Getting Dressed at 3 Years Old

Independence.  It’s one of the cornerstones or Montessori.  And letting your child be involved in getting dressed each day is one of the simplest ways to foster independence in the home.  Even babies can help choose their outfit for the day when given a choice between two pre-selected options.  And it’s fascinating to see preferences emerge in children so young.  (And, as a side note, it can also be informative as to which clothing your child finds comfortable and which gets passed over routinely.  It’s how I discovered some of N’s clothing restricted leg movement.  She would only choose it if everything else was in the laundry.)

We began involving N in the dressing routine a year ago.  Below is a (very dark and poor quality) photo of N’s attempt at independent dressing a few months after we began.  Despite having two legs in one hole and an arm out the neck hole of her tank top, she’s quite pleased.  I sincerely wish we had started much, much earlier.  But, alas, what you don’t know, you don’t know.  Full disclosure: We actually began, not because of a desire for her to exercise independence, but because of toilet learning.  We wanted her to be able to push down her shorts and underwear when the time came.  At the time, we didn’t understand the importance nor process of independence in children.  As our understanding grew and developed, we implemented small changes accordingly.  Now, a year later, N can get dressed almost independently.  We’ve learned quite a few little things along the way that helped to make the process less frustrating for N.  Some were through trial and error.  Other tips we found through great blog posts.  You can read some great tips here and here.  Our setup is far from ideal, but we found ways to work with what we had.  Here’s how dressing at 3 years old looked in our home this morning.

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N chooses her underwear and hands them to me.  At this point, I still gather one leg hole and the waist together for her so that she gets started correctly.  She uses a small dressing chair that I picked up at a consignment sale to sit in while she put on her underwear and pants or shorts.  In the beginning, we used a small stool that my husband had made until I found the chair.  Really, anything that your child can remain seated on with their feet firmly on the floor will work.

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Then she chooses her next item of clothing.  Often she wants to choose her socks next, but this morning it was her shirt.  N has access to the bottom three drawers of the dresser as well as a small closet for jackets and dresses (not pictured).  Out-of-season clothing and sheets for the bed are stored in the top two drawers.  She is able to handle having all of her in-season clothing to choose from at this age, especially since we keep her clothing to a minimum.  She has approximately 4 long-sleeved shirts, three tank tops, three t-shirts, 5 jeans/pants, 5 shorts, two jackets, and three dresses.  All of this is available at the moment since we are having irregular early-summer weather.  We simply discuss how warm or cold it is supposed to be for the day, enabling her to choose accordingly.  For younger children, you may want to just set out two outfits for them to choose from, or three tops and three bottoms for them to mix and match at will.

I do gather her shirt into a loop for her, though I can tell that she is nearly ready to begin attempting to do the whole process herself.  We’ve found that it’s best to provide clothing for N that is somewhat loose or has a generous amount of give (but isn’t too spandex-y) to make her attempts at dressing and undressing more successful.  Large neck holes are important for us, as well as looseness in the armpit area.


  Socks were next this morning.  This was the part of dressing that took the longest for N to be capable of.  It took a lot of trial and error for us to find what worked for her.  We tried having her put them on in the dressing chair, but found (due to her challenges related to strength and balance) that bringing her foot up that high while she tried to focus on opening the sock and inserting her foot was too much all at once.  So we moved to the floor.  We also had to figure out the best way for her to get the sock open wide enough for her foot.  While she now does what I would call the typical “thumbs-in-fingers-out pinch” to open the sock, at first that was pretty difficult for her.  We discovered that if we helped her to turn her hands outward so that her four fingers on each hand were inside the sock and pushing it open, that worked to get the sock open wide enough.  As she practiced each day, she didn’t need the extra-wide hole to aim her foot at, and she discovered how to coordinate foot movements with hand movements to be successful.  This took a long, long, l.o.n.g. time.  She needed plenty of time to practice.  At this point, putting the socks on is the easy part, and I’ve noticed she is working at keeping them straight so that the heel doesn’t end up on top.

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Next were the shorts.  I no longer hand them to her, but give a gentle reminder to put her hands on both sides of the button or bow.  She sometimes struggles to get everything centered and ends up with both legs in one hole, but that’s part of the process.  She just comments on the situation, takes them back off and tries again.  Over time, I’ve discovered that leggings are not the best idea for N as they are too stretchy and she just gets stuck, tangled up, or things end up inside out when she tries to readjust.  We also prefer that bottoms do have a bow or a button to serve as an indicator for the front, but try to find buttons that are not-functioning as N is not ready to button her own pants yet.


And sometimes she is still distracted by something during the dressing process.  This morning, her own belly button was the distraction.  We allow for these distractions as part of the process.  Often the distractions have to do with her own body parts, which provide fantastic opportunities to discuss function and proper terminology naturally and without shame.


After seeing the progress of one year, I’m excited to watch her independence in this area unfold over the next year.  I anticipate button and zipper closures will be something she’s interested in mastering, but look forward to following her lead!


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