Children thrive in an environment that fosters independence. Having the opportunity to do things for themselves encourages them to be confident and autonomous learners, and being independent gives children a strong sense of self-esteem.
The right adult support is essential to fostering independence in a child, but it requires the right resources too. Linda Keats, graduate training adviser, Early Years and Childcare, Essex, explains, 'I have been to many settings where I've seen beautiful resources and equipment, but the children can't access them without the help of an adult, so there is no free choice. This squashes children's independence. It is all about having resources accessible, at a low level and in containers that children can easily open.'
Beech House Nursery, part of the Fennies nursery group, reopened in November last year after extensive refurbishment designed to encourage children's independence. Two rooms were made into one large playroom to gain a better flow between the areas, and free-flow has also been introduced between the indoors and outside so that children can choose where they want to be. Low-level, child-height units with easy-access boxes give them free choice of resources.
'The children and staff all love it,' says nursery manager Laura Northeast. 'The children are a lot more involved in their play, and we do not get bored or disruptive children, because there is so much more for them to choose to do. They seem to be more confident in their behaviour now that they are encouraged to make their own choices. Children only learn how to do things if they are given the opportunity to try for themselves.
'Encouraging their independence also makes the children happy, because they can make decisions and act on them rather than have to rely on an adult or wait for someone to get things for them.'
Good storage is central to independent learning. Children should be able to access resources freely for much of the day, recommends Ms Keats, so think about a range of different ways to store and display equipment imaginatively and tidily - from shelves, carts and tray units to book displays.
'It is good to make containers exciting and intriguing for the children,' she says. 'If there is a piece of material sticking out, children will want to investigate further and see what's inside. For instance, old suitcases on ground level are great for storing material and dressing-up outfits.
'Baskets are lovely, because children can see inside them and they are usually easy to pull off shelves. Draw-string bags are also good because children can easily open them and they can be kept on pegs or on the floor.'
When selecting storage units, try to keep them at child height. Mobile freestanding shelves double up as room-dividers, and those that can be accessed from either side can be especially useful.
Make sure that containers are not too heavy for young children to pull off shelves. Transparent boxes allow children to see the objects inside, otherwise consider labelling them with photographs of the contents.
Good tools are another essential if children are to develop as independent learners. Unsuitable tools can make it difficult for children to take charge of their own learning, so early years consultant Penny Tassoni suggests caution when buying products.
'Staff should choose resources carefully and, wherever possible, buy in small quantities and road test them on the children,' she advises. 'It is hard to buy items such as scissors or gauge how easily a drawer will open from a catalogue. And what adults perceive as simple may not be for a child.'
Selecting flooring that is easy to clean in the creativity and eating areas reduces staff anxiety about mess and spillages, and so increases children's freedom to control their learning.
Children can also gain a sense of satisfaction from tidying away their own toys and resources, an important part of the play experience. Provide child-sized equipment to enable children to clean up after themselves, such as a dustpan and brush, floor cloth or short-handled mop.
Suppliers Storage is available from a wide range of early years suppliers, including:
Self-care, one of the current categories within the PSED area of learning, has a clear emphasis on independence, with three goals focusing on children's ability to dress, manage their own personal hygiene and select resources on their own.
Children should have the opportunity to try to toilet and dress themselves after a sleep, so consider putting baskets at the end of children's beds or sleep mats for them to store their clothes.
ABC Rainbow Day Nurseries in Essex provides nests instead of cots at both its settings, and the children can crawl into them whenever they choose. 'We put their own comforters in, and even though they are babies, they quickly know which is theirs,' explains owner Myra Argentieri.
Make sure that aprons and warm and protective clothing are stored alongside the areas where they are needed for easy access. Check out solutions for storing Wellington boots, such as storage units or pegs, otherwise it can be difficult to locate a matching pair.
'We have outdoor clothing accessible for the children to put on themselves. It is important to let them dress themselves as much as possible, because it encourages independence. It does take time, but they need that to achieve,' says Ms Argentieri.
The outdoor area should not be overlooked. ABC Rainbow provides hand-wash gel at a child height on the fencing so that children can access it when they need to clean their hands in the garden. The 'tweenies' even have a door into the toilet from the garden area.
If your setting does not have child-sized toilets and wash facilities, remember to provide steps so the children can use them themselves. Changing tables can also be purchased with steps to allow a toddler to climb up with the help of their keyperson.
- Changing table with steps, www.communityplaythings.co.uk
- Cloakroom bench storage unit, www.hope-education.co.uk
- Cloakroom units, www.wesco-group.com
- our-hook coat rack, www.wesco-group.com
- Cloakroom bags that can be personalised, www.smartsack.co.uk
Nurseries also need to resource areas in ways that allow children to make choices about their food.
At Fennies at Beech House, drinking water is available all day for the children to have as they wish. They also help in making their own snacks, and have mealtimes at child-height tables and chairs, with staff sitting with the children to support them.
ABC Rainbow encourages children to choose the food they eat by putting large dishes on every table. 'We provide little plastic tongs from Ikea that the children use to serve themselves,' say Ms Argentieri. 'These are easy to manipulate.'
- Wobbler Chairs, www.earlyyearsdirect.com