Everyday, Simple Idea #24: Tips on Shoe Tying

I am sharing some of the simple, daily things I do at home as a Mom that come from my occupational therapy background.

shoe binEveryday, Simple Idea #24: Tips on Shoe Tying

I get requests all the time to teach a child how to tie their shoes.  It seems to be a skill that scares parents.  We give children Velcro shoes for the toddler and preschool years, then panic when they need to wear tied shoes to school gym class (or their feet get big enough it is hard to find shoes that don’t need to be tied).

So: it’s time to teach your child to tie their shoes, but you’re not sure where to start.  Once the skill of tying shoes has been learned, it is automatic (meaning you can do it without any thought or effort).  However, this makes it hard to teach because adults forget how to do the task step by step.  Teaching shoe tying is similar to teaching other skills: it takes instruction, guidance, and practice.  There are 8 main tips I give parents to help them teach their children at home:

  1. Get a set-up that makes it easy to see both laces. There are several ways to accomplish this.  First, you can get a permanent marker and color one lace on each shoe (while this works, I feel the marker rubs off too much on little fingers).  Another way to is take two shoe laces of different colors and cut them in half, then tie the mismatches halves together.
    • Why?  This will help children see the 2 laces more easily, and it gives the adult a clear way to talk about each lace (i.e. take the blue lace under the pink lace).
  2. Mark the laces.  Use a permanent marker and color dots on the laces where they should meet up.  For example, make 2 red dots where the laces meet and/or where the fingers pinch while making the bunny ear loop.  Don’t make too many dots, but watch your child and see where they are struggling to get the laces in the right place and make your dots there.
    • Why?  The dots give extra cues or information that decrease the visual-motor challenge of this skill and increases the chances of success.
  3. Get good shoe laces.  You want long laces for ease of tying at the start of learning this skill (longer is generally better, you can always shorten laces if needed).  Flat laces (rather then rounded laces) will stay in place better while you learn.  For children who struggle, try tying pipe cleaners a few times to have laces that stay in place easily while learning the steps.
    • Why?  Good laces will make the task easier.  Shoe tying is hard because it involves several steps that have to be done right to have success.  Children get easily frustrated if things don’t work out as planned, help them succeed in every way possible.
  4. Practice tying your own shoe a few times. Decide on one method of tying and stick to it (I don’t really care which way you tie your shoes, just pick one!).  Talk through each step out loud and make a script.  Use this script the same way each time you help you child practice. If you’re stuck for a script, find a YouTube video and use their script, such as this one from Lots to Learn
    • Why? The goal is that your child learns this script and tells it to themselves (called self-curing).
  5. Decide on one method and stick to it.  There are lots of ways to tie shoes, just be consistent for your child’s sake.  One key step is whether you push the lace through a hole or pull it out from the hole.  Try it a few times both ways, then decide and stick to it.  I prefer to pull a lace out from the hole (pulling towards the child) because it is an easier visual task for children.
    • Why?  Consistency will lead to faster learning of this skill.
  6. Get the right perspective. Think of how your child will view the shoe and laces when tying their own shoes (top down, looking out to the toes).  Make sure you use this perspective when practicing tying shoes.  You can do this on the child’s foot, or with a fake shoe taped on a table or tied around another heavy object.
    • Why?  The visual-motor coordination of tying shoes can be challenging.  You need to teach this skill in the exact way a child will see it on their own shoe.
  7. Make a fake shoe (hole punch into cardboard or tag board) and practice on there first (or bring a real shoe up onto the table).  I have also found paper shoes to practice with at the dollar store.  You can also use an actual shoe as a model (just find a relatively clean shoe to use!). It is easier if the shoe doesn’t move around; tie it around something heavy and large if needed.
    • Why? Reaching down to the foot makes it harder to teach this skill and more complicated for the child to learn.  Work on success with tying first, then progress to tying the shoe on the foot.
  8. Practice, practice, practice.  Find times when you are not rushed to get out the door and ask your child to practice.  It is best when they really want to be putting on the shoes (for example, to go to the park).  Give them time first to try on their own, then offer help.  Practice together many times before you expect them to be successful.  When they start on their own, resist the urge to retie the shoes right away when they are not done right.  Focus on helping them be successful.  Try having them do only the first or last step in the beginning and build up from there.
    • Why?  The brain needs to practice any new motor skill many times to build strong neural (brain) connections to make this skills fast and automatic.

Another great post on shoe tying from Mama OT, with some great alternatives to shoe tying for children who need to adapt the task.

Interested in other tips about daily tasks?

Paige Hays is an occupational therapist who provides in-home, pediatric occupational therapy services in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, MN. She is a mother of 2 girls, avid DIYer, and a highly skilled and experienced OT. She specializes in working in pediatrics, with diverse expertise ranging from cognition and sensory issues to working with children with neuromuscular disabilities or complex medical needs.  www.paigehays.net