You’re running late and trying to get the kids out the door. It’s freezing outside. You’ve got one backpack in one arm, the diaper bag for daycare over your shoulder, your own purse over your other shoulder, and are impatiently waiting for your kids to get their coats on.
They managed to finally get their arms in the right sleeves while you double-checked your purse to make sure you had your phone and keys.
But, now the 5-year-old is determined to get the zipper herself despite multiple failed attempts, and the 2-year-old has gotten mad at the zipper and has taken his coat back off.
You put all of the stuff down and get the 2-year-old to calm down enough to put his coat back on, and this time you zip it up for him. You tell the 5-year-old that she can practice zipping up after school, and after some convincing, this works so that you can zip it up for her. You gather your things and finally make it out of the door.
At what age is it appropriate to expect kids to zip up their own coats? What skills do they need to have first? And, when is it time to get help?
1. Why does it matter?
Zipping, buttoning, and otherwise navigating “fasteners” is an essential self-care skill. From buttoning our jeans after using the bathroom to zipping up a coat every time we go outside, we often don’t realize just how many times a day we manipulate fasteners. As children grow, they increasingly become independent with self-care skills. Seemingly overnight, we don’t have to put their arms through their sleeves or pull their shoes off for them anymore. Fasteners are another step toward your child being able to fully dress themselves. In daily life, this means they can put their own coat on for recess at school without needing the teacher to zip it, and it certainly makes leaving the house easier. In the long-term, this is one step toward building their self-confidence and self-expression.
2. What skills are needed?
First are the most obvious skills: the coordination and dexterity to use our fingers to align the zipper or thread the button through the hole. But, this is only the surface. In addition to fine motor skills, successfully manipulating fasteners requires visual-perceptual skills, sensory processing skills, executive functioning, and frustration tolerance, for example. Even a minor deficiency in any of these areas may result in the delayed ability to manipulate fasteners. An occupational therapist is able to assess these skills in the context of buttoning or zipping in order to design appropriately targeted treatment strategies.
3. Developmental timeline
Any time we consider developmental timelines, it is important to remember that each child develops at his or her own pace, and that these are not set in stone. But, it is often helpful to have a general idea of when these skills should be emerging. Below are the skills typically expected at the listed ages. You may be surprised to see that your child is ready for more independence than you thought! If, however, you have concerns that your child has not met these guidelines, please contact us for a free consultation.
1.5-2 years: Able to unzip a zipper with a large tab
2-3 years: Able to button and unbutton large (1”) buttons. Unbuttoning is learned before buttoning. Can unzip a coat.
3-4 years: Able to button and unbutton large buttons, unzip and zipper after it is “started”
5-6 years: Can zip, unzip, button, and unbutton all sizes. Still may need help with complex fasteners, like belts or back zippers.
If zipping or buttoning is an ongoing challenge in your house, and you are concerned that your child has not yet learned these skills, occupational therapy may help. An occupational therapist’s role is to facilitate the development of skills needed to engage in daily activities, including the self-care skills needed for independence. Ultimately, it is our goal to improve your family’s quality of life. We would be happy to speak with you about your concerns and determine if occupational therapy would be beneficial in helping your child achieve independence with fasteners.
Mulligan, S. (2003). Occupational therapy evaluation for children: A pocket guide. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.