Learning & Development: Two-Year-Olds: Part 3 - Can do!

Penny Tassoni
Friday, March 8, 2013

When two-year-olds begin to show signs of greater independence, how and when adults intervene is crucially important, says Penny Tassoni.

By the age of two, children's physical skills have come a long way. A new world of exploration and freedom beckons. Children enjoy climbing, propelling themselves on wheeled toys and investigating the contents of cupboards. This gives them a taste of freedom and, of course, independence as they no longer need to rely on adults to do so much for them. But as anyone who has worked with a two-year-old knows, the move towards greater independence is not always plain sailing. There are times when children become frustrated with both themselves and with adults. So, how important is it that two-year-olds become independent and how can we help them on this journey?


When looking at the importance of encouraging independence in two-year-olds, a good starting point is their emotional development. In the first few years of life, children are learning about themselves. Over a number of years, they will develop an internal model of their own competency, but also their potential for competency. The latter, often dubbed self-efficacy, is about whether when faced with a new skill or challenge, one is optimistic about one's potential to eventually achieve. In business-speak this is about having a 'can-do' attitude.

Self-efficacy also plays a key role in children's global evaluation of themselves or self-esteem. As well as opportunities to be independent and make choices, children are learning about themselves from the reactions of adults. This means that how and when we intervene is important (see later).


Then there's the business of learning. When two-year-olds do a little DIY, however protracted, there are plenty of cognitive benefits. Firstly, concentration. Doing something that is challenging and requiring high levels of sustained attention is good for children's concentration skills. In some cases, opportunities for independence can also be opportunities for communication and language too, although interestingly, you may find that there is not much chatter when children are engaged in a task which requires their full concentration.

Children are also likely to be learning about textures and processes when they are being independent. Doing up a shoe with a buckle requires bending the leather or fabric and pushing it through the buckle and there is a process to be followed. Then there are also opportunities for trial-by-error learning and problem-solving. There is an art, for example, to using a soap dispenser as well as the fascination that comes from anything that has a pump action. It is easy for adults as seasoned handwashers and dressers to forget how interesting zippers can be and how riveting a flush action toilet is, but in reality these are all learning experiences for our two-year-olds.

Of course, not everything in terms of independence is about doing. Sometimes it is about choosing. This is a cognitive process requiring us to think about the benefits and disadvantages of two or more things simultaneously. It requires us to consider other factors such as our mood, previous experiences and interests and, of course, what others are doing. As learning to choose is quite a complicated process, it is perhaps not surprising that some two-year-olds can find choice overwhelming or that they simply keep changing their minds.


Finally, there is the physical development aspect of children's growing independence. Many tasks that children will want to do are likely to involve both gross and fine motor movements. Repeated movements of the hands in activities such as doing up a coat or pulling off all the tops from the felt-tip pens are great for muscling up the hands and developing hand-eye co-ordination. Many movements such as being able to climb to the top of a slope unaided or walking on a low wall as well as developing confidence also act as building blocks for more complex skills.


How independent children can become is partly linked to adults' expectations. The more adults encourage children to try things out, the more capable and confident they can become. Of course, expectations can vary from setting to setting and from parent to parent. In terms of self-care skills, as a general guide, between the ages of two and three, you should be encouraging children to learn to use a fork alongside a spoon (if this is culturally appropriate), to put on and take off simple clothes such as hats and shoes and to do up a large zip if started.

Children can also start to put things away, with support, and also hang up easy garments on pegs. You can also encourage them to become apprentices and so try out 'household' tasks such as brushing, wiping tables and carrying items - although in the role of apprentices there are no guarantees when it comes to the quality of work. As you might expect, two-year-olds also need plenty of opportunities for child-initiated play.


Frustration is often a feature of children wanting to be independent. There are a variety of reasons why children become frustrated. Firstly, sometimes children know what it is they want to achieve, but don't quite have the physical skills to manage it. We often seen this when children try to start off a zipper but the two sections are not lined up. Sometimes frustration is caused by children not having the experience or knowledge that they need. They may not know that to use a pair of scissors, the paper has to be at right angles to the blade.

Then there is the frustration caused by adults who often quite rightly intervene to keep children safe. While there is a great desire for independence in most children, unfortunately, two-year-olds are often impulsive and do not understand safety issues. They may be determined to walk up a slide while another child waits to come down. Asking them to come off the slide is not likely to go down well!


There are no sure-fire ways to prevent children from becoming frustrated. Perhaps, one could argue that learning to overcome and deal with frustrations is a larger part of children's learning. There are, however, a few things to consider. A good starting point is to look at the resources that are provided. If your setting is taking in younger children than before, do resources reflect this?

It is possible to buy scissors that have a spring action, for example, and markers that are in the shape of a ball. How easy are the aprons to put on and once on, are they comfortable for children to wear? Is there enough variety and interest so that children have plenty of safe opportunities?


It is also worth looking at the routine and the everyday opportunities for children to be independent. Rolling snacks, for example, work well, but can children also have a chance to wash up their own beaker and plate in your setting? Admittedly, items will need washing by an adult later, but it is a start.

Can water be provided in small bottles so that children can pour them into their own beaker? Are resources presented in ways that allow children to tidy them up afterwards? Is it possible to mark out spaces so that children know where best to sit to put on shoes and coats? And are there enough pegs so that children can easily hang up garments?


It can be tortuous to watch a slow-moving two-year-old put on their coat with their jumper sleeve riding up and causing a blockage. Or to watch some peas being chased around a bowl by a fork. The temptation to jump in and just get the job done is often overwhelming, especially if time is short.

The danger with doing this repeatedly is that children do not perceive themselves as competent and so may eventually not bother to take the initiative. Having said that, a child who is starting to become frustrated and is not helped out may begin to lose heart.

As with other areas of child development, the key is to get to know the developmental abilities of a child, their responses and also temperament. Individual children will have different thresholds of patience.

There are, for example, some children who hate to lose face and may not ask for help or want help to be given. They may well persevere for quite a long time, hating to admit defeat. This can be tricky, but in my experience, a discreet bit of assistance, rather than saying anything, can work well.

On the other hand, there are children who enjoy having adult attention and have learnt that by being helpless, they can quickly have adult-eye contact and interaction. These children may need to be cajoled into doing a little more and given adult attention in the form of acknowledgement for their achievements.


A key way in which we can help children gain self-care skills is through modelling, especially if we articulate what we are doing at any given stage. This is why eating with children is helpful and so too is putting on a coat or shoes in front of them.

Modelling only works when the skills are within children's grasp, but if we break down the stages and try a follow-my-leader approach, it can be effective. Some children do learn from watching others.


Knowing children also helps when it comes to choice. We have seen already that choice does require a fair amount of cognitive processing, but is also linked to experience. While recognising that having choices about what to eat, where to play and what to play with are all important for children, we must also recognise that too much choice for some children may actually be stressful. This may mean that we guide these children through the options and reassure them that they can change their minds.


Different environments that have different expectations are likely to affect what children do. This is particularly true of self-care skills and opportunities to be independent. It is, therefore, worth finding out from parents what self-care skills the child routinely does at home.

We may find, for example, that at home, a child often gets their own plate and cup at mealtimes, but on the other hand, the parent always does their coat up. At home, the child might also be good at choosing toys and games or asking for things, but in the setting seems to 'butterfly' - not staying at any activity for very long. Sharing information can help us to reflect on how empowering our setting is for young children.


  • Avoid taking a teaching role - instead be a coach or partner who is ready to help out and provide moral support.
  • Break down tasks into smaller steps and let the children know that some things are 'tricky'.
  • Go with the flow - if a child is determined to do something alone, respect this - worry about the shoe being on the wrong foot later.
  • Recognise that variable willingness is typical for this age range. Be ready to lend a hand when children are tired or not so interested in self-care skills.
  • Give children plenty of time when making choices, but also during self-care tasks.
  • Recognise when children are tired and do not overwhelm them with choices.
  • Model self-care skills and if necessary look for opportunities where older children can be alongside the two-year-olds.
  • Acknowledge the children's successes and help them to feel proud of themselves.


  • Watch how co-ordinated children are - both large movements and hand-eye co-ordination. This helps to ensure your expectations are reasonable.
  • Look at how the child manages in your setting. If children are doing less than at home, consider why this might be.
  • Watch the child's mood when they arrive at nursery. When children are unsure or unhappy, parents may instinctively respond by 'mothering' them as a way of protection. If this is the case, focus on developing the relationships between the key person and child.
  • Watch how relaxed the child seems in the setting. Look out for smiles and open body language. Children who are unsure may be hesitant.
  • Be aware of combinations of children that seem to encourage each other to be independent.
  • Evaluate carefully your setting's routines. Are there times which seem stressful as this will affect both adults' and children's responses? How is the child coping with simple choices?


Leading experts will be offering essential information and advice on policy and provision for two-year-olds at our conference in London on 19 April.

Guiding you through the funding and rollout of the Government programme of funded places for two-year-olds will be James Hempsall. As director of Hempsalls, he is leading the 'Achieving Two-Year-Olds' support programme for early years settings with Mott MacDonald for the Department for Education. There will be expert advice too on the 'Progress Check at Two', from a setting and local authority perspective.

A line-up of top early years consultants and authors will also guide you through the essentials of provision for this age group. Penny Tassoni will look at the play, emotional and learning needs of the two-year-old. Guidance on planning, observation and assessment will be provided by Vicky Hutchin, an expert in this field, while under-threes specialist Julian Manning-Morton will be focusing on the role of the key person.

To help you develop your understanding further of provision for this age group, there will be a selection of workshops covering subjects such as 'the play environment', schemas and planning activities around the senses.

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