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Independent Dressing at 2.5 Years.

How we Montessori toddler self dressing at 2.5 years

Otto (2.5 yrs) has finally mastered self dressing! It helps that our weather is mild and he usually only wears a loose t-shirt and pants. Dressing has been a huge point of frustration for us so I want to share how we have got to this point.

Why do we want a toddler to dress themselves?

  • Out of respect for the child.
  • To support the child's independence and developing autonomy.
  • To help develop the child's sense of self and to develop self esteem.
  • To teach practical life skills including fine motor skills. 
  • Because they can, they are capable if we give them the opportunity and skills.
  • For the child to be able to exert their developing will.
  • We want the child to be as active participants in their self care as possible, from birth!

"As in every area of personal care, independence for the child is our ultimate goal. Independence in dress has many facets. We do not want this independence for the child in order to free adults from dressing her. Our primary aim is not even to get clothes on the child. Our purpose in teaching the child to dress herself involves her self-formation. It is how the child feels about herself after she is dressed that is of ultimate importance." - Montessori From The Start.

For a toddler to dress themselves independently a lot of things need to fall into place. Here are a few tips and things that I've learnt along the way of our independent dressing journey. Don't feel the pressure to have your toddler self dressing at a specific age, follow the child's lead. 

"If you take the time and effort to select your child's clothes carefully, show her how to dress herself, and allow her to practice, she is likely to get her clothes on and off by herself as early as fourteen months. She is well on her way to developing full independence in dress. However, there are two further aspects involved in making this newfound independence complete. She needs to make her own choice of what to wear and to take part in the care and storing of her clothes." - Montessori From The Start.

The clothing:

  • Loose, comfortable clothing - is EVERYTHING! I size up if I can especially with shirts/tops and know which brands that fit my child best and have room for the child, for example wide enough neck for tops to go on easily. I try and avoid slim fit style tops. 
  • Elastic waists - we generally stick to elastic waist pants without any buttons or closures.
  • Tops without buttons or closures - children do need to learn to do up buttons, I've found it best to start on outerwear or loose fitting cardigan (if not a dressing frame) with large loose buttons.
  • Comfortable clothing - clothing that feels good, natural fabric and clothing that the child wants to wear.
  • Slip on shoes or those with velcro closures. 
  • Pants, tops or dresses with an image or a tie or something at the front can help a child know which is the front of the shirt or pants. I personally like shirts without one image on the front and I find it easier when shirts look ok on the right way or back-to-front.
  • Make sure options are weather appropriate, our weather is very mild so this has not been an issue for us, checking the weather, opening a window before dressing may be a good idea.

The child:

  • There may be set-backs and regression in self dressing - this is typical and a part of the child's natural development.
  • The child, of any age, may like a lot of help or just a little, they might like to get dressed at the same time as you or their siblings or they may like this as one-on-one time. At 2.5 years my toddler likes to get dressed without anyone watching but I stay close and pop in to check in on him.
  • Start with what they can do and build their skills gradually.
    • Shirts/pull over top (and tunics/dresses) - a young toddler can pull their shirt down once it's over their head, they can push their arms through the arm hole (for long sleeves you can hold the sleeve out). For an older toddler you can pass the shirt to them with the head opening open and they can pull it over their head themselves and then wriggle their arms out.
    • Shorts & pants - to start you can put both feet in and ask the child to stand and pull the pants up, or for loose fitting shorts you can lie the shorts on the ground with the foot openings open and ask the child to step in and pull the pants up.
    • Socks - to start you can put the socks just onto the toes and have the child pull them up, later you can open the socks up and the child can put them on. 
    • Shoes - to start you can hold the opening of the shoe open and have the toddler step in and pull/close the closure. Later you can hold the shoe while they step into it.
  • If my child doesn't want to get dressed himself I don't worry, I dress him but still offer "can you push your arm through here?", "you can pull up your pants now". He has gone through stages when he just doesn't care for doing it himself. Although right now he will scream and throw the clothing if not allowed to do it himself. Once toddlers have mastered a skill they can be very assertive in using that skill!

How we Montessori Otto 2.5 years getting dressed independently_ Montessori toddler

The environment:

  • Regular uninterrupted time for dressing - my toddler prefers to get dressed alone, without the pressure of someone watching.
  • Make clothing easily accessible - in a toddler wardrobe, in baskets on the floor or in a neat stack on a chair. A toddler wardrobe is not a necessity, there are other ways to make their clothing accessible.
  • A low chair for dressing - some children will sit on the floor or perhaps the edge of their bed, but a low chair can assist when putting on pants, socks and shoes. 
  • Basket (hamper) for dirty clothes - not so much for dressing but for personal care (so we don't re-wear the dirty clothing) and to keep the space ordered. 
  • Provide a choice of clothing - this is important for developing autonomy, for some children an option of two choices is enough, at 2.5 years we generally have 4-5 tops (a combination of long sleeve and short sleeve) and pants available (some pants some shorts). But the exact numbers change depending on how many outfits my toddler has worn that day and when I've done the washing. These are the options that he has available and generally he likes to wear the same things over and over. He has many more clothes in his built in wardrobe (which we use for storage).
  • Include self dressing (and undressing) in your daily rhythm. This has been difficult for many of us recently as our rhythms has changed and we aren't going out often but if we can make it a regular, dependable time it will help to become a part of everyday life.
  • Children learn best from each other - my toddler copies everything his brothers do, it may help if siblings all dress at the same time, sometimes I find it helpful when my older children help my toddler with dressing/undressing too, it also helps him be more resourceful knowing he can go to siblings or to peers for assistance. 

The parent:

  • Observe and follow the child - as mentioned above there may be times when they want to do it themselves, follow their lead and only help as much as necessary. 
  • Be as patient and you can. 
  • If they are not asking for help wait and wait again before stepping in.
  • Allow time for the child to practice getting dressed - at a time you don't have to rush out the door.
  • Avoid the temptation to hover - if the child can get dressed themselves, give them some space.
  • Don't apply pressure - we want to maintain a sense of positivity around self dressing. 
  • Be consistent - as with all things Montessori, be consistent with your approach, consistent with your technique, consistent with your expectations, consistent with your language.
  • Know that we are in this together - we are not perfect parents and we all have struggles especially with toddlers, dressing a toddler has been one of my greatest frustrations but take it step by step and it will fall into place eventually!
  • Reach out for help - if self dressing becomes a struggle or point of conflict reach out to others for support, sometimes it's nice just to share with other parents, if you child goes to a Montessori community (or daycare) you can reach out to the guides (or carers) for assistance or tips.
  • Have realistic expectations - don't watch a toddler dressing online and expect your child to be able to do the same with a couple of tries. It take consistency, persistence and a whole lot of practice.
  • We can treat dressing a toddler as an opportunity to connect with our children, we can get on their level, be gentle and guide them through the dressing process. 

When I need to rush

  • Allow the child to do as much as possible and I try to stick to familiar clothing. It's best to practice the difficult steps or putting on new clothing at another time. 
  • Slow down as much as possible - often with toddlers they can take in what is going on better when working at a slower pace and we become more efficient, rushing may actually panic and frustrate the child. So slowing down may help us to get the child dressed and out the door faster than actually quickly forcing a child's clothes on.
  • Be gentle and talk to them if you are going dress them - just like dressing an infant we can tell the child what is going to happen "I'm going to put the top over your head now...".

My toddler at 2.5 years can dress completely independently but will get his t-shirts and pants often on the wrong way around. He usually asks if he has the right one before he puts on his shoes, he has pull on and velcro closure shoes. He does have some problems taking off long sleeve tops where we might need to hold the sleeve out while he pulls his arms out. The other problem we face is our toddler not wanting to wear clothes when he is at home. We are consistent though so when we go out he knows he must be fully dressed and with notice he rushes to make sure all of his clothes and shoes are on.

The problems he encounters are usually to do with clothing that is too tight and doesn't have the wriggle room to get it on or off. I never worry about him having his clothes on back-to-front. When my other children were older and had their clothes back-to-front I would say something like "I notice your shorts are on back to front, the pockets go at the back, do you want some help to change?". If they want help to change I would help them, if not I would let them go. Rarely does a toddler need to go somewhere where it matters if the clothing is on the right way. 

Please let me know if you have any good tips for encouraging toddler to self dress! 

Relevant reading:

Resources: Toddler Wardrobe (similar US here), Wooden Hangers, Me-Do-It Toddler Chair.

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