At my daughter’s six-year check-up, I cringed a little when her pediatrician asked if she could tie her shoes. It was included, among with “reads a few words” and “draws a stick figure with at least five parts,” on a list of developmental milestones typically expected by age six. Despite several months of effort (ending with my daughter declaring that she simply “isn’t ready” and will need to try again in first grade), my daughter was nowhere near able to tie her shoes independently. About half the students in her kindergarten class had also not mastered this simple self-care skill yet. So that raises the question: just when should a child be able to tie his own shoes?
There isn’t a clear answer to this question, because it varies by generation. Just as babies today don’t tend to crawl as early as their parents and grandparents (thanks to sleeping on their backs, which is much safer but doesn’t offer the same amount of exercise), kids today don’t usually tie their shoes as early as previous generations. That’s because laced shoes have been largely replaced by footwear with Velcro straps, which are far more convenient for kids who haven’t yet mastered the skills behind shoelaces.
My daughter’s pediatrician said that, although they “like to see” kids tying their shoes by age six, it’s now not uncommon for children to be unable to tie their own shoes until seven or eight years old, thanks to the advent of Velcro-strapped shoes. Any point, through age seven, is considered to be a normal age to learn to tie shoes. In many cases, a child who is “late” tying his shoes simply hasn’t had to try yet. Many pediatricians, teachers, and occupational therapists recommend switching to laced shoes around the time a child starts kindergarten, so that they’ll start practicing shoe-tying skills.
A child with typical development will normally be able to tie his own shoes within about one year of being introduced full-time to laced shoes, with some kids mastering the skill as early as age four, and the majority learning it at age five or six. At the very least, typically-developing children should start trying to tie their own shoes (even if they often or always fail) before kindergarten is over. Although most kids will master the skill by this point, some perfectly healthy and normal kids will only be able to do the first step or two until age seven or later.
If a child who regularly wears laced shoes reaches age six, or the end of kindergarten, (whichever comes first) without even attempting shoe-tying, it might be a good idea to bring it up to his pediatrician or teacher. If he’s struggling with other fine-motor skills like drawing or writing, he might benefit from extra help in the form of occupational therapy. Occupational therapy is a series of activities, led by professionals, to help refine kids’ skills using the muscles in the hands and fingers. While it’s probably not a problem for a child to have difficulty tying his shoes, some kids might benefit from a little extra help if they’re struggling to use their hands skillfully. Touch base with your pediatrician or your child’s educators if you’re concerned about shoe-tying or any other developmental milestone.