Dress for success in early childhood!
Some ideas and tips to help you scaffold your child’s experiences with developmentally appropriate clothing!
The following ideas are based on my observations of the activities, experiences and conversations of hundreds of preschool age children, in a wide variety of clothing. They are also based on my knowledge of principles of Montessori and Pikler.
Tip 1: Clothing should be functional for the context.
It can be tempting, with so many "cute" outfits available, to dress children more for aesthetics than functionality. This often leads to children wearing impractical clothing that looks great but gets in the way of their daily experiences. An easy, fundamental tip is to think about the context for those clothes, not just their appearance. We do this instinctively as adults - we have outfits we wear to work that are completely different to what we'd wear to a party or what we'd wear to the gym. We know we'd look completely insane if we turned up at yoga wearing a minidress and high heels...yet so often we send our children to preschool wearing what should be "dress up" clothes in a context where they will actually be more physically active than an adult in a yoga class!
Perfect for a wedding day... perfect for every day!
Dress your child in clothes that respect the context of play!
Tip 2: Clothing should allow freedom of movement.
A lot of children’s clothing accidentally restricts movement, even if it “fits” properly. This can happen in many ways - from a girl’s skirt getting in her way when she tries to climb over the climbing frame through to a pair of jeans being too tight to allow a child to cross his/her legs. For babies there are other considerations - for instance, some fabrics are too “slippery” and prevent a baby from crawling, standing or stepping safely along smooth surfaces.
Dress your child in clothes that promote movement!
Tip 3: Clothing should encourage engagement
The purpose of childhood is to engage in exploration and experimentation. You might wonder what clothes have to do with this, but the truth is that certain outfits discourage engagement because the adults feels protective of the clothing! This tends to happen if the clothes were expensive or if they are “special” outfits. There are certainly times and places where special outfits might be appropriate, but they are not ideal on a day-to-day basis. For “normal” days don’t dress your child in anything so fancy or expensive that you would prevent activity to preserve the outfit! If you don’t feel comfortable with the outfit getting messy, dirty, wet, painted etc then it’s not really an appropriate outfit for early childhood. Every now and again I get a child at pre-school (usually girls, though boys have done it too) who announce that they “can’t” paint, or go in the sandpit, or play with the water trough or do some baking because “I can’t get messy”. Sometimes the child will elaborate by explaining “mummy/daddy says I can’t get my clothes dirty” but often the child has already internalised the anxiety enough to present it as their own concern rather than being able to identify that it is something they’ve absorbed from mum/dad.
Dress your child in clothes that welcome the splashes and smudges of childhood!
Tip 4: Clothing should counteract the weather
One of the most striking sentences I’ve ever heard at a Montessori conference is “There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes” I’m often surprised by how precious we can be about weather. It starts to drizzle and we run inside, despite the fact that most of us enjoy the luxurious sensation of a shower. It starts getting warm outside and we rush in to crank up the air conditioner - even making it so cold inside that we’d turn on the heater if that was the ambient temperature rather than our artificial one! Children deserve to view natural weather patterns as safe and enjoyable. They deserve to feel the beauty of a gentle summer rain, to cavort in the sun and create in the snow (if you’re lucky enough to get it where you live, or be able to travel to find it!). Clothes are our ally in making all types of weather “good”. If it’s cold outside, dress your child in lots of layers all the way up to a thick jacket. If it’s raining then provide a waterproof outer layer.
Dress your child in clothes that balance out the weather rather than avoiding the weather altogether!
Tip 5: Clothing should respect the sense of touch
Children arrive in the world with a set of tools for exploration; the senses. Your child uses these senses to absorb information and experiences. The sensory input that a child receives helps to form his or her understanding of the world around them. Perhaps the most active tool in the first years is the sense of touch. So it makes sense to offer as much positive and pleasurable input as possible! When you choose clothing for your child take a moment to feel it, not just look at it. Feel the texture of the fabric, run your hand along the inside to check if there are any ‘scratchy’ elements or rough stitching. Find clothing that feels beautiful without being distracting. This will help your child to feel good physically but also emotionally, as many children are frustrated or upset by uncomfortable fabrics but lack the ability to articulate what is bothering them. I’ve had many occasions where a mysteriously miserable toddler suddenly turns into a bundle of joy after we change their clothing!
Dress your child in clothes that feel beautiful.
Tip 6: Clothing should minimise distraction
Your child has a lot to take in. They are brand new arrivals on a fascinating planet filled with wonders and marvels. Adults don’t have to do much to “inspire” a child’s curiosity, because they are innately eager to explore and the world is naturally amazing, but we are responsible for removing obstacles that might hinder a child’s discoveries. This includes clothing! Your child’s clothing shouldn’t distract him or her from exploring the world. Unfortunately some clothing does present a distraction. This can be through tactile input - a scratchy tag that keeps bothering the sensitive skin on the back of a child’s neck. It could also be through the other senses - like a bracelet that keeps jingling. Sometimes it’s simply because there are so many removable elements of the outfit - scarves, hair clips, beanies, belts, headbands etc - and a child is distracted by the constant stress of trying to keep track of them (and the anxiety when pieces inevitably get misplaced).
Dress your child in clothes that don’t distract from the work of discovery!
Here are few age-specific tips:
Allow bare feet. Many ‘onesies’ and other baby clothing covers the feet. This can be cute, and might seem cosy, but a baby’s feet and toes are quite sensitive. The baby can use his or her feet to take in sensory input but the toes and soles are also used in the development of balance and movement.
Covered feet might not ‘feel’ the solid connection to the floor as easily and smooth fabric on the feet might cause a hub to slip instead of grip when she tries to craw, stand or step.
Make dressing a partnership. When you help your baby to get dressed try to remember that you are partnering with a human, not playing with a doll.
Make sure that your interactions make it clear that you are doing this with your baby, not to your baby. Use your voice to explain each step of the process before it happens - this helps your baby start to participate actively in the process as well as helping to promote language development. For instance, you might say “we need to put your shirt on next. Hold out your arm and I’ll help put your sleeve on.” Say this slowly and pause to let your child absorb your words and react. You’ll be surprised by how engaged even the youngest babies can be in this process!
Liberate skin! The largest organ in the human body is our skin. Every inch of it is covered in nerve endings and receptors that take in information. Sadly, most of those inches are also covered in clothing every day!
Accessorise in moderation (and in context). Accessories (as explained above) can cause distraction to children and this is particularly true for babies. A baby who is left with a bib around his/her neck all day will likely find that it dangles in front of their eyes each time they bend forward towards something. This can distract their attention from that original goal. Similarly, hair accessories on baby girls might be useful for announcing gender but they can also be distracting for the wearer and her peers.
The baby girl herself might constantly be clutching at it, trying to pull it off (or pull it into her mouth!). I have seen quite a few instances of baby girls and their mothers locked in a silent battle over headbands, with the girl pulling it off or askew and the mother replacing it…only for the baby to move it and the mum to replace it…and so on! Even worse is that a headband can be a very appealing distraction for other babies! If a baby girl is attending a social setting - such as a playgroup or childcare - then headbands can actually become dangerous as other babies might (quite innocently) be enticed to reach out and grab it. This can cause distress for the wearer at best and physical injury at worst (as the grabbing baby’s lack of coordination might mean a fingernail ends up in an eye before the headband is actually caught).
Start to offer choices. Toddlers love having the opportunity to show that they are capable, autonomous individuals. They are starting to become liberated from the shackles of dependency and oh boy do they like to assert that newfound freedom. This is one of the most amazing, wonderful and admirable elements of ‘toddlerhood’ but it is also a source of conflict between adults and children if the child has to look for their own ways to demand independence. An adult can offer productive, meaningful and helpful ways for a toddler to express his/her voice. When it comes to clothing this means offering limited choices within limits. Two options are ideal for a two year old - “this one or that one?” - and the adult should preselect those items so that both are equally appropriate. At this stage it is ideal for a parent to place two outfits out - on the bed or hung in a toddler sized wardrobe - so that the toddler can choose between them.
Promote independence. A toddler will be starting to demand independence but the physical development doesn’t always keep up with that social impulse. To scaffold a toddler’s attempts at being “big” (eg. “I do it, I’m a big girl”) try to provide clothing that matches their level of motor coordination. A loose jacket with a couple of big buttons at the front gives a toddler a better chance at independent success than a tight jacket with ten tiny buttons.
Submit to the senses. A toddler is just starting to be able to understand and voice a lot of the sensory input they are experiencing and that is an exciting revelation for them! Where a baby might have cried because of a scratchy hat, now a toddler realises he/she can just rip it off, shout “NO!” and run away from it (while mum/dad/teacher chases behind!). The toddler’s senses are strong, and getting sharper with every day, and they are now more connected to the mind - and mouth - than before. So we need to respect this influence when choosing clothing options. If a toddler always rips his/her hat off then it may be fruitless to just repeatedly insist that it is worn, because the hat might genuinely be causing sensory input that is distressing or distracting. This can be solved proactively - by having toddlers go shopping with you and trying things on in the store - and retrospectively - by trying a few choices until one is found that suits the senses.
Self-sustaining shoes. This is another area where independence can blossom, both in terms of choice and management. A parent can offer a child the choice between two pairs of (appropriate!) shoes - “The red sandals or the green ones today?” Ideally these shoes should be fasted in a way that the toddler can manage independently, such as velcro straps. Furthermore, the shoes should respect the toddler’s activity level. Toddlers are busy and fast - and sometimes their intent moves faster than their coordination can manage. It is therefore vital that a toddler’s footwear is supportive and stable. A pair of Crocs or thongs do not offer much support and can slip off very easily right in the middle of a run/climb/jump, whereas sneakers or strapped sandals protect the foot while promoting movement.
Expanding choices. Preschoolers can handle more options in their choices and more steps in their instructions. At this age a child can go to a wardrobe and choose between a few options in multiple stages - “Please go pick a shirt, some pants, some underpants and some socks”. The adult still needs to be the architect of these choices behind the scenes - for instance swapping clothing choices according to the weather so that on a warm day there are only t-shirts, shorts and thin socks available in the child’s range of choices. I recommend having a small wardrobe for a toddler or preschooler to access independently and periodically (perhaps weekly) filling it with appropriate choices. The majority of the child’s clothes can be stored elsewhere, such as a regular sized wardrobe, but the small wardrobe is the ‘independent choice’ area. Freedom within limits!
Increasing independence. Preschool children are developing increasingly refined motor coordination, so it is time to start providing challenges in the way that clothing fastens! It is time for ‘trickier’ options such as smaller buttons, buckles on pants and tighter clothing. Provide demonstrations (with exaggeratedly slow movements) to show your child how each fastener works and allow plenty of time for him/her to master the art!
Fancier footwear. Again we can embrace the increased coordination of preschoolers by starting to offer shoes with buckles and laces. Yes these fasteners are challenging, but they are also possible. Most preschool age children are absolutely capable of tying their shoes if they have enough time and support to learn the movements involved.
Clothing during the toilet-learning period:
When your child is in the midst of learning how to use the toilet there are a few clothing tips that might minimise obstacles…
Keep it loose: Loose clothing is easier to get off quickly when a child suddenly realises he/she needs the toilet. Track pants with an elasticated waist can be pulled down in a matter of seconds, whereas a pair of tight jeans or leggings take more negotiating (and often end up wet before they are removed).
Keep it short: When it comes to t-shirts, dresses or skirts it is easier for a child to manage with shorter lengths. In relation to shirts this is because a long shirt can sometimes hang so low that the front covers the penis when a boy stands at a toilet or the back accidentally tucks under the bottom when a boy/girl sits down to urinate. In either case the bottom of the shirt ends up wet and the child can feel discouraged. This is similar for dresses and skirts for girls; if the skirt is particularly long then it’s tricky for a little girl to ‘hike’ it up enough to keep it out of the way. This reduces the independence that she can exercise when getting ready to sit on the toilet.
Keep it off: If you’re at home, or in a safe environment with close friends or family, then why not let your child boycott pants (or all clothes!) entirely! This prevents the first two hassles mentioned above as well as giving your child a lovely sensory experience. It also reduces the hassle of having to clean piles of ‘wet’ clothes if your child has accidents* along the way.
*Please note: A thick pair of underpants is usually enough to catch the first few ‘drips’ if the flow starts before the toilet is reached (or to ‘catch’ anything that slips out the back!) so your floors should be relatively safe (but you know your child’s body and you know your flooring - so if your child is prone to loose bowel motions and your carpet is expensive then maybe the pants-free option isn’t for you!)