Five Ways Parents Can Encourage Career Exploration in Early Childhood

Posted March 23, 2021

Parents can intentionally build career-exploration skills into their children’s lives from a very early age. Even preschoolers can begin to identify and explore activities that make them happy, which could someday become the basis for a career they love. Consider incorporating these age-appropriate activities into everyday interactions with your child.

1. Talk with Babies and Toddlers                       

One of the most essential skills you can teach young children is how to talk with others. And the “with” is the most important part of this notion. Cognitive scientists have found that back-and-forth conversation with young children is critical in a child’s language development.

Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2018 identified differences in the brain’s response to language that correlated to the number of conversational “turns” a child had. (Read more about the study here.) Children who talked with someone, rather than always being talked to, had much more brain activity as they later listened to stories than other kids did. This brain activation predicted the children’s future scores on language assessments, including vocabulary, grammar and verbal reasoning. We are wired for the back and forth of lively conversation, even from a very young age!

Talking with your child will establish not only good language and communication skills, but will build a strong trust between you and your child, which will be beneficial as they begin to explore the greater world.   

2. Make Everyday Chores and Outings Learning Opportunities

Each trip out of the house is a chance to practice skills and talk with your preschool child. When you go to the grocery store, ask questions that encourage them to point out things they see in the store (colors, numbers, shapes and so forth). Use prompts from things around you to teach your children about concepts such as where milk comes from. Encourage your child to ask you questions to find out more. You can do similar things at the library, park, doctor’s office or even when in the car or visiting other people’s homes.

As you’re out in the world with your child, point out people doing work. Repeatedly talking about jobs will help your child understand that adults each have special roles and responsibilities. Use age-appropriate language to start talking about the people you come in contact with every day:

  • Police officers keep people safe and help in an emergency.
  • Librarians help people find books at the library.
  • Construction workers build things like houses and roads.
  • Zookeepers feed and take care of animals at the zoo.
  • Plumbers build and take care of the pipes that bring water into and out of our house.

3. Choose Your Words Wisely and Respectfully

As your child’s language abilities become more sophisticated, be aware of the words and tone you use when you talk about different careers. Keep things positive and focus on building awareness of careers just as you teach your children their letters, colors, vocabulary, animals and shapes. Avoid using judgmental language that might indicate you don’t respect a particular career and stick to the facts about what different workers do.

For example, if your four-year-old is obsessed with trash trucks or the people who drive them, celebrate the service that waste disposal workers give to the world. After all, what would we do without people willing to go out on a bitterly cold morning or in the sweltering heat of the summer to collect all the things we don’t need anymore?

Regularly thank the various service professionals in your life through words of appreciation, thank you notes or small gifts—and make sure your child sees you doing it. This will show your child how much you admire hard work and that you value and appreciate all types of people who serve in jobs that help your family.    

4. Work Alongside Your Child

Watching you work at home helps your child understand what it means to work. If you intentionally involve them in what you’re doing, most young children will want to help. If you make them feel like you appreciate their work, they’ll be more helpful around the house as they grow older.

If you need to do a task like clean the basement or paint a room, don’t always arrange for your child to be elsewhere (at least not for the entire day)! Come up with safe, age-appropriate tasks they can help with, and have realistic expectations about what your child will actually be able to accomplish (and for how long they can keep doing it).

Another approach is to come up with a parallel game the child can play that makes them feel involved. For example, while you’re cooking dinner, give your preschooler a butter knife (or a spoon, if that’s more age-appropriate), a cutting board and something soft they can cut such as bread or mushrooms, so they feel like they’re helping. (Bonus points if you can figure out a way to actually incorporate what they’ve cut into the meal!)

In the garden or when you’re cleaning, you can easily find small tasks to give your kids. Having toy tools — such as miniature garden rakes or child-sized brooms — can allow them to literally dig in the dirt with you. Moving items around — such as giving them things to put one by one in a trash can, wheelbarrow or storage container — can keep any young child busy and make them feel like they’re contributing to the family.  

Likewise, if you need to work on a computer or complete another seated task indoors, rather than putting your child in front of the TV to keep them out of your hair, let them “work” next to you. Give them something constructive to do using art supplies, plastic dishware or blocks and suggest they “work” alongside you. Or, give them an old or broken calculator, phone or computer and let them play “office.” Who cares if it only lasts for five minutes?


5. Ask Questions to Inspire Critical Thinking and Imagination

The next time you’re stuck in traffic, waiting for your meal at a restaurant or sitting in a waiting room, pose questions that will inspire your child to think more deeply about the workers in that environment. Here are a few examples:

  • What do you think that police officer is doing in her car?
  • How do you think that waitress learned to balance so many dishes on one tray?
  • What do you think is in the plumber’s toolbox?
  • What do you think the teller does with my money when I bring it to the bank?
  • How do you think the vegetables get from the farmer’s field to the grocery store?
  • What do you think teachers do after the kids go home from school?

Remember: There are no right or wrong answers! You’re asking your child to say what he or she thinks they know about a situation, not what is necessarily true. They get points for creativity! Your child’s answers might crack you up — but be sure that your child doesn’t feel you’re judging them. You can turn this dialogue into a simple game by responding with your own guesses, especially if you don’t know the answer. (Have fun with it — the crazier the better!)

If you want to take this exchange further, take a few steps to discover the answer. Ask a worker a question (“Can you tell us how you learned to do that?”) to spark a conversation with the worker or, when you get home, you and your child can search online for possible answers.

Taking the time to think about, appreciate and talk about people with jobs just might spark an amazing interest in your child that he or she can begin to explore tomorrow.