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Teaching children crucial life skills

Toddler eating food with fork and spoon
Credit: iStock.com/yaoinlove

A family comes into a waterfront restaurant. They’re seated but before the menu is perused or the view is appreciated, the children are given iPads.

Nicola Yelland, a Professor of Early Childhood Studies at University of Melbourne, calls this approach ‘default technology’. She is a big technology advocate but doesn’t believe it has a place at the table.

Learning the art of conversation

If children are distracted by devices, it’s a missed opportunity to teach them some crucial life skills, says Dr Yelland.

The best place to start is considering what adults do in a restaurant: they have pleasant conversation.

“Children can learn restaurant discourse from a very young age like the types of behavior you practice there and the art of reciprocal conversation,” says Dr Yelland.

“You can talk about the car journey there, which is in the past, and the holiday you’re going on, which is in the future, and help them to understand time.”

You can teach them to not talk with their mouth full and about menus and waiters.

“You ask them ‘what does a waiter do?’ You say ‘sometimes it’s a boy sometimes it’s a girl, sometimes they’re old or young’.”

Perhaps because it’s so obvious, parents may miss opportunities to tease out life skills from everyday life. Yet Dr Yelland believes this parenting habit is more effective than educational toys – and it’s also free.

“If you're stopped at a traffic light you can observe and describe things together,” says she says.

“Toys are only educational if you actually interact and put some work in with a child.”

A parent's role to model, encourage and talk

She defines life skills as the ‘Cs’: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication and citizenship. She also adds empathy, ethics and everyday skills.

“An everyday skill is something like making a cup of tea or buttering a piece of toast, which relies on sound motor skills,” says Dr Yelland.

By five years old a child should have experience with all of these. But before you get intimidated by the task, remember the majority of your role is to model, encourage and talk. Talk a lot.

“Modelling relies on children absorbing by osmosis,” says Dr Yelland. “It’s effective but talking makes things explicit and raises children’s level of awareness.”

For example, while it’s recommended parents help with a life skill such as teeth brushing until a child is eight-years-old it will be more effective if a parent also talks about why twice-a-day brushing is important.

What children see in their daily lives has a huge impact. If a parent doesn’t model empathy and kindness a child will think it’s acceptable behaviour and they’ll mimic it.
Dr Nicola Yelland

It’s never too early to start talking to your child. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “Talking with an infant is a wonderful way to build attention, working memory and self-control.”

The Center recommends following your infant’s attention and naming aloud the things they’re looking at. They’ll be likely to look a little longer if you do, making it good practice in focusing and sustaining attention.

“It’s almost like you’re narrating life,” says Dr Yelland. “Which might sound like a lot of talking but it’s not; it’s just part of parenting a small child.”

Between 18-36 months, the Harvard Center recommends narrating toddlers’ play, which helps them learn how to describe their actions. Which in turn helps them learn how to describe their feelings.

If there’s been a tantrum or your child has lashed out and hit you, calm them down and then have a conversation. Say ‘use your words instead of getting angry’,” says Dr Yelland.

Suggesting your child speak instead of expressing their frustration physically is why it’s so important, she says, that you talk a lot to them. “Because for young children it’s so easy not to use words.”

Talking about feelings encourages the life skill of empathy too. “Young children can really struggle with empathy for others,” says Dr Yelland.

“It’s hard enough for adults to take other people's perspective, let alone a two-year-old!

“But what children see in their daily lives has a huge impact. If a parent doesn’t model empathy and kindness a child will think it’s acceptable behaviour and they’ll mimic it.”

With physical tasks, be patient when a child doesn’t get it right and keep setting the task. Accept that “there’s a 50/50 chance a child will put their shoes on the wrong feet,” says Dr Yelland.

Setting toddlers physical challenges is important for their development of specific skills, says the Harvard Center. Such challenges require toddlers to focus and sustain their attention on a goal, inhibit unnecessary actions and try things differently if a first attempt fails.

Make chores like putting toys away fun, says Dr Yelland. “Look at it as a collaboration, like ‘let’s be helpers’ and appeal to their better nature.”


[1] Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. 

​Executive function activities 

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University believes executive function underlies the ability to plan ahead, meet goals, display self-control, stay focused and follow multiple-step instructions even when interrupted.

While no-one is born with executive function – everyone can learn. The centre recommends the following activities to help2.

6- to 18-month-olds

  • Lap games such as peekaboo or rhymes that end with a stimulating yet expected surprise such as This is the Way the Farmer Rides.
  • Hiding games – your face, an object, an older sibling.
  • Imitation games based on cooking, sweeping, picking up toys or dusting.

18- to 36-month-olds

  • Active games or physical challenges.
  • Songs with hand gestures to match such as musical statues or The Hokey Pokey or Head Shoulders Knees and Toes.
  • Simple matching and sorting games by shape, color, size.
  • Any kind of imaginary play they enjoy - follow their lead.

3- to 5-year-olds

  • High-level imaginary play accompanied by things like prop making and play planning.
  • Story telling. Swap roles so children tell you the story or act them out.
  • Movement challenges with climbing structures, balance beams, seesaws, skipping or balancing.
  • Songs that repeat and add on to earlier sections such as She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain.
  • Quiet games such as puzzles and more complex matching and sorting activities.

2 Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence.