Natural Instructions

Natural Instructions

Children hear several instructions every day, such as:

  • Needing to “Wave” and “Say Hi!” when visiting a relative
  • Sitting with ‘criss-cross’ legs when it’s story time
  • Going to “throw away” a tissue they just wiped their nose with


Hence, it is important for all children, even with limited language skills, to understand at least some basic instructions they would hear every day. This lesson will focus on how to teach instructions as part of the everyday routines a child already has.

Pre-requisites to Natural Instructions

It is important for a child to have the foundational skill of imitation, as imitation forms the foundation of much learning. Imitation is how we learn to speak, learn to brush our teeth or even learn to drive a car as an adult.


In order for a child to learn everyday instructions, they need to be able to imitate or copy it from watching an adult or video. It can be difficult for a child to understand what words like ‘point’ or ‘wave’ mean unless an adult shows them first. 


This does not mean a child must be fluent at imitation, as long as they have some skill in it.

Types of Imitation

There are many types of imitation, with some actions being easier to learn than others:

  • Gross motor imitation: Big actions, like standing up, or jumping. These are usually easier to imitate compared to smaller actions.
  • Fine motor imitation: Small actions, like sticking one’s tongue out or touching the index finger and thumb together. The smaller the action, the smaller the muscles involved, hence the more control and concentration required.

For a child who is still developing their imitation skills, it is still possible to teach instructions with the imitation skills they already have.

Signs a Child can Imitate

  • They can already speak a few words
  • Can copy basic actions in nursery  rhymes like “Wheels on the Bus”

Common Natural Instructions

Below is a non-exhaustive list of common instructions a child might hear everyday at home:



Some instructions are easier to learn because they come with a cue. For example, when an adult raises their palm this indicates “High five!”

Materials You Will Need

Materials for teaching instructions will vary depending on the instruction, but it is generally recommended to have:

  1. Video models: For each instruction to be learned. Alternatively, some children learn by imitating the adult first, and then fading off the prompt.

Teaching Instructions Naturally

The instruction to be taught needs to be targeted at natural points of the day. Here are a few examples:

  • Teaching how to wave “Hi” and “Bye” just before Mom or Dad leaves for work, or when they come home
  • Teaching “Clean up” as a habit for cleaning up one’s toys after playing


The more intentional an adult is to set up opportunities for practice, the faster the child will learn.

Feel free to download this Daily Schedule for Natural Instructions as a guide for when to target instructions throughout the day.

Your Turn

1. Select two or three everyday instructions from the below list your child does not know yet, that you would like to teach. 

  • wave (saying “Hi, Bye”)
  • high five (hand up)
  • clap (saying “Yay!”)
  • put in (shape in shape sorter)
  • give ____ (object on table)
  • clean up (toys and a box)
  • pick up (point at object on floor)
  • throw away (point at trash)
  • hug (arms open)
  • kiss (lean forward)

Feel free to change up the words according to how your family says it too.


2. Decide together with your partner which parts of the day would be best to target these instructions. Try to get between 3 to 5 practices a day if you can. The more practice, the better!