and choosing a pair that the child likes (favorite animal or TV character) can increase interest and engagement.
4 || Body Sock
A Body Sock is an awesome sensory tool for providing all-over proprioceptive and tactile input. You can find our best ideas for how to use a body sock here. But it’s also a great way to practice dressing skills. See if kids can get themselves inside the stretchy sack – feet too! They’ll have to use those core muscles to stabilize themselves as they pull their legs and arms inside!
5 || Dress-up Clothing
This is another really motivating way to provide practice with dressing skills. Try fancy socks, grownup shoes, larger sized dress-up pants. All of these are great ways to work on core stability as the child pulls them onto and off of their feet/legs.
6 || Colorful Tape or Stickers
Using colorful tape and stickers is a fun way to help kids practice reaching for different parts of their bodies. You can place stickers or tape on the child’s feet and see if he can reach down to grab one off. I’ve found that this is super helpful for kids with tactile hypersensitivities who are more cautious about practicing with clothing during therapy sessions.
7 || Streamers
Place a streamer or small piece of fabric inside the elastic of the child’s sock or just tuck it into the top of her shoe. See if she can reach for it and grab it out on her own! This is an awesome starter activity for kids who are really struggling with reaching their feet and legs for lower body dressing, or for kids who are reluctant to face that challenge.
8 || Painting With Feet!
There are tons of cute footprint crafts out there, but it seems like we always paint kids’ feet for them! Why not let them participate in that action and paint their feet themselves to complete the craft? It’s the exact same strength-building movement they need to be able to put on shoes and socks.
9 || Tactile Bins
Try Feet in the Sand, Underwater Pearls, or any other tactile bin idea. Just use feet instead of hands! Challenge kids to pick up objects from the bin with their toes to bring them to their hands.
The great thing about all of these fun activities is that they translate into establishing a strong core foundation for all dressing tasks including bending to pull up pants and underwear, putting on socks, and even remaining stable for what might be the most challenging dressing task of all time – tying shoes.
Immediate Solutions for Putting on Shoes
One important thing to note is that it takes time to build core strength, so while we may be working on these things with kids in therapy and in the classroom and we have parents who are working on the same skills and activities, we also need to be equipped with a backup plan.
So when I see kids who need an immediate answer for how they can put their shoes and socks on more independently here’s what I tell teachers and parents:
1 || The easiest solution…
Give the kiddo something to lean his back against while he puts on his shoes and socks. You’ll be amazed at the difference you’ll see for a lot of kids simply by letting them lean up against a wall when they sit on the floor to put on and take off shoes and socks.
2 || Use your body
For younger kids or kids who need even more support (or when there isn’t good empty wall space nearby) – use your own body. Sit on the floor and let them lean up against you while they put on shoes. Or if they really need even more support, sit on the floor and put them right in your lap and work from there.
3 || Try some tools
A little more involved solution is to teach kids to use extended sock helpers and/or long handled shoe horns. In my experience, this can be a pretty tricky skill for kids from a coordination standpoint, but I have seen it work.
We also have a DIY sock helper that I made and used with my own son when he was struggling with learning how to put his socks on independently.
There are lots of creative ideas and activities that can help build the skills kids need to be able to put on shoes independently. Most importantly, core strength! These are some of the tools we can use:
- Pop Toobs
- Body Sock
- Dress-up Clothing
- Tape & Stickers
- Sensory Bins
Looking for more resources?
Check out this link if you’re looking for more information on teaching kids how to dress themselves.
And be sure to check out this link if you know kids who are struggling with clothing fasteners!
Working with kids who wear orthotics? Learn how to choose the best shoes for orthotics.
Don’t miss our Core Strengthening Handbook and our Core Strengthening Exercise Program!
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