How to set a table

Here, we’re covering the life skill of setting a table. When we teach a child how to set the table, the chore itself is one that kids can do on a daily basis. So, if you are looking for an executive functioning skill task that breaks down into steps, AND is helpful, setting the table is a great one!

Table setting as a life skill

Before discussing the “how” to set a table, we need to learn the “why.”  Why do we need to teach kids to set a table?  Life skills are important.  If a child does not have intellectual intelligence but has life skills, they can succeed. Of course there are manners, etiquette, and grace involved in setting a correct table placement, however, learning the basics of what needs to be on the table is most important.

In order to be ready to serve the Queen, one needs to know in which order the spoons and forks are placed (there might be seven or eight pieces), where all of the plates go, which side each type of glass goes on, and where the condiments are placed.  When visiting a five star restaurant, cruising, or eating an elegant dinner, you will encounter this type of place setting.  Serving and eating this way is a great lesson in etiquette to be familiar with.  You never know when you might be invited to dine with the Queen or eat at the Ritz!

In a typical family’s home, setting the table likely involves a child’s chore to set the utensils, plates, bowls, and drinking glasses. Setting a table as a chore is a great way to get kids involved in the family unit to help with dinner preparations.

How to set a table

As an adult you probably do this daily without thinking about it.  You know the basic pieces you need in order to have a meal; glasses, plates, silverware, condiments, and napkins.  Often extra pieces are added such as placemats, bread plates, dessert silverware, and serving dishes.

For a child, the command “set the table” may be daunting and confusing, before a regular schedule is established.  Adults often forget how challenging a new task can be, and become easily frustrated at having to give eighteen reminders during this one task. 

As a result, children become overwhelmed and shut down.  Shut down looks like standing and staring, not doing anything, or refusing to perform the task.  Of course it is easier for the adult to just do the task for the child, however, eventually you will want this child to leave the home or be able to survive outside of its’ walls.

Setting a Table: An Executive Function Task

Setting a table involves organization, working memory, visualization, sequencing, and task chunking.

  • Organization: knowing which pieces need to come first, second, third.
  • Working memory: remembering what parts are needed as the task is happening
  • Visualization: being able to make a mental picture of the meal being prepared in order to get all of the correct pieces
  • Sequencing: being able to bring out pieces in the correct order (placemat before plates)
  • Task chunking: breaking the task down into chunks such as collecting all the silverware at once

The above skills are part of executive function, built in the prefrontal cortex, necessary for success.  Without using executive function; disorganization, inability to complete a task, procrastination, inattention to details, and increased time to finish the task can happen.  

Check out this article and FREE executive functioning skills course: Strategies to Help Combat Executive Function Disorder 

Because the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until the 20’s or 30’s, most children are going to need some assistance and modifications to complete basic tasks.

How to teach kids to set a table

There are different learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic (learning by doing), and repetition.  Everyone learns differently. Visual picture cards are an excellent way to teach children any skill. 

Table Setting Worksheet

In the resource below, you can download a step-by-step executive function worksheet designed to teach kids to set a table as a chore and life skill task.

The printbale resource also includes table setting visual cards. These Check out the picture cards on OT Tool Box for helping kids set a table.

These picture cards serve as a visual reminder and framework for a task such as setting a table. They can be laminated, colored, and/or Velcro can be added to the cards so they can be moved and placed as needed.

The table setting worksheet resource includes three parts:

  1. A task breakdown worksheet to break down the steps of setting a table
  2. Visual cue cards to help kids with the schedule and parts of setting a table.
  3. A visual schedule where the table setting task cards can be attached, to support with transition and routine building

Have your child look at the picture cards provided and decide what items are needed for their table setting.  Once this is decided, have them put the cards in order of what needs to be done first. 

There is some variability in setting a table correctly, however some items will need to come before others.  Here is an example of an order of operations for picture cards:

  1. Placemat
  2. Large plate, small plate
  3. Silverware – spoon, fork, knife,
  4. Glassware
  5. Napkin
  6. Condiments
  7. Food
  8. Eat

Think about what variables work for your family or each particular student. Not everyone uses a placemat, has a bread plate, serves the food family style in dishes on the table, uses dessert silverware, or puts condiments on the table. 

Some children just need a visual reminder of what to include on the table.  Other children will need a visual picture of what the table should look like when completed.  They need to be able to copy a diagram.

This also can be colored, laminated, or customized to make an exact replica of the type of silverware and place settings a family uses.

The third type of lesson involves breaking down the task into chunks on a goal ladder.

A “setting the table” chore/goal ladder may look like this:

  • Top of Ladder: Dinner time
  • Rungs: set the table, fill water glasses, put food on table, eat

Table setting chore for kids

Once this task has been mastered in all of the broken down pieces, it can be added to the overall chore list.  

Chores are an excellent way to teach:

  • responsibility
  • task sequencing
  • organization
  • life skills
  • time management
  • independence
  • overall executive function

In addition to teaching the above skills, chores are excellent for heavy work in order to organize the sensory system and arousal level.  Heavy work activates the proprioceptive system, which provides calming and organizing for the body. There is a reason the military has their staff do chores, exercise, and heavy work as a daily regimen.  It not only builds necessary life skills, but provides organization and focus of the sensory system.

To learn more about heavy work, check this out:

Daily visual schedule for setting a table and other chores

Check out this article by Colleen Beck of the OT Toolbox for more information on visual schedules:

Life skills: setting a table

Life skills build independence, responsibility, manners, and self-reliance. Teaching or learning a skill, such as setting a table, is not as easy as it might seem.  It involves breaking the task down into chunks or rungs on a ladder, adding visual picture cards as reminders for all the working pieces, sequencing the activity into the correct order, and finally adding it to the daily chore schedule. Activities will need to be graded (made easier or more difficult) depending on the needs of your learner, their skill level, and task mastery.

Use this system to teach any and all life skills tasks!  Dressing, bathing, laundry, cleaning, putting toys away, organizing, or any other task can be taught using picture cards, goal ladder, and visual schedules. 

*The terms, kids/children are used throughout this post for readability, however this information is relevant for students, patients, teens, etc.  The term “they” is used instead of he/she to be inclusive.

Free Table Setting Visual Cards and Worksheet

Set a Table Worksheet and Visual Cards

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    Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.


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