When Maria was getting ready to leave for preschool, she became frustrated as she tried to zip up her coat all by herself. “It’s too hard, Mom,” she whimpered. By the time they are three years old, most children can get pants with elastic waists on themselves and pull a sweater or shirt over their heads, but the fine motor skills involved in zipping, snapping, buttoning, and tying may be beyond many preschoolers.

All children of this age have so much to learn, and they can often become frustrated when their desire to do things for themselves outruns their abilities. It takes patience, too, for parents and caregivers to teach them all they need to know. Although children can learn about dressing partly by observing other family members as they put on their clothes, those who are blind or visually impaired and cannot watch other people dressing need explanations, practice, and more of a step-by-step approach.

Here are some suggestions that Maria’s mom—and you—might try to minimize both her daughter’s frustrations and her own.

Using Zippers, Snaps, and Buttons

  • Larger buttons, snaps, and zippers are easier for little fingers to grasp. When selecting clothing for your child, try to find clothing that only has a few buttons or snaps on them. That way she can practice fastening the buttons and snaps but won’t be too overwhelmed.
  • When it comes to teaching her how to put the two halves of the zipper together, she’ll need some hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand demonstration. You may need to work on this for several months before she is able to consistently line up the two parts of the zipper and get the zipper moving smoothly.
  • Attach a key ring or some other easy-to-grasp object to the zipper tab to make it easier for your child to pull it up and down.
  • Make sure to have your child practice dressing skills at times when it is a part of her natural, everyday routine, such as when she first gets dressed in the morning or puts on her jacket to go outside and ride her tricycle with her sisters or friends.
  • At the same time, finding some toys that let her practice the fine motor skills she needs to develop for dressing may be helpful, especially once she is motivated to learn. Dolls or action figures that have removable outfits may be fun to play with and, at the same time, give her opportunities for practice; although, if the fasteners on the outfits are small, she may not be able to do them herself. Some toys are made especially for practicing dressing skills, such as a doll whose jacket has several different kinds of fasteners such as a large button, snap, and bow.

Putting on Clothes

  • Help your child learn to find the top and bottom and front and back of articles of clothing and to tell if something is inside out or ready to put on. You can point out things on the clothing that provide a clue such as a tag at the back of the neck, the buttons on the front of a shirt, and the seams on the inside.
  • Focus on one item of clothing at a time, for example, a t-shirt. Once your child can consistently hold her shirts the right way to pull them over her head, then have her start checking her pants to see if they are facing the right way.
  • There are a lot of steps when it comes to dressing, so don’t expect your child to learn all of them at once. Separate the steps in your own mind and have your child first learn to do just one part of a task, such as putting on her pants. Begin by having her do only the last part of the task: pulling the pants up after you’ve already helped her put her feet through the legs of the pants. Once she has this step down, let her try the next step—putting her feet into the legs—and, finally, have her start by holding the pants facing the right way in order to step into them. If you work backward in this manner, she’ll get the reward of successfully completing the task—in this case, having put her pants on by herself—each time she tries.
  • Help your child take responsibility for finding and selecting her clothes. Create a system for identifying and organizing her clothes that you and your child find easy to use and show her where everything is kept in her drawers and closets. (See “Teaching Your Child Self-Care Skills” for more information on labeling and organizing clothes.) You might want to try buying shorts, pants, skirts, and t-shirts in colors that can all be mixed and matched interchangeably to make it simple for your child to pick any combination without clashing.

Looking Ahead to Shoelaces

Many children don’t learn to tie their shoes until they are in kindergarten or beyond. Your preschooler may not be ready for shoe tying, but if she expresses interest, you might find it easier to teach her using two loops. After tying the initial knot, make a loop with each end of the shoelaces, cross them over, and tie a simple knot.