I’ll admit, while the actual act of getting groceries still doesn’t top my list of favorite things to do each week, I have learned to actually enjoy it a bit more now that I have a little one. Don’t get me wrong, I love the solo trip to the store as much as the next mom, and it certainly makes the process go much more quickly, but I’ve also found that our weekly grocery store trips together provide me with a space for a vast array of teaching opportunities with my child that go beyond the basics of buying food to fill our bellies for the week.
Below is a list of 15 different (and incredibly simple) teaching opportunities for you to try out with your toddler on your next grocery shopping adventure:
1. Label everything. While this may seem like a pretty basic idea (and it is), it is also one of the simplest ways to teach a child. They learn by listening to us and interacting with us. The more we can label objects and narrate our actions for them, the quicker they will label them effectively themselves. Before your child even says their first words, you can start this process by say “Mommy is grabbing an avocado.”, or “I’m putting the bananas in the cart.” etc. Once your child begins labeling on their own, engage them in the process by asking questions like “Can you spot the spinach?” or “Do you remember what this fruit is?”.
The checkout line can also provide a wonderful opportunity for labeling. My little guy loves handing the items to the cashier and proudly sharing the name of each one as he does so. Most of the time, the cashier is more than happy to hop right on the labeling game train by asking, “What’s this one?”, as they move through each item in our cart.
2. Practice colors. For this one you can go with a color in mind, ie. “Today, I want you to see how many red things you can find”. You can also put them in charge of selecting a specific color of an item, ie. “Could you help me find the “red” pepper”. Or, a personal favorite came from an idea that my friend Heather @Heather.happykidskitchen shared with me that she uses with her boys- have them select one color, and then while there, they must pick one thing they love to eat in that color and one new thing to try!
3. Examine textures. We all experience our world through our five senses, but for toddlers it’s critical that they have the opportunity to touch. By giving them opportunities to touch fruits, veggies and beyond before placing them in your cart, you are not only promoting sensory development, but also setting the stage for a conversation using texture words like soft, hard, rough, smooth and more.
4. Compare sizes. The grocery store can provide ample opportunities for comparison vocabulary. Asking questions like “Can you help me find the biggest mango?” or “I only need a little bit of cilantro. Could you help me find the smallest bunch?”, give kids a chance to begin sizing things up, as well as a chance to start thinking about why you may want a certain portion over another.
5. Identify basic shapes. Circles, squares, rectangles and triangles can be found everywhere, including the grocery store. Whether in labels, boxes or the shape of the food itself, they are hidden in plain sight if you want to go searching for them.
6. Count Objects. “We need 5 apples. Can you help me count them?” This phrase is one we use on repeat over here for all things for which we need more than one. It works well too to help set limits for those things your kiddos love. Ie. “You can pick 3 Lara Bars to put into the cart. Let’s count them together”.
7. Identify letters. Early literacy skills and fostering letter recognition are so important in the toddler and preschool years. Take advantage of all the labels and store advertising for some skill practice. You could hunt for a particular letter, or see if you could work your way through the whole alphabet as you move through the store.
8. Read environmental print. Environmental print is that which is all around us in our every day lives. Think “Target”, “Crayola”, “STOP”, etc. Oftentimes, a child’s first understanding of that text to spoken word connection comes from environmental print. So, take advantage of it, and ask your child to help you “read” labels of some of their favorite foods, pointing at the letters etc. while you are at it.
9. Sample food. I’m not sure about your grocery store, but one of my little one’s favorite parts about grocery shopping is that we often stop for a sample. For us, that means at Trader Joes we frequent their tasting counter, or at Whole Foods we make a stop to visit the Kid’s Club to chose a fruit for snack. Just like the sense of touch, letting toddlers taste things is a huge part of that continued sensory development. It can also provides an opportunity to build vocabulary using words like sweet, salty, spicy, etc. to describe our food!
10. Develop spatial awareness. Have your child help you locate and retrieve foods using basic positional vocabulary like up, down, next to, on top of, etc. If your child likes to help you “put groceries away”, then you could continue with this same skill practice in your kitchen. Ie. “Can you put the carrots in the bottom drawer?” or “The sweet potatoes go into the basket.” etc.
11. Follow a list or recipe. I don’t know about you, but I never head to the store without a list or at least some sort of a plan in my head as to what I need to purchase when I get there. While there are occasions I may spring for an impulse purchase off of my list, our budget often requires us to stick closely to it. That being said, I think this is a life skill that even my toddler can begin to understand. To engage your child in this process of having a shopping “purpose”, create a short list for them to check off while you are at the store just like you do. Make sure to add pictures to help guide them as they search for their goods.
12. Give them a chance to make choices. As adults we are constantly making choices when we head to the store about which products we should purchase. Including your little one in this process, when able, gives them the opportunity to practice this skill as well. Asking questions like “Do you think we should get the yellow or red beets?” or “Would you prefer to have blueberries or strawberries to snack on this week?” not only gives them a chance to do this, but have some say in the groceries for your home.
13. Talk about where things come from. Did it grow on a tree? Is it a root? Did it come from an animal? Use your shopping trip as an opportunity to talk about all of the ways, shapes and forms our food is produced. Better yet, take a corresponding field trip and/or plant your own garden to see the process in action.
14. Tie in literature. Now this takes a little pre-planning outside of the actual trip to the store, but I had to put it in here as I think the benefits are worth it. Taking the time to read about specific fruits and vegetables and all of their shapes, colors, etc. gets kids excited about them even before you step foot in the store. It builds their background knowledge, which only serves to foster stronger connections and understanding for them while there. Check out this list of “12 Wonderful Books for Kids about Vegetables” from The Natural Nurturer for a starting place.
15. Model and practice manners. From please, thank you, hello and goodbye to smiles, turn taking and door holding, there are so many opportunities to model manners and the life-long skill of respecting others any time you are out and about. I try and make it a point to not only be cognizant of my actions, but also discuss some of these things with my toddler in order to build his understanding of “why” we do them. Ie. “The cashier gave you a sticker. That was really nice of her. Let’s say ‘thank you’.”, or “That person got into line before us, so we have to wait our turn behind them to check out”, or “Oops, you bopped into that person when you weren’t looking. Let’s make a repair by saying “excuse me”. You get the drift.
So there you have it – fifteen opportunities to level up your grocery store trips with a whole lot of learning! Which of these do you maybe already do naturally? Which will you try this week?
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