12 Life Skills for Toddlers: What to Teach Them While They’re Young

Life skills for toddlersAs a mom of two young toddlers, I often wonder what I should teach them next.

Do you know that feeling?

Toddlers seem to learn so fast and with such an ease, that sometimes I feel as if I was not providing enough stimulation for them.

But as much as some people suggest to teach academic skills to toddlers or even babies, I simply can’t wrap my head around it.

With my love and appreciation of an innocent carefree childhood, I would like to give my boys a chance to simply be kids.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t teach them anything at all!

For this reason, I came up with a list of life skills for toddlers to introduce at an early age. These skills can serve them here and now and are absolutely age and development appropriate.

At 18 months, our boys haven’t mastered all of them yet. But we are hopefully well on our way. I hope that by the time they enter pre-school, they will be ready to take on more challenging and advanced skills.


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Life skills for toddlers

A list of life skills for toddlers

1. Wash their hands

Life skills for toddlersIt is a good idea to establish a good hand-washing routine before meals and every time we return home from playing outside or an outing.

Now, this is much easier done in a daycare setting. I know, because I used to work at one. At home, we are not equipped with sinks at children’s level, so we need to help them out.

I usually place my boys (one at a time) on our sink counter, help them get their hands wet, make soap bubbles and rinse. We’ve been doing this for months now, basically since they started walking. Therefore by now they are already familiar with the routine and run to the bathroom as soon as we get back home.

2. Clean up their messes

Life skills for toddlersThe house can get so messy with kids around! When I was pregnant I would make myself a promise to never let the house get flooded with toys and kids’ stuff. Well, guess how is it going now? Lol

And even though we do keep our boys’ toy library quite simple, by the end of the day the place looks like a battle ground.

Toddlers are still quite young to grasp the concept of tidying up. But I still enforce at least some effort.

After we are done playing with Mega blocks, we play a game of tossing them back into the bag. When they are done eating, I often let them wipe down their tray with a wet cloth. When they pull out all the books out of the basket, I ask them to pick them up. And to my surprise, about 50% of the time they do. I consider that a big success at 18 months of age!

We also use the rule “First clean up legos, then we read a book” and it works great!

If we really stick to them, these simple acts will eventually turn into habits.

3. Say please and thank you

Life skills for toddlersTeaching manners to our children matter to me. I want them to learn to show respect to others, to be appreciative and grateful.

We can easily call the times we live in an age of entitlement. Children and adults included. Janice Kaplan5 in her gratitude research pointed out that many teenagers and young adults simply feel like they deserve things and their parents are obliged to serve them.

But the harsh reality hits hard once they are out to the world. And I surely don’t want that for my boys. Better have them ready and prepared.

Starting early with please & thank you is just the first step. Using sign language with younger toddlers works great! (links to Please and Thank you in sign language).

Of course, toddlers not yet understand why this is a desirable thing. But we can add our rational explanations later on.

4. Use their spoons and forks

Life skills for toddlersLet’s teach our kids good table manners from early on. It is easier to start the right way than fixing bad habits later.

Toddlers’ fine motor skills are certainly not perfect, but they are capable of improving them with each meal they eat.

Provide them a plastic spoon and fork with each meal and show them how to use them. I love to see my boys clumsily eat a spoonful of cheerios on their own!

To be honest, eating manners here in America are quite forgiving, to say the least. I hardly ever see anyone using their knife, for instance. Back in Europe, where I grew up, it is very common to use the full set of spoon, fork, and knife at lunchtime, even at pre-school or elementary school. Something unthinkable here in the States (I believe liability has a lot to do with this).

But good table manners are a simple life skill that everyone can benefit from.

5. Dress themselves

Life skills for toddlersBefore our toddlers reach pre-school age, it is more than desirable for them to be able to get dressed on their own. At least the basic clothes like pants and T-shirts shouldn’t give them too much of a hard time.

The same goes for putting on and taking off shoes (especially simple ones like Crocs or slip-ons).

And it isn’t only beneficial to us, their parents. By letting them do things on their own, our kids make progress in their development and gain confidence in their own abilities.

6. Use the potty

Life skills for toddlersPotty training has become a dreaded duty, often postponed more than necessary. I know it myself. I’d never thought how hard potty training is, especially with two kids at the same time.

But back in time, we were potty trained at much earlier age. My parents didn’t have the luxury of Pampers, so doing the extra laundry every day must have become annoying. They were greatly motivated, weren’t they?

Anyhow, many daycares have the rule of “no more diapers” after children turn three years old. If you are getting ready to get back to work, potty training at age 2 is a must.

7. Stop when we say “stop”

Life skills for toddlersWe are all way too familiar with our toddlers running ahead of us during an afternoon walk. They just can’t wait to get to the playground or look at that rock lying ahead.

As much as I want to encourage my children’s freedom and independence, safety comes first. One minute the street is empty, the next there are cars coming from each direction. Therefore I always make sure I am an arm’s reach from my little ones.

I am still working with my boys, especially the more active one, on actually stopping when I say “stop!” It is a slow process, but I’ve seen some results already. Repetition and reward are my best tools to teach this. The more often we get to practice it, the better they get.

8. Brush their teeth and comb their hair

Life skills for toddlersI love it when our little ones pick up their hair brushes and try to brush their hair. After they are done, the proceed to the teddy bear to make sure he looks good for the day too!

Of course, I have to do a quality check and fix some messy spots. But the desire to do it on their own is there. And I absolutely love to encourage it!

Same goes for brushing teeth, just the other way around. First I make sure I brush and clean their teeth well and I let them do some brushing afterward.

9. Swim

Life skills for toddlersDoes your little one happen to be around pools often (friend’s or grandparents’ house)?

Even though the ability to swim is not meant as a substitution for an adult supervision, in the worst case scenario, it might save a child’s life.

Baby and toddler swim classes are available at basically every community recreation center. At these classes children learn basic swimming skills, floating on their backs included.

10. Cross the street safely

Life skills for toddlersThe concept of crossing the street safely is a bit complex for young toddlers to understand. But to encourage this skill we can simply lead by example. Children observe and watch everything that we do and pick up good and bad habits from us.

Therefore, every time we are about to cross the street I say “Look left, right and left again” and only then we cross the street. I am positive that the boys will eventually pick up this habit and learn to cross the street safely.

11. Scribble & draw

Life skills for toddlers

Drawing might not seem that important of a life skill.

But before we even try to introduce any academic skills, I believe toddlers should have plenty of opportunities to hold pencils, crayons, and paintbrushes and simply scribble away.

It helps them to develop a good hand-eye coordination, a proper grasp of a pencil, and concentration. All of these are important writing pre-cursors.

Drawing is also helpful for emotional development, often used as a tool for children’s psychological assessment (if the child is going through a hard time).

12. Drink from an open cup

Life skills for toddlersI have seen it first-hand. As soon as babies turn one, many daycares simply don’t allow bottles anymore. The children have to learn to drink from open cups early on. And they absolutely succeed!

For this reason, I knew we could definitely skip the whole sippy cup phase and go straight for an open cup. Until we were gifted a set of sippy cups. The plans went down the drain!

We definitely fell behind in this skill. I had first introduced open cups even before our boys turned one. And they were doing ok with them. But once my husband deployed, I started to heavily rely on the sippy cups to make things easier for myself (a living example that sippy cups were invented for parents rather than the children).

A lot of research also indicates that using sippy cups might not be the best solution in regard to our children’s jaw development, swallowing, oral health, and even speech development¹’².

Straw cups or training cups are better alternatives.

Final thoughtsLife skills for toddlers

There is no such thing as too early when it comes to teaching out toddlers important life skills.

We might be pleasantly surprised by what our little ones can do on their own if we give them a chance.

What other things come to your mind when thinking of life skills for toddlers? Let me know in the comments!


5Janice Kaplan: the Gratitude Diaries, Dutton: New York, 2015. 


  1. Thank you for this list. Sometimes I get so caught up doing everything quickly, I forget to teach my youngest to do things himself. It’s a great compilation of milestones too!

  2. I’m working on quite a few from your list with my 3year old and 14month old. I said the same thing about the mess, we do the pick up games too, but sometimes it gets away from us. I also really like your addition of common courtesy, it’s never too early to say please, thank you and excuse me. Great list!

    • Thank you! It is good to hear other parents are tackling some of these as well.

  3. Yes! I agree wholeheartedly with all of this. We do pretty well with all of this except that my youngest (now 2) doesn’t really know how to swim. Our four-year-old knows how to doggy-paddle and so forth. I am enrolling them both in swim lessons this summer.

    • That is awesome! We are planning the same thing this summer with my boys. Good luck!

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