How to: empower your toddler for daily living

Fostering a love of learning is a gift we can all give our children. Early childhood advisor Kirsty Foster offers tips on how to empower our little ones with creative thinking and independence. 

Toddlers are inquisitive little people, bursting with energy, curiosity and a desire to be independent. Deny your toddler the opportunity to ‘do’ for themselves and you may inadvertently commence the Battle of Independence, with your toddler putting up a fight at every junction. On the other hand, if you embrace these toddler attributes and enable your little person to care for themselves, learn for themselves and do for themselves, you’ll be able to enjoy watching them discover the world around them as peace reigns across your household.

The transformation from baby to toddler is quite a phenomenon. One minute they’re a little bubba crawling around sweetly, and then all of a sudden, they’re up and walking, into everything and swiftly developing an extremely strong will – demanding that you meet their needs and wants with absolute urgency. As parents, we can be a bit taken aback by these rapid developments. Without knowing an alternative way of parenting, we bumble along the best that we can, continuing to do everything for our child, scrambling around to meet their every need. That’s what parents are supposed to do, right?

What if I told you that once your baby begins the transformation into toddlerhood, you also need to transform your parenting. Instead of the old parenting focus of “what does my baby need from me?”, switch your focus to “how can I support my child to do this for themselves?” This is what I call the empowerment approach.

The empowerment approach enables toddlers to care for themselves, learn for themselves and do for themselves. This results in children who are more confident, independent and are far happier, as they do not have to go into battle with you over every little thing.

This article will reveal what amazing things your toddler is capable of achieving independently and will outline how to prepare your home to enable and support your toddler’s learning, as well as their independence. 

More capable than you think
Parents are often surprised when I tell them what their little person can do. I’ve compiled the following lists to give you a better understanding of your toddler’s capabilities.

With the right modelling and support, one-year-old (walking) toddlers can:
⭐ Sit at a small table while eating (get chairs that have high sides).

⭐ Feed self, both with finger food and with a spoon or fork.

⭐ Brush own teeth and hair (teeth cleaning will require your follow-up brushing).

⭐ Wipe own face and hands with a face cloth when finished eating.

⭐ Choose clothes to wear (good idea to provide options to choose from to ensure they’re weather-appropriate).

⭐ Participate in nappy changing by getting the nappy and wipes themselves, and lifting up bottom when adult is wiping.

⭐ Choose a book to read, then return the book back to its box or shelf.

⭐ Use stairs independently (although you should always stand below your toddler, just in case).

⭐ Communicate needs and wants with baby sign language and/or words, for example, ‘more’, ‘food’, ‘drink’.

A two-year-old toddler is capable of the above, plus they can:
Use tongs to put food on a plate, then carry it to the table .

⭐ Eat completely independently.

⭐ Pour own drink (from very small pitcher).

⭐ Put plate and cup on the bench.

⭐ Wash hands and face with face cloth and place in the washing basket.

⭐ Wipe table down after eating.   

⭐ Sweep up their crumbs with the brush and shovel.

⭐ Wash own body in the bath.    

⭐ Get themselves dressed, including putting on socks, shoes and jacket.     

⭐ Participate in nappy changing by getting wipes and pull-up, pulling down pants, taking off dirty pull-up, bending over while bottom is wiped, putting clean pull-up on and putting pants back on.

⭐Get into carseat independently.

⭐ Carry own (light) backpack when out and about with drink, food, etc. 

If this shocks you, then you’re not alone. Most parents would not even consider allowing their toddler the opportunity to do many of these things. Of course, your toddler won’t be able to do it all overnight. You’ll need to break down each of the skills into small steps, and then encourage your child to watch you as you demonstrate each of these micro-skills in slow motion. Before long your child will have acquired these skills too. You will, of course, have to say “you do it” a lot, while they get used to the new parenting approach, and it may be a long process. You’ll also have to be very patient – especially when you are in a rush. If you allow your toddler the space and time (while trying your hardest not to take over from them), you will be amazed at the results. An empowered and independent toddler will not feel the need to enlist in the toddler army. They will be happy, confident and relaxed, knowing that you believe in their capabilities. 

Creating an environment that enables independence
Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that empowering your toddler is better than going in to battle with them. The first step to achieving this is to set up an environment that enables toddler independence. You’ll need to support your toddler to utilise this environment, but once they get the hang of it, you’ll be able to step back and observe their confidence and capabilities rapidly increase.

First things first – get down on the floor and have a look around. Imagine you’re a toddler and you’re keen to do things for yourself… What can’t you reach? Straight away you’ll spot things that you can adapt for your little learner. Here are a few additional pointers:

⭐ Get toddler-sized furniture that they can easily get onto and off (including a bed if you haven’t already made this transition).

⭐ Set up a snack station which provides independent access to healthy food and water (though always supervise your toddler whilst they are eating).

⭐ Supply steps up to sinks so they can wash their hands, brush their teeth etc.

⭐ Create an easy-to-reach self-care area with a toothbrush, hairbrush, tissues, mirror and face cloths.

⭐ Provide a box of books or a low-lying shelf to enable the independent enjoyment of reading.

⭐ Set up a ‘cleaning caddy’ for independent cleaning (with safe, toddler- sized cleaning equipment).

⭐ Arrange a system for clothing storage that is easy for toddlers to access.

⭐ Have low hooks for jackets, hats etc, so they can be put on independently.

⭐ Place stool by the front door for sitting on whilst putting shoes on.

Many of these ideas can be achieved with a quick look on Trade Me or a visit to Kmart. They won’t take you long to set up, but will make a huge difference to your toddler’s independence and sense of empowerment. 

Empowerment through independent learning
So far this article has explained how you can empower your toddler through supporting them to care for themselves, and do things for themselves. Next I’m going to explain how you can empower your toddler through enabling them to learn for themselves. I like to call this independent learning ‘discovery time’.

Ideally, discovery time will take place when your toddler is well-rested, hydrated, has a full tummy, and their emotional tank is full. Firstly I suggest creating little learners’ shelves – shelves holding learning materials your toddler can explore during discovery time. Cubby shelves, readily available from furniture stores like Target, work brilliantly, especially those with a single row of cubbies low to the ground.

Inside and on top of your shelves, feature a selection of learning materials that you rotate regularly. Demonstrate to your child how to use the materials (and return them back to the shelf) and then step back and leave them to explore and discover on their own. Setting up the little learners’ shelves doesn’t have to be expensive. You can make many of the materials yourself using a bit of creativity and items from around the home or an op shop, tailoring them to fit what your child is interested in. Always ensure your child’s safety and avoid any materials that could be a choking hazard or may contain chemicals. 

Suggested learning materials include:
Spatial awareness materials, eg building blocks, things with wheels, a selection of balls, simple puzzles, and a wooden spoon and balloon.

⭐ Object permanence materials (where children are learning that, just because you can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there) such as containers with things inside, tunnels and tubes for posting things in, scarves for hiding things under, and boxes with drawers.

⭐ Practical life materials, including anything that opens and closes (jars, boxes etc), tongs for transferring objects from one bowl to another, things for pouring and spooning rice into cups, and a brush and shovel to clean up the spilled rice.

⭐ Materials that develop hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor skills, such as posting ice block sticks into containers or hooping activities.

⭐ Sensory materials, such as heuristic play objects (real things – not toys – from around the home that are interesting to touch, feel or manipulate), things that make noises when you shake and bang them and natural materials such as shells, rocks, and driftwood.

⭐ Literacy materials, including books, letters, postcards, sandpaper letters for tracing, sandbox for letter writing, object and letter matching games, drawing and colouring activities.

⭐ Numeracy materials such as dice activities, sandpaper numbers for tracing, sandbox for writing and feeling numbers, and activities for matching quantities to numbers. 

Where once a toddler may have been considered vulnerable and in need of regular adult support, hopefully we can now think of all the wonderful opportunities we have for extending their capabilities, enabling their independence and empowering them for life. The empowerment approach to parenting will significantly reduce the battling that can dominate the toddler years, greatly enhancing your family’s toddler experience. Now go forth and empower!  

Kirsty Foster is an early childhood advisor, experienced teacher, and mum of three.  She provides practical parenting advice to families through parenting videos, coffee group talks and personal consulting.  Find her at


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