Keeping your preschooler happy and engaged at the supermarket

A Montessori preschool teacher and director of many years, Jessica Salinas has two grown sons who taught her lots of fun ways to play while shopping. She lives in Austin with her husband; their dog, River; and their bird, Skyline Scalene Salinas. Gather more of Jessica’s wisdom at her blog, That Happy Hum.

Photo by Michael S. Frost

Photo by Michael S. Frost

Shopping with a preschooler can be a challenge—there are so many things designed for them to want! But we can’t always leave them at home, and even if you can, why overlook this opportunity to use the supermarket’s educational potential?

With effective questions, parents can help their child practice academic skills, especially math-related ones. And, with effective modeling, parents can help their child learn how not to be overcome with desires for products that, one aisle over, they didn’t even know existed.

Here’s how to do it.

When playing with math with your child, the most important vocabulary words are set and just as many. In the produce section, write a numeral between one and nine on a piece of paper, and show it to your child. Hold open the bag, and ask him or her to put in “just as many apples as that”: the number you’ve written. Don’t say the number out loud, however. This adds a layer of challenge to the task—decoding the number without the verbal cue, which children usually know better. It also gives you a gift – information about what your child knows and doesn’t know.

Suppose you’ve written a 6, and your child puts in 9 apples. Guess how many apples you are buying today? That’s right . . . you are buying 9. And furthermore, you aren’t going to correct your child’s mistake—at least, not by saying anything more just now beyond “Look at you counting! Go, sweetheart, go!” This is because we want to stay playful and keep your child feeling successful. Adults need to always look for what the child is doing right, and emphasize that. If you say, even sweetly, “Oops, that was a six—let’s see how many apples got into the bag . . . seven, eight, nine . . . oops . . . too many!” this correction only shows them they did it wrong.

No fun.

Here’s how to re-introduce that 6 means six: In the next aisle, you take the turn. Write down 9, and have your child tell you to get “just as many.” Then count out loud as you select cheese sticks, or whatever.

You can also bring a bag with the magnetic numerals from your refrigerator, and pull them out. This is actually even better, because it’s more tactile.

Photo by dvhansen,  All About the Heart

Photo by dvhansen, All About the Heart

Now, to help your child learn to overcome the powerful sway of brands that call seductively from the shelves, you get to indulge your inner dramatic actor. Before you go into the store, say seriously to your child, “We are going into a place that is designed to make me want things I don’t even know exist right now. I might call for you to help me not to be susceptible. Will you help me if I need you?”

I love the word susceptible here—it’s expansive vocabulary, and even with a very young child, is evocative, and when he or she sees you standing in front of an enameled orange saucepan, all will become clear.

“Uh oh . . . I think it’s happening . . . help me, sweetheart! This orange enameled saucepan is very beautiful! I want to buy it, but we already have a saucepan! Quick, take my hand, pull me away.” Let your child pull you, even as you push the cart he or she is sitting in, while giving yearning glances over your shoulder toward the saucepan and reaching back for it. “So beautiful . . .” When you are far enough away, shake your head like someone awakening from a magic spell, and thank your child for saving you.

Happy shopping,
Jessica Salinas