The Art and Design of Out-of-the-Cart Shopping

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Shopping with your kids may fall into the category of unavoidable things you’d rather not do. Or, perhaps you’ve found you really enjoy it! Enjoy it, or not, shopping raises well-documented safety issues, especially related to shopping carts. For examples, a study done in 2014 found that every 22 minutes a child in the United States experiences an injury related to a shopping cart. 90% of shopping cart related injuries occur with a parent present. In fact, the American Association of Pediatrics has advised keeping children out of and off shopping carts (or leaving them home, or bringing along another adult) whenever possible, attributing most injuries to falls. As a reminder, seats in shopping carts are intended for kids (strapped in) from 6 months to 4 years and the cart itself is intended for objects, not for people. Shopping with your child out of the cart raises its own safety and logistical considerations.

So, what should you be doing when you bring your child along for some out-of-the-cart shopping? And what if your child just happens to experience extra challenges that compromise her ability to control herself? Here are some suggestions for out-of-the-cart grocery shopping with all kids , especially those who easily become out-of-control:

Know when your child’s ready (emotionally, sensorily, motorically, communicatively and cognitively) to make the trip to the supermarket, and wait until he/she is (if possible!). Consider both your child’s abilities & responses to stimulation and the characteristics of the store you plan to visit. As guidelines, your child should be able to pay attention to you in a distracting, variable environment for at least 15 minutes and follow your simple directions. He/she should be demonstrating comfort and cooperation in small shops. He/she should be able to maintain an appropriate activity level in his/her stroller or walk holding your hand through the parking lot, for at least one aisle and the check out, and back to the car. Not sure? If you think you’re close, try it…and try it with the mindset that you want to see how your child is going to handle the store visit, rather than intending to bring home a load of groceries!

Plan for success and make it special. Schedule grocery shopping trips as special events and go to the same store repeatedly, initially avoiding grouping grocery shopping with a long list of errands you need to run. Begin with small grocers. Think about where you ‘ll park (i.e. close by, so there’s little time and space between car and store, or farther away so you and your child have some movement prior to entering). Have a simple plan (re: what you’re going to look for to buy, a logical, direct navigation and how your child is going to help, what happens at checkout and in bringing items back to the car and home) and discuss it with your child. Talk about your plan as you’re carrying it out. Reinforce good behavior along the way with frequent, immediate verbal acknowledgement and praise (“I like the way you’re holding my hand .” “You just spotted the turkey in the deli case.” “You were really listening to the man at the check. I could tell he liked to talk with you.”), a small treat from home, a special item on the grocery list that he/she gets to enjoy at the end. Avoid reacting to a negative behavior (i.e. screaming, whining, running away, noncompliance, grabbing things) with something positive (an immediate treat). Prepping your kids for what will be happening as they strike out for that special time with you, reinforcing the sequence of events, talking about it later, and repeating the activity as a familiar event soon thereafter is very helpful.

Give her your attention, the entire time. This does not mean you always need to be talking to your child, but he/she needs to know from you, though your eye contact, verbalizations, physical contact and visual regard for his/her activity, that you are there for him/her. Save your conversations with a friend you haven’t seen for ages, your time- consuming search for something you just thought of, and your talk on your phone for later. Your attention means everything!

Give her a hand. Yours! Shop only for what you can handle knowing that you will need to hold your child’s hand, at least in the beginning (and likely, for some time to come). Gentle rhythmic hand squeezes can be calming and help your child focus on you. Varied squeezes can be fun.

Give her a job. Fortunately grocery shopping involves all sorts of opportunities. From the grounding influence of “heavy work” (such as reaching for, placing and carrying objects), to the focused attention needed for visual search, perceptual-motor skills for bagging, and cognitive/language stimulation such as sequencing and categorizing, shopping for groceries offers meaningful, purposeful activities for many ages and levels of ability. Think about what your child likes and likes to do and what he/she may need to do to help with appropriate behavior as the foundations for what you will be identifying as his/her job. Reinforce a job well done (on your part as well as your child’s).

Identify the learning opportunities each visit to the grocery store has provided. What worked? What didn’t? What would you do differently – proactively add or eliminate sensory input? simplify or increase complexity? reinforce desirable behavior another way? or modify the amount of your support (physical, sensory, verbal, emotional)?

Each of us knows the feeling of being overwhelmed by a shopping experience and coming home feeling either tired and drained, highly excitable, or perhaps irritable. Kids of all ages feel this too. Yet many of us love to shop, and love to shop with kids. Why? Shopping can be safe, fun…and therapeutic! From small town grocers to huge supermarkets, local shops and boutiques to immense department stores, out-of-the-cart opportunities can be deliberated crafted with loving care for positive experiences to be built upon throughout childhood.

–Sheila Allen, MA, OT

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