When I tell friends some of the systems I have in place to enable toddlers to be responsible little humans I’m nearly always met with a tone of surprise. I’m very passionate about enabling toddlers to conquer anything they are setting their mind to.
Toddlers naturally want to be little helpers. Toddlers love learning by observing and asking lots of questions. Toddlers stubbornly desire independence so long as you’re right there to hold them when they fail.
It would be silly not to encourage that helpfulness at as young an age as possible. If you’re lucky it’ll seamlessly transition into the helpful teenager who does their chores and cleans up after herself. Whenever I see Maisy looking to do something herself, I love trying to come up with a way to enable her to make that happen. Now…
How to set your house up to enable the independence your toddler so desires.
Create a drink station.
I keep a water bottle for each kid at the ready in a kitchen cabinet designated just for kid things (kid plates, utensils, cups, and kitchen play food). This way, instead of having to serve them any of the dozens of times they request water each day they can, and love to, go fetch it themselves.
Create a coat hanging station.
Something within reach so they can hang up coats, hats, and mittens all by themselves. Ours is set up with sweatshirts right now since it’s spring.
Store their clothes at their level.
One of my favorite things is that when my daughter was even less than 2 years old, she started dressing herself. She goes over to her dresser, picks out her clothes, and puts them on all by herself. Her style is eccentric and sometimes backwards, upside down or inside out but it is always adorable.
Create a shoe station.
We have a boot mat that we stash one pair of shoes for each of us on. The others go in the coat closet for rotating with the seasons as needed. With this set up, all the toddlers in my care can grab and put on their own footwear.
Set up the bathroom so they can go potty by themselves.
- Stool for the toilet, check.
- Tall, two-step stool for the sink, check.
- Automatic foam soap dispenser, check (side note: automatic is key because even a one year old can operate it, foam is key because it aids the scrubbing process and rinses off faster and more completely.)
- Hand towel just for kids, check (I recommend the Norwex Pet to Dry towels.)
Then all you need to do is teach them the steps. This is my potty time mantra: “Go potty, wipe, and wash your hands with soap.” If I don’t list off all these steps every time someone, intentionally or unintentionally, skips one of the steps.
- Go potty. With the stool in reach kiddos adjust it as needed so they can climb onto the toilet all by themselves.
- Wipe. Wiping they can do well on their own, I promise, all you have to do is give them a little lesson and let them watch you wipe. Show them how to help themselves to a small portion of toilet paper. I find it helpful to explain wiping like this: “If you don’t wipe well enough then you will get owies.” No kid wants owies. Learning by error is the best way your kid can learn. When they don’t wipe well, things get uncomfortable fast. If it worries you that they aren’t wiping well enough, try to restrain yourself from wiping for them. Instead, wait until you see they’ve reached an uncomfortable state from their lack of thorough wiping. That is good news for you! In that moment you have an opportunity to explain why their butt or crotch doesn’t feel good and how to fix it. Vwala! Light bulb for them! While Maisy was learning I would also use a wipe or two at the end of the day, or give her a bath, to clean her up well to avoid any infection.
- Wash your hands with soap. Teach them how not to waste water during the hand washing process by shutting the water off while they scrub their hands and turning it back on to rinse. I find the easiest way to teach is to guide their hands with yours (you know, kind of like romantic scenes in movies when a guy is teaching a girl to shoot a bow or a gun or something.)
Bottom line, the best way for kids to learn is by watching. We have an open door bathroom policy with toddlers so they can learn by watching and not feel trapped in the bathroom when it’s their turn.
Face washing solo.
Keep a Norwex washcloth somewhere to use for this purpose and make sure the kids know it’s only for face washing. Norwex is important because the microfiber cleans thoroughly with one swipe across the face and all the kids can use the same one because the interwoven silver kills all the germs. Super great for after meal times or if someone gets marker or dirt on his or her face.
Nose wiping solo.
All you have to do is teach them to grab a small portion of toilet paper and they learn the rest with a short lesson and watching you blow your nose. We use flannel wipes for diaper changes so I just send Maisy to the dry wipes drawer whenever she needs to blow her nose. I use them like hankies myself!
Keep a baby potty and wipes in your toddler’s room at night or nap time.
Again, we use flannel wipes to avoid waste and so that Maisy can just toss soiled wipes in her hamper. By having this set up we enable her to take care of potty needs during sleep times and avoid accidents. Some toddlers go potty before they fall asleep even though they went on the big potty before laying down for sleep. Other toddlers wake in the middle of a nap, pee quick, then lay back down and go back to sleep. And in the mornings toddlers can pee in this little potty first thing. This first morning pee option also allows us to sleep in a bit in the morning. Thanks to keeping a little potty in her room and our OK to Wake! clock we’ve been able to coach Maisy not to come out of her room to wake us until 6:30 – the little potty enables her to take care of her morning pee and the clock lights up to indicate to Maisy it’s time to come out and play.
Keep a kid broom and dust pan around.
Our toddlers love using the broom and the dust pan to play but they love it even more when they actually get to clean up with it! When they come in from outside and track in dirt they often go for the broom and dust pan unprompted. When they leave play dough droppings all around under the table, they are more than happy to take a broom to the mess.
Keep a kitchen hand towel within reach.
When a toddler spills, you’re doing them a big favor (and yourself) by enabling them to clean the mess up themselves. Teach them a little responsibility.
Keep chapstick handy.
After the dry, cold winter struck, so did the epidemic of cracked and bleeding lips. I was repeatedly lubing Maisy’s lips so, instead, I realized I could give her some chapstick of her very own (which she thought was awesome) to keep in her purse. After a little bit of coaching she’s stopped using it excessively.
Besides the obvious benefit of enabling your child to dig in and play by having the toys within easy reach and put together in a way to inspire creativity it also enables them to clean up by themselves. We have a lego bin, an art bin, a baby bin, an animals bin, a blocks bin, a dress up bin, and a miscellaneous bin. Any larger toys like our Noah’s ark set, the shapes sorter, or our little play house live on an open shelf all lined up. The largest of toys like push carts and riders all have their place too. If toys have a place, kids put them back in that place when prompted to clean up. This does take coaching of course but it’s so worth requiring them to clean up after themselves! Clean up songs help. Teach them one and, next thing you know, you say the words “clean up” and they are singing and cleaning all by themselves.
Create an art station.
Remember that art bin I just mentioned above? It’s awesome. I love when kids want to create! We have crayons, markers, homemade play dough, paints, and beads. By keeping things in plain sight I enable kids to want to art. Out of sight, out of mind right? When it comes to art I was in sight, in mind… or something like that. So we have the art bin but I also have art supplies set up on our dining room table (the only place kids are allowed to do art) and coloring books stacked in an easy to reach place. The rules are simple: keep all art tasks at the dining room table, ask for help to tear out the picture you want to color (we always tear them out otherwise the kids will make small marks on each page, thus using up the whole coloring book in one sitting), and clean up after yourself. We also have chalk walls with colored chalk to play with in the basement and an easel for markers, chalk, and painting that’s also worth noting.
Toddlers can clean up after themselves at meal time too.
Teach them where to dispose of any meal scraps (trash, give it to the dog, compost, save it for later in the fridge, etc), where to put their plates and silverware (dishwasher, counter, sink, etc), and to put their cup back in that drink station you have set up.