Laundry Skills

laundry checklist

Today, we have a great life skills activity: specifically, laundry skills! In this blog post, we are discussing the life skill of laundry. Washing and drying clothes is an independent living task that anyone who manages their activities of daily living and instrumental activities of daily living must learn. Getting dressed each day requires clean clothing. And in order to manage and wear clean clothing, dirty clothes must be laundered! Whether you are looking for information on teaching laundry skills to teens, or working in a special needs classroom with special education students in a life skills classroom or group home, laundry skills are a part of occupational therapy interventions. You’ll also want to check out our cooking life skills activities for more ways to support IADLs.

Laundry skills

Laundry Skills

Don’t you just love those 12 seconds when the laundry is all done?  Laundry is the gift that keeps on giving.  Laundry life skills are necessary and inevitable. Unless you plan to do your kid’s laundry for the rest of their lives, start teaching laundry skills early. 

Teenager Laundry Schedule

Washing: 30 minutes

Drying: 30 minutes

Folding and putting away: 7-10 business days

How do you know when it is really time for your kids to learn laundry skills?

  • When half of the clean laundry ends up in the dirty basket unworn
  • When they wear like seven outfits a day
  • Clothes are so wrinkled in the drawers, they have to be rewashed to be worn
  • They ask you to do laundry so often because they only wear their favorite three things

Laundry Life Skills Learning Lessons

People learn by doing. They also learn by making mistakes. Suffering natural consequences versus being nagged at or scolded, is a better way for people to learn.  These are some valuable life lessons my teenagers learned while learning to do laundry properly.

  • Teenager claims they need more underwear and socks.  Turns out they are all just dirty
  • They shove so many clothes into the washer, the clothes are barely wet
  • Everything goes in the same load, creating lovely pink blobs on everything
  • The laundry stays in the washer for five days.  EWWW
  • The laundry stays in the dryer for five days. Has to be rewashed
  • Your kid looks like they dragged their clothes out of a garbage bag each time they get dressed
  • Your teen does not do laundry until the only option left is their prom dress!
  • Too much soap, not enough soap, hot water, you get the picture
Laundry life skills include executive functioning skills
All steps of laundry life skills include executive functioning skills.

Laundry Task Analysis

Doing laundry requires many underlying skill areas. We can look at these in a laundry task analysis.

First, let’s look at the areas needed for this life skill task. Because there are multiple steps to doing laundry, there are many aspects that go into laundry skills, there are many underlying areas of development that impact teaching laundry.

The underlying areas of laundering include:

  1. Fine motor skills: pinch and grip strength, coordination
  2. Gross motor skills: upper body strength, core strength, balance, coordination, posture, stability, range of motion
  3. Visual motor skills: eye-hand coordination,
  4. Visual perceptual skills: visual discrimination, visual scanning, visual figure ground, form constancy,
  5. Sensory motor skills: Tactile discrimination, proprioceptive input, vestibular input, visual processing, auditory processing
  6. Executive functioning skills: task initiation, task completion, working memory, attention, organization
  7. Cognitive skills: Direction following, problem solving, safety awareness

With all of these considerations it’s no wonder that laundry skills are a challenge for all ages!

We have a checklist of tasks that need to be done listed below. This is an important part of the task analysis, because the layout of the home, laundry area, and other environmental considerations will play a huge role in the laundry task analysis, especially for the motor skills involved.

Laundry Checklist

Laundry skills involves many steps. It’s because of this multi-step process, that sometimes the task “falls apart”. Laundry skills includes the following basic steps:

  1. Sorting clothing by light and dark colors or by fabric. For some individuals, starting with a sorting task is a great first step. Use these sorting colors ideas.
  2. Placing clothing into a hamper or clothes basket and emptying pockets.
  3. Carrying a full basket of clothes.
  4. Lifting a full basket to empty into a washer. Or bending/reaching to place dirty clothes into the washing machine.
  5. Pre-treating any stains.
  6. Adding the correct amount of detergent, the appropriate type of laundry detergent, and motor tasks such as: opening the detergent bottle, pouring the correct amount of soap, adding the soap to the correct place in the washing machine. 
  7. Using an appropriate load size for the washing machine and the clothing type.
  8. Selecting a water temperature appropriate for the clothing fabric type, such as using cold water for certain clothing fabrics and using warm water over hot water for others.
  9. Turning on settings for the appropriate wash cycle.
  10. Remembering to listen for the laundry machine buzzer or setting an alarm for the end of the washing cycle.
  11. Removing wet clothing and placing into a dryer.
  12. Removing any clothing that needs to air dry.
  13. Selecting the right amount of drying time for the clothing from the dryer’s settings
  14. Turning the dial to the appropriate setting.
  15. Using an appropriate dryer load size.
  16. Setting an alarm or remembering to remove dry clothing from the dryer when complete (task completion).
  17. Removing all of the dry clothing from the dryer.
  18. Folding clothing, including how to fold pants, shirts, and other types of clothing.
  19. Matching and rolling socks together.
  20. Putting away clothing.
  21. Hanging clothing on hangers when appropriate.

Each of these steps could potentially be a stumbling block, right? Especially when you take into consideration the various physical and cognitive skills needed for each task. Breaking down the tasks can be helpful.

For example, a shorter list of laundry tasks is as follows:

  1. Gather dirty laundry from around the house.
  2. Sort laundry into categories (e.g., lights, darks, delicates).
  3. Load the washing machine, being careful not to overload.
  4. Add laundry detergent.
  5. Select the appropriate wash cycle and temperature.
  6. Start the washing machine.
  7. Once the wash cycle is complete, remove clothes from the washing machine.
  8. Select the appropriate dryer setting.
  9. Start the dryer.
  10. Once dry, immediately remove clothes from the dryer.
  11. Put clothes away in their designated places.

Tips and Strategies for teaching Laundry Skills

These tips are helpful for all learning, not just laundry.

  • Break the tasks down into smaller chunks to make them more manageable. The learner may not be able to do all their laundry, but can probably stuff the items in a basket or washer.
  • Choose times for learning when there is not a rush.  Learners cannot work under pressure.
  • Set realistic expectations.  Your two year old might not be able to fold clothes properly.  That’s ok, they can put them in the basket.
  • Accept mediocracy.  Learn to accept the towels and sheets will not be folded correctly.  Be happy they are clean and in the closet.
  • Think first about any sensory/motor/logistical components of the task and problem solve before starting.
  • Backward or forward chain. Backward chain would be to do all of the work for your learner, then have them come in and finish the final step. This offers a sense of accomplishment.  Forward chaining is having your learner do the first step, before they become overwhelmed, then you finish for them.  This gives confidence that they can do some of the laundry task.
  • There are many laundry steps for a learner to remember during any life skills task.
  • Minimize distractions and sensory input prior to starting.
  • Stay calm and do not add more pressure.
  • Let your learner do for themselves, only intervening when they start to get upset. Do not rush to fix everything so quickly. They will not learn that there is a problem if we constantly fix the errors before they notice.
  • Give the learner opportunities to be independent, even at a small task.
  • If your learner has sensory related concerns, the OT Toolbox has a great resource called the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook, with checklists and strategies to weave sensory activities into your learner’s day

No wonder laundry skills are such a complex task!

“Sometimes you might feel like no one is there for you.  You know who is always there for you?  Laundry.  Laundry will always be there for you.” Author Unknown

Other Benefits of Doing Life Skills like Laundry

  • Allows more free time for parents to focus on other things
  • Instills a sense of responsibility for their belongings
  • Builds executive function skills – starting and finishing a project, time management, planning, prioritizing, and foresight to name a few.  The OT Toolbox has a FREE course on developing executive function and several resources on this valuable life skill.
  • The task can be adjusted to meet levels, whether developmental disabilities are present or specific areas of need: motor planning, executive functioning skills, physical abilities etc.
  • Sensory processing skills and self regulation. Heavy work is a great way to regulate the sensory system through proprioception. Laundry has built in heavy work from filling the laundry basket, pulling or pushing the basket, piling clothes into the washer, dragging wet clothes out of the washer, pushing them into the dryer, and pulling them out.  There are other senses alerted in a negative or positive way during laundry, such as smell of detergent, feeling the water on the clothes, the sound of the washer and dryer, or the warm feeling of clothes fresh out of the dryer. 
  • Builds independence and self reliance.

Laundry and Executive Functioning Skills

One of the biggest challenges with accomplishing laundry tasks tends to be the executive function component. I mean think about it: There are at least 17 steps to doing laundry…and if you use our simplified laundry list, there are still 11 steps!

Each of those 11 steps could potentially be it’s own task (sorting laundry. putting clothes in the washer. Folding. Putting away.) When you break down “laundry”, no wonder this life skill is so challenging when you add in difficulties with working memory, task initiation and completion, planning, prioritization, attention…It makes total sense!

One way we support these needs is by breaking down the huge task of “laundry” into steps. Then, we can come up with strategies for each component. This includes:

  • Using timers
  • Creating routines
  • Minimizing steps
  • Segmenting tasks

We actually made a handout on executive functioning hacks to assist with laundry. You can get a free copy of this in the form at the bottom of this blog post.

How to develop laundry life skills (or any other skills):

If you sit a seven year old down and ask them to do laundry, you will be met with either dread, frustration, or shutdown.  The task in entirety is too much all at once.  Not only can you break the task into measurable chunks, use the following adaptations to build laundry or any other life skills:

  • Print a laundry checklist with clear laundry steps and directions. Read here about visual schedules that can be used as a support.
  • Use a picture story sequence to walk through the task using real images of the individual completing the laundry task.
  • Make a social story about doing laundry so your learner gets a clear picture of the task ahead of time
  • Create a picture board with cards and velcro to move items from the “to do” to the “done” side.  
  • Create visual reminders in the laundry area to assist with the chore such as how much detergent, what temperature for the clothes
  • Adapt and modify the task as needed.  Determine what the barriers might be to making this task independent for your learner. Create folding boards to fold shirts, use laundry pods instead of measured detergent, wash all items on cold for ease, different colored baskets if sorting items, a clear system of where everything belongs, step stools if needed.
  • If you are hitting roadblocks when addressing life skills, there may be a motor or sensory component making skill acquisition more difficult. Problem solve these first, then move forward. The book, (affiliate link) Seeing Your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes is a great resource to problem solve and find solutions to everyday events such as going to bed, bathing, cooking, riding the bus, going to the dentist, doing chores, or the dreaded cafeteria.

After catching up on laundry this week, I am implementing prison rules. Each member gets one jumpsuit for the week.

Free laundry checklist and laundry hack sheet

Free Laundry Checklist

One tool that I love to use, especially when practicing laundry life skills with pre-teens and teenagers, or when executive functioning skills impact the ability to stay on top of laundry tasks, is printable checklists.

I created a printable checklist of laundry tasks broken down into stages:

  1. Preparing and Sorting Laundry
  2. Washing Laundry
  3. Drying Laundry
  4. Folding Laundry
  5. Putting Away Laundry

Each of these four steps could be a stumbling block, which means that the laundry sits there in a wet and stinky lump in the washer for a week. Or, the dry and clean laundry sits crumbled in the laundry basket for a month. Breaking down the steps is a huge piece of the puzzle.

I also made the checklist with columns for days of the week. This way, you can sort the laundry on one day and wash and dry the laundry on the next day. Then, you can fold and put away the laundry on another day. Doing these tasks on the same day each week makes it not only manageable, but also part of a routine.

You can get this free printable by entering your email address into the form below. Plus, when you grab this printable, we also have a bonus- our list of executive function hacks for each step of laundry. These tips are great for targeting the working memory, attention, planning, and task completion of all of these steps.

FREE Laundry Checklist

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    These resources, along with many other life skills tools and activities are also found inside The OT Toolbox Membership!

    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.

    Transition Services

    Transition services

    When learners are young, first starting kindergarten, it seems hard to imagine they will ever require transition services following graduation from high school. Time flies, and before you know it, they are getting ready to graduate. However, for students to move from the school system and special education services into adult services, there is a ton of preparation involved in transitioning out of high school, or a life skills program. This post will highlight the importance of transition services, what is available for special needs students after high school, and the process of developing an individual transition plan.

    Part of the transition period may include an activity analysis with focus on the aspects of functional tasks an individual may need to complete with increasing independence so that there is a movement toward supports or modifications.

    Transition services to help students who have disabilities and/or special education needs prepare for life beyond high school.

    Transition Services

    For neurotypical learners, preparation for graduation might look very different than those in a special education curriculum. Neurotypical learners may take SAT, or ACT tests, research and apply to colleges, begin choosing a career or job path, and make plans for their independent future. 

    Their special education counterparts have different work to do in order to be prepared for transitioning out of high school.  

    Following high school, students move from an individualized education program (IEP) to post-school adult work, or post-graduate education. Adult education can look like many different things, and determining that course of action is part of the transition plan while in high school. 

    However, there are other considerations, for transitional support for post-high school, too:

    • Postsecondary education
    • Community participation
    • Acquisition of daily living skills (including shopping for food, cooking meals, paying bills, managing funds, home management tasks such as laundry, cleaning, etc.)
    • Development of employment skills including filling out forms, completing work resumes and applications, completing an interview process, time management, following a schedule, etc.
    • Related services needed, including vocational training, day care support, day school, functional vocation evaluations, etc.
    • Vocational rehabilitation, including a functional vocational evaluation
    • Other post-school activities

    Types of Diplomas

    Well before determining transition services, the IEP team will determine what type of diploma track the student is working on.  

    There are different options that need to be weighed carefully as early as elementary or middle school. This consideration is part of the pre-graduation transition support.  These types of diplomas that are part of the transition from high school to post-high school include:

    1. High school diploma
    2. Certificate of completion
    3. Career readiness degree

    Traditionally students were eligible for a high school diploma or a certificate of completion.  In the past few years, students can receive a third type of diploma, a career readiness degree.  

    The career readiness degree type of diploma is more valuable than a certificate of completion, as it demonstrates students have job readiness skills.  Certain students with mild intellectual disabilities may qualify for this diploma track.

    Types of Transition Services

    When it comes to identifying various levels of support following the high school setting, individuals can explore various options. The services depicted below take into consideration the individual child’s needs.

    A common question is what are examples of transition services. There are many varied post graduation paths students can take:

    • Life skills programs – Life Skills programs are educational programs designed to help young people learn the skills necessary for independent (or semi-independent) living. Most programs are found in residential environments and provide training in: social function, time management, personal hygiene, career exploration, money management, and life skills training.  Paperwork and waitlists are often extensive and long, it is recommended families start this process early. Life skills cooking activities are one strategy. These Life Skills task cards are another tool.
    • Adult day programs or care centers
    • Job shadowing – these can be done through a vocational or life skills program or provided independently through private employers.  Several companies and industries have created an entire model surrounding hiring learners with disabilities.
    • Adapted college programs-  This article on college planning for students with disabilities is a good resource and place to start
    • Vocational education – These programs provide counselors who can help learners explore interests, skills, and abilities, determine support needs, develop employment goals, and provide an Individual Plan for Employment (IPE).  The program may provide job placement assistance, supported employment services, job coaching, skills training, and guidance.
    • Post-secondary education- This type of transition service supports students aged 18-22 years old who have aged out of typical high school graduation age (18 years) and have completed the high school education portion of their programs, but may still have needs in various areas: provision of functional vocational evaluation, vocational rehabilitation services, life skills employment needs, post secondary education/training, skills in independent living, and community connections.
    • Another idea is to do community service using these service ideas. This can be a great way to practice practical life skills while serving others.

    Transition Services on an IEP

    Each state in the US may have differences in transition services that are outlined on an IEP while still in the school system. 

    In South Carolina, for example, once a student is thirteen (this may be different depending on each district), a transition program is added to their Individualized Education Program (IEP).  

    This begins the process of developing career readiness skills, identifying interests, and making plans for post graduation.  A Special Education Transitions Coordinator will often be added to the IEP team. 

    Why start a Transition Plan early?

    It is important to start transition services as early as in middle school or early high school for some students. One main reason is to include transition supports in the IEP to support the transition out of the high school setting. 

    There are many reasons why this is important.

    • The waiting lists for programs and services are very long.  It may take years to get into a residential program or adult daycare.  The need far outweighs the resources. While it might seem ridiculous to put a 12 year old on a list for post high school services, waiting lists may be this long where you live.  Have conversations early with families.
    • There is a lot of planning that goes into preparing a young adult for life after graduation. Funding sources need to be in place, placement, programs, etc., all take time with many moving parts.
    • The individual child’s needs can be addressed while in the high school setting, including offering courses of study that meet the student’s interests. Some ideas include peer buddy programs for activities or sports. Other ideas include participation in pre-employment transition services in the high school setting: participating in a school store, an in-school coffee shop, job shadowing in the cafeteria or library for example. Each opportunity can foster the student’s strengths.
    • While neurotypical students learn life skills through observation and limited instruction, learners with special needs take a significant amount of training and practice to master certain skills. For example, managing laundry may take months to learn the basics.
    • While it is difficult to predict the future when talking about the future of an 11 year old, it does not hurt to start preparation early, and leads to a smoother transition.
    • Mentoring opportunities can progress for several years and offer an opportunity to learn over the course of the high school education. 
    • In some cases, guardianship changes may need to be considered.

    Transition Services for Middle School to High School Special Education

    How does the curriculum change for middle and high school students in special education?

    This is a difficult transition and conversation to have with families.  There is a distinct shift when a student in a special education program enters middle and high school.  

    The focus moves away from a traditional curriculum, toward a life skills based program.  This can be hard for families to accept that the goals will not be weighed as heavily on reading, writing, and math, but geared toward job training, self help skills, community awareness, safety readiness, and more independent living.  

    Families feel as though the educational system has given up on their child learning to do algebra, write a research paper, or something as simple as writing their address and phone number.  

    As mentioned earlier, life skills training takes a significant amount of training and practice.  There is not enough time in a school day to focus fully on both standard curriculum and self help skills.  The decision is made with the team to determine the best course of action for the student.  

    While there will still be educational skills and objectives addressed, they may be more focused toward life skills.  For instance, instead of traditional math, the goal may be centered around money management, telling time, sorting, and counting.  

    Writing goals might focus on writing essential safety information, or having a name stamp to produce this.  Reading can be channeled toward reading safety signs, filling out an application, reading a menu, or following basic recipe directions.

    This blog post on the OT Toolbox about occupational therapy for teenagers explains this concept more in depth.

    Activities To Help Students With Disabilities Get Used To A New School

    Supporting individual student’s strengths with transitions to a new school can be a consideration, too. Students typically move from elementary to middle school to high school and they post high school environments. 

    The transition supports in this post can help with this process as well.

    Part of that is helping kids fit in at a new school with peer supports and a plan.

    Transition Iep Goals

    Transition IEP goals need to include a coordinated set of activities with a target goal in mind. The process to move toward transition should be based on the student’s strengths, personal interests, and facilitate movement toward post-graduation and community integration.

    Being that the process is so individualized, transition IEP goals may include versions of this: 

    • Counting Money- At the end of each school day, student will count and record the amount of money earned that day from the classroom token economy, with % accuracy in X of X trials. 
    • Job application goal- Student will fill in the personal information section of a job application registration form, with % accuracy in X of X trials.
    • Work research goals- Student will research jobs and complete a job application with % accuracy in X of X trials. 
    • Job interview goal- Student will prepare for, dress appropriately for, and participate in a mock interview with % accuracy in X of X trials. 
    • Medical Forms-Given a medical form (printed or website), Student will fill out the form in X of X trials with % accuracy. 
    • Fine motor/Handwriting: Signature goal- Student will sign his/her first and last name in cursive, with % accuracy in X of X trials.
    • Life skills goals- Given X recipes, student will write a grocery list for ingredients needed (with no more than X ingredients needed) with % accuracy in X of X trials. 
    • Self-care goals
    • Communication goals
    • Technology goals
    • Community goals
    • Independent functioning goals
    • Pre-vocational goals
    • Vocational goals- Given a job task, Student will complete # tasks within # minutes with % accuracy over X out of X opportunities. 
    • Study skills goals
    • Social skills goals
    • Work habits goals

    How Families Can Help

    Families can support the child’s movement from school to post-education services by supporting the transition. The Life Skills Task Cards are one tool to work on various aspects of life skill work with a punch card type of strategy to offer motivation and meaningfulness. Some ways that families can help is by:

    1. Do work-related and household chore tasks at home as part of a family team: making a simple meals like sandwich, setting the table, running the laundry, folding laundry, sorting utensils, loading the dishwasher, cutting the lawn, etc.
    2. Provide opportunities to practice skills in the community (ordering a meal, scheduling an appointment, paying a bill, purchasing groceries, etc.)
    4. Work on communication skills (phone, e-mail, social media), including safety issues
    5. Talk about and go through meal prep together. Plan meals, purchase groceries for meals, making healthy choices, storing food, etc.

    6. Make and cancel medical appointments
    7. Teach student about any medications she/he is taking
    8. use a calendar to keep a schedule of important dates.
    9. Teach money skills.
    10. Give the student and family a copy of “What you should know about Wisconsin LAW Booklet”
    and talk about what changes when the student turns 18 years of age
    11. Practice community navigation: crossing roads safely, taking abus,calling anUber,etc.

    Final thoughts on Transition Services

    This information is the tip of the iceberg in terms of readying students for a life after secondary school. The child’s movement through services does not need to be complicated. Some final tips for a successful transition after high school include:

    Focus is on the functional achievement of the child and ensuring a successful transition for the student. 

    Create a good team of professionals to help with these transition services. 

    Consider the community experiences. There may be many opportunities in the community for job shadowing, and learning on the job for a results-oriented process. 

    The following are a couple of other general resources to start the journey.

    Consider provision of a functional vocational evaluation as part of the process.

    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.

    Life Skills task cards
    Life Skills Task Cards offer practice opportunities for everyday tasks in the home or life skills classroom.

    Life Skills – Cooking Activities

    Life skills cooking

    Life skills-cooking does not mean learning to make gourmet meals.  It means meal preparation to survive. No teenager should go off to college without the means to cook Ramen, macaroni and cheese, cereal, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Add pizza and Taco Bell to their meal plan, and voila, a complete teenage diet! Life skills tasks like cooking is an essential Instrumental Activity of Daily Living that occupational therapy professionals address.

    The goal for any caregiver should be to help their child be independent enough to live alone, or at least care for themselves. 

    Learning independence and life skills, starts at a very young age.  Toddlers learn how to dress themselves, basic hygiene, and where to put their belongings. As they become school aged, children need to learn higher level life skills such as laundry, cleaning, grooming, and cooking. 

    For some kids that struggle with manipulating utensils as a result of fine motor, visual motor, or cognitive skills, these cooking activities can support development. This is especially true with learning to hold a fork and spoon as well as using utensils to self-feed and cut with a knife and fork, safely.

    Life skills cooking checklist, recipes, and tips

    Life skills Cooking activities

    Life Skills Cooking activities not only teach important meal preparation, they address a wide variety of areas.

    We’ve covered a bit about the benefits of cooking in previous blog posts:

    1. Develop motor skills through cooking
    2. Executive function skills through cooking
    3. Learn math skill through cooking

    And, these areas are just the beginning. Some other important areas of development that occurs through cooking tasks include:

    • Measuring items involves math, computation, dexterity
    • Reading a recipe – scanning, reading, decoding, processing language
    • Following directions including sequencing, working memory, problem solving  
    • Fine motor skills are needed to use utensils, cut with a knife, stir, scrape with a spatula, use tongs, crack eggs, spread an item, or scoop food
    • Bilateral coordination – pouring from a container, holding an item while cutting with the other hand, holding a pan steady while stirring or flipping objects, opening containers, putting items together
    • Attention to details, timing, frustration tolerance, organization

    The OT Toolbox has an informative post on teaching Following Directions using Cooking

    The amount of skills addressed during cooking activities is a great incentive to use them in your treatment sessions, while working with learners of all levels.  While it is not essential for all of your learners to be able to bake a cake, look at all the skills it addresses!

    Sometimes I ask myself why I am teaching a learner to bake a cake, when it is not a basic necessity.  Then I am reminded of the core skills it teaches to be able to move onto higher level cooking activities. 

    A learner who can not follow a basic recipe on a box, will struggle to read from a cookbook.  Someone who can not mix two to three ingredients, will struggle to work with seven in a salad.

    The OT Toolbox has a great collection of resources called, Cooking with Kids.  It is full of recipes and cooking ideas.

    It’s great when you find recipes that have different steps that can be offered to kids when helping in the kitchen. For example, our Greek turkey burger recipe has different steps that can be offered to target specific skills: chopping, slicing, stirring, mixing, scooping, grilling.

    Life Skills Cooking ideas

    Use these ideas as cooking tasks for learners to start off with. The cooking tasks listed below are great beginner cooking tasks to support development.

    • Cake from a mix- easy to follow directions with minimal ingredients. Tasty results!
    • Muffin mix- Martha White and Jiffy Mix often just call for milk and possibly an egg
    • Macaroni and cheese- this works on a plethora of skills as mentioned above, it is yummy, and a staple for children and young adults. Add some meat and a vegetable, and your learner can have an entire meal
    • Cookies- start with the ones that are pre formed, or slice and bake
    • Ramen Soup- what could be simpler than heating noodles and water on the stove or microwave?  Again, easy to learn, low cost, filling, delicious, and can be served plain, or with add-ins such as meat or veggies
    • Pancakes and waffles are a great staple that work on many skills, using limited ingredients. You can use a mix to grade down the activity or use a homemade pancake recipe to offer more opportunities for measurement and pouring.
    • Sandwich preparation– Sandwiches are a great basic item that involves problem solving, sequencing, following directions, and fine motor skills.  This is a safe option for learners to make on their own, as they do not have to use a heating element, and can spread items with the back of a spoon instead of a knife for added safety.
    • Frozen dinners- early or lower level learners may need to spend time working on making frozen dinners using the microwave.  While this seems like a simple task, it still involves several steps, including problem solving and judgment. 
    • Rainbow Smoothie- This is a great way to add different fruits as nutrition but also a way to practice slicing bananas, chopping different textures, pouring liquid, managing buttons on a blender, and using safety strategies: blender buttons, placing the lid, using a knife, reaching into a blender, plugging in a kitchen utensil, washing dishes, etc.

    Beyond the Basic Cooking Activities

    Once your learner has mastered a few basic skills, it might be important or relevant to teach these next level skills.  If your learner is not likely to ever need these skills, you can continue to work on mastery of basic food items.

    • Cooking vegetables like potatoes, carrots, broccoli
    • Grilling meat, either on an actual grill or countertop grill.  The George Foreman grill is relatively easy to use
    • Using a crock pot to make a soup or stew
    • Baked goods: making cookies or muffins from scratch
    • Cooking meals that involve more than one pan. Learning to time spaghetti and sauce, or meat and vegetables

    Sensory Based life skills Cooking Activities

    Cooking is a great way to engage sensory seekers and avoiders.  It is helpful to work with picky eaters on cooking, as well as those with tactile sensitivity. Making food can be motivating. as your learner may be more excited to try something they have created.

    • Pizza – mixing, kneading, rolling, pounding, stretching the dough. Touching the toppings adds different sensory components
    • Pretzels – similar to pizza, learners have fun creating pretzel shapes
    • Cut out cookies – rolling, cutting, sprinkling, and tasting
    • Meatballs – mixing, rolling the meat into balls
    • Salad – handling different items, cutting, sorting, and preparing
    • Lasagna – while this might not be a young learner’s favorite, it is a messy task that involves several textures

    Tips and Strategies for teaching Life Skills cooking

    These tips are helpful for all learning, not just cooking.

    • Break the tasks down into smaller chunks to make them more manageable. The learner may not be able to do all the cooking, but can probably stir items in a bowl or pour ingredients
    • Choose times for learning when there is not a rush.  Learners cannot work under pressure
    • Set realistic expectations.  Your two year old might not be able to make a sandwich independently.  That’s ok, they can help find the ingredients
    • Accept mediocracy.  Learn to accept food might not look or taste the best.
    • Before starting, think about any sensory/motor/logistical components of the task and problem solve through them
    • Backward or forward chain. Backward chain would be to do all of the work for your learner, then have them come in and finish the final step. This offers a sense of accomplishment.  Forward chaining is having your learner do the first step, just before they become overwhelmed, you finish for them.  This gives confidence that they can do some of the tasks, if not all
    • There are many steps for a learner to remember during any life skills task
    • Minimize distractions and sensory input prior to starting
    • Stay calm and do not add more pressure
    • Let your learner do for themselves, only intervene when they start to get upset. Do not rush to fix everything so quickly. They will not learn that there is a problem if you constantly fix the errors before they notice the problem
    • Give the learner opportunities to be independent, even at a small task

    If your learner has sensory related concerns, the OT Toolbox has a great resource called the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook, with checklists and strategies to weave sensory activities into your learner’s day

    Life skills checklist

    Cooking skills can be developed from a very young age. These cooking tasks listed below promote cognitive development, direction-following, decision making, motor skill work, and many other areas.

    Important things to note:

    We’ve separated these tasks into ages, but this is a generalized list of ages. Some kids will not accomplish the tasks listed below, and that’s ok! It’s a way to know where and when to work on age-appropriate cooking activities with kids.

    This list is also not necessarily guided by age. While ages are listed below, the cooking tasks can be viewed as a sequential progression based on cognitive skills needed, safety considerations, executive functioning development, etc. Look at the list as a guide to progress toward life skills achievement in the area of cooking skills.

    When you view the cooking life skills checklist below in that way, it can be used to support life skills development for any age, including teens, adults working toward more independence with cooking abilities.

    Toddler Cooking Skills

    Generally these tasks can be accomplished from 1-2 years of age, during the toddler years.

    • Help rinse fruit and veggies
    • Pour with assistance
    • Tear lettuce and other leafy foods
    • Stir with assistance
    • Brush butter or olive oil on foods
    • Retrieve and sort ingredients in the kitchen
    • Sort ingredients
    • Turn pages in recipe book
    • Obtain utensils when setting the table
    • Help identify items in the grocery store
    • Help wipe up safe spills
    • Drain small canned foods with drainer
    • Sprinkle seasonings or cheeses
    • Dipping food items into sauces, oils, etc.
    • Learn essential safety rules in kitchen
    • Open/close cabinet doors and drawers

    More specifically, some cooking skills broken down by age include:

    2 Years

    • Stack cups
    • Place utensils into a basket or caddy (not sorted)
    • Wipe up spills with direction and support
    • Bring dinner plate to sink
    • Passive participation in cooking (playing in the kitchen while an adult is cooking)
    • Pretend play cooking with toys, kitchen toy set, etc.

    Preschool Cooking Skills

    During the preschool years, young children are developing more motor skills, behavioral and emotional regulation, and cognitive processes. These relate to less support with some of the previous tasks, as well as more independence with others.

    Some ways your preschooler can help in the kitchen:

    • Rinse fruit and veggies
    • Pour liquids and dry ingredients with assistance
    • Tear lettuce and other leafy foods
    • Stir with assistance
    • Brush butter or olive oil on foods
    • Retrieve and sort ingredients in the kitchen
    • Sort ingredients
    • Obtain utensils when setting the table
    • Help identify items in the grocery store
    • Find recipe in recipe book
    • Help wipe up safe spills
    • Drain small canned foods with drainer
    • Sprinkle seasonings or cheeses
    • Dipping food items into sauces, oils, etc.
    • Learn essential safety rules in kitchen

    Broken down into age group, try using these cooking tasks to develop skills:

    3 YEars

    • Sort utensils into a caddy
    • Help set the table, using support and visual/verbal cues
    • Wash hands before a meal
    • Help clear the table
    • Pretend play to feed and cook for baby dolls or toys

    4 Years

    • Set the table
    • Dry dishes (non-breakable)
    • Pour water from a pitcher into cups (not filled completely) with spilling
    • Help with cooking with one step directions: gathering ingredients, pouring, mixing, kneading, stirring at a counter
    • Cut dough with cookie cutters

    5 Years

    • Help to make snacks
    • Scoop dry ingredients
    • Open containers with assistance
    • Slice bananas or other soft fruits

    Elementary Cooking Skills

    As children gain more precision and dexterity, as well as ability to read and write, they gain more independence in cooking tasks. These activities can be a great help around the home as the child aged 6-8 helps out in the kitchen.

    • Cut and dice fruits and vegetables
    • Use the toaster
    • Crack eggs with some shells
    • Preheat the oven
    • Use a can opener
    • Use a peeler and corer for potatoes and apples
    • Spoon and place food items into pans or trays
    • Begin to stir food on stovetop with supervision
    • Help make the grocery list
    • Clean up simple to moderate spills
    • Transfer food bowls and plates to table
    • Help make a grocery list and identify food items at the store recognizing cost 
    • Begin to read recipes and follow the steps with guidance
    • Whisk and if older, use a mixer with guidance
    • Use the microwave with support
    • Help load and unload the dishwasher

    Broken down by age, these cooking tasks can look like:

    6 Years

    • Empty dishwasher and put away dishes
    • Pour water, milk, or juice without spilling
    • Put away groceries
    • Make a simple snack
    • Pack a basic lunch
    • Make sensory play recipes like slime, goop, oobleck, etc.

    7 Years

    • Mix, stir and cut with a dull knife
    • Pour cereal and milk into a bowl

    8 Years

    • Load the dishwasher
    • Spread peanut butter on bread
    • Read and follow a basic recipe
    • Make a grocery list
    • Crack an egg

    Older Kids Cooking Life Skills

    The cooking tasks listed below can be started with older kids. This list is a great place to start for the teen or young adult who hasn’t had much experience in the kitchen. For graduates heading off to college, or the young adult going out on their own, go through this list to ensure life skill development in the kitchen:

    9- 12 Years

    • Make scrambled eggs
    • Cook hot dogs
    • Read and understand nutrition labels
    • Plan a balanced, healthy meal for the family
    • Write down a recipe
    • Complete cooking tasks in a certain amount of time
    • Use a microwave with assistance
    • Cut, slice, and dice fruits and veggies
    • Crack eggs without shells
    • Use a can opener, peeler, grater, whisk, and corer
    • Drain larger food items
    • Follow basic recipes
    • Complete baked good recipes with guidance
    • Make sandwiches and salads
    • Use stove top to complete simple frying such as grilled cheese and eggs
    • Stir and sauté foods on stovetop with supervision
    • Help plan and develop a grocery list
    • Clean up advanced spills
    • Transfer some hot food bowls and plates to table
    • Help to identify food items at the store recognize cost 
    • Begin to read recipes and follow the steps with guidance
    • If older, use a mixer with guidance
    • Use the microwave with guidance
    • Load and unload the dishwasher

    13 Years and older

    • Slicing raw meats with various knives and utilizing hygiene safety
    • Chopping ingredients using various knives
    • Using stove top and oven
    • More independence with making recipes
    • Using various kitchen appliances such as mixers, blenders, grills, wok, grater, etc.
    • Complete operation of dishwasher
    • Frying foods on stove top
    • Use a peeler, chopper and corer
    • Retrieving hot items from stove top and oven with oven mitts
    • Planning a meal, building a grocery list, and shop with guidance in budget awareness
    • Clean up significant spills utilizing proper sanitation
    • Transfer got food bowls to table
    • Reading and completing multi-step recipes

    Here is another great checklist from the Focus on the Family website. 

    Common Pitfalls with Cooking tasks

    There will be roadblocks with unexpected twists and turns along the way.  Expect these, and learn to adapt quickly as needed. Here are a few:

    • What if the timer goes off but the item is not yet ready?
    • The timer has not gone off yet but the item is clearly burning
    • Your learner adds too much or little of an ingredient (hopefully they will learn from mistakes or the item will still taste ok)
    • There are multiple items to attend to at once, and your learner forgets something
    • The item ends up a complete disaster
    • You realize there are some serious safety concerns (learner does not understand how hot something is, or how to handle hot objects)

    These examples come from my personal experience.  I did not think of these variables that ended up happening in my sessions. I had to learn to let go of some control, as long as my learner was safe. There were definitely some mistakes and disasters.  

    True story: I worked with a sixteen year old for several months.  One of her main goals was life skills cooking.  She had difficulty with problem solving.  I decided to let her make mistakes, so she could learn from them.  I figured that a cup of salt instead of sugar, or a cup of oil instead of a quarter cup, would ruin an item enough to teach her to be more careful.  It turned out by some miracle, each of these items turned out ok!  They tasted fine to her, and she could not tell there was a mistake.  That was one of those life lessons for me, to learn to back up and let go of some control.

    Cooking Tips

    • Start early
    • Practice
    • Be realistic (your learner may never want to learn to cook more than Ramen, PBJ and Mac&Cheese)
    • Create room for error and problem solving
    • Mix things up so your learner can learn to be flexible
    • Do not be that parent who sends their teenager off to college with zero life skills
    • Even the lowest level or smallest learner can often help with some part of the task if they can not do it themselves (I work with a boy whose job is to watch the baby and yell when she wakes up)
    • Cooking with learners can be a fun AND yummy treatment session!
    • Use a picture story sequence to work on individual tasks of cooking. This is a great strategy for all aspects of cooking life skills!

    For the record, my daughters went to college well prepared in the life skills department. The common sense department was clearly lacking (the prefrontal cortex does not develop until mid 20’s).  My stepson, on the other hand, has neither life skills, nor common sense.  Bless his heart!

    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.

    NOTE*The term, “learner” is used throughout this post for readability.  This information is relevant for students, patients, clients, preschoolers, kids/children of all ages and stages, or whomever could benefit from these resources. The term “they” is used instead of he/she to be inclusive.