We go to the grocery store and put our toddlers in a shopping cart. Then we hand them a smartphone or a lollipop. And one day, we expect them to know how to grocery shop.
When other adults ask kids questions in public, we often answer for them. Then one day we’ll wonder why their social skills are so low.
What if, instead of fighting battles, solving problems, and answering everything for our kids, we helped them find their own opportunities instead? I believe public spaces offer some great teachable moments, especially for young kids. Here are seven ways can get kids off screens and learning soft skills they’ll use for years to come.
1. Build confidence by learning to ask for help in public.
Does your child know what to do if they need help in public? Whether they’re an aisle away in the store or wandering the grounds at the county fair, this is a good teachable moment. Make sure your child knows how to seek out other adults for help.
Imagine yourself at the park or a public space with your little one. You might wonder aloud with your child about when the park closes. (It might even help you avoid a tantrum later on.) By talking with them through the potential ways to find the answer, it can help them discover the people or workers nearby who can help. Then if your child actually does become separated from you at the park, they will remember thinking through the process with you and will go and seek out that park ranger or another worker.
Teaching this life skill to explore and find the “helpers” in any scenario is a wonderful, transferable skill. Jim Taylor, Ph.D., wrote in Psychology Today that while you have to keep children safe when they are young, it also helps to encourage exploration.
“When your children have established their sense of security, you must then encourage them to explore the world beyond the safety net that you provide. This ‘push out of the nest’ allows your children to test their own capabilities in the ‘real world’ and to find a sense of competence, security, and independence within themselves.”
If a real problem happens, your child has the tools to handle it.
2. Learn organization and association skills when you navigate the grocery store.
We are used to containing and quieting young children in the grocery store. Or in this day and age, we just order or pick up groceries to avoid the scenario altogether. But this is such a good teachable moment, especially for young kids. They could be building their helper skills and confidence.
Toddlers can help scan Pinterest for fresh dinner ideas, participate in list-making, and locate items at the store. If you think you are sick of the same dinners, imagine how your biggest chicken nugget consumer feels.
It may help to establish the child’s role in the shopping process as an extremely essential one. After all, they matter to the nutrition and meal planning of the whole family now. Your child may take the job of choosing an unbruised apple or the perfectly ripe banana quite seriously if you give them the reins.
3. Improve communication skills by encouraging your child to find their voice.
We’ve taught our kids the “magic word” of please and how to greet someone and say goodbye. But we can do so much more. Help your child be independent in public spaces by encouraging them to communicate at the next level.
What comes after that “Hi, I’m Ella,”? Encourage your child to find their voice. They likely already have thoughts, opinions, and dialogue happening in their head, so encourage them to speak out.
I remember being at a museum and my 3-year-old just saying to the employee, “Whoa, you know a lot about dinosaurs." This was all she needed to say for the conversation to take off.
Another trick is to encourage questions. Don’t be embarrassed if the answers aren’t as politically correct as you would hope. If a child asks about disability, age, hair color, or other potentially taboo topics, don’t panic. You’d be surprised how willing strangers are to converse with children without offense. Plus, after a typical greeting, it’s always a pleasant shock to other adults when a young child asks them a question instead.
4. Encourage pride and ownership when you pick and pay for your own items.
From a young age, young kids can enjoy handling money, selecting their own items, and paying for them at the cash register. The benefits of this interaction can really enhance confidence in a child. What toddler doesn’t feel amazingly independent after completing their own adult transaction?
It may seem like an unnecessary and potentially time-wasting activity for the adult, but there are some great teachable moments. They include:
- Find the shortest line! There's math involved, people watching, and a reality check (because we all know the shortest line isn't always the fastest).
- Practice greeting the cashier.
- Count the money and receive the change.
- Put the stuff away at home.
If your child is shy, like many others, just take it a little bit at a time. Every child has a different comfort level, but you can help make it gradually more familiar and fun.
5. Build social skills when you talk to a public worker.
Getting to know your mail carrier isn’t just a great idea for adults, it also models sociable behavior for young children. A journalist-gone-postal-worker wrote this for Citylab, “When kids saw me driving around the corner, they’d drop their ballgame and race me down the sidewalk. Others were excited to see me because I was about to be a lucky customer at their lemonade stand.”
Developing positive relationships with so-called strangers teaches kids the value of community acquaintances. It also helps kids learn about community helpers, so kids know they have someone to go to when they have questions or need help.
Start by helping your child introduce him or herself to the postal worker and to receive the mail directly from them. Encourage your child to make something to leave for a delivery person, like a card or cookies, to teach them the joy of generosity, especially when it’s a surprise.
Later, this relationship can pave the way for asking community-related questions such as how to send mail using a stamp, why the driver is on the “wrong side of the car,” and other topics. Check out this public lesson plan as a resource for exploring this topic.
6. Encourage decision-making when you order your own food at a restaurant.
It’s such an easy, instinctive thing to order your child some food at a restaurant. But at quite a young age, they can do it themselves with a little coaching. Start with a high-interest item that they are motivated to get, like a cookie at a restaurant after a meal.
Even before your child can read a menu, they can conduct a conversation asking the waiter or waitress to explain what options are available (“What kids meals do you have please?”) and to select one.
Giving a young child time to learn this skill is important, as they may feel shy at first and not want to just start conversing with a stranger. Don’t feel you have to rush through this interaction, as most restaurant workers are more than willing to be patient with your young communicator in training.
7. Improve problem-solving skills when your kid needs something.
Are there other opportunities for you to step back and allow your kid to solve a problem or have a teachable moment in a public place? You’ve heard it before: “I'm so thirsty!"
Encourage them to figure out how to find a water fountain or a place for a drink. Are there signs to look for? Is there an adult to ask? By figuring out answers and solutions to small things early on, they’ll be equipped to handle bigger challenges in the future.