Positive relationships: Let's talk about ... independence

Annette Rawstrone
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Is independence something that can be taught? How do early years practitioners approach it with the children's parents? Annette Rawstrone spoke to teachers at a Montessori school.

Q: How do you encourage children to be independent?

'We have a prepared environment that allows the children to know where everything is. They do not need constant attention, because they can get things for themselves.'

'The child has the opportunity to do things that appeal to them, which is the start of independence.'

'Independence is something that we model as well. We can't teach anything that the child is not ready to absorb through observation.'

'A few children struggled with their coats and putting them on, so we do activities with coats and buttons so that now they can do it themselves and help their friends.'

'At circle time we give children time to talk and say what they think and feel so they have an opportunity to be heard.'

'Independence is also when children realise that their opinions are being heard, so it is important to give time to listen to a child - truly listen.'

'The children are allowed to sit wherever they like, whether it is the floor or the table. Then they have their own working space and they can take care of it.'

'Today one child said she just needed a few moments and she read a book and hugged a big cuddly thing and was totally at ease, and then she was ready to join the group again. She knew she just needed a break and her own time.'

'It was clear for Montessori that we should impede on the child's freedom as little as we can, we should show how to use materials with as few words as needed so the child knows how to work with it and then leave them to experiment for themselves. The only thing required is that the child keeps things tidy for others to use later.'

'Very often we don't give a child enough time to answer a question, but we have to be patient and give a child enough time to achieve what they want to do - knowing that "cause" is more important than "product".

'We make sure that the work is their own work so the children can take pride in what they do, rather than see the teacher's work - that makes the child dependent on adults, and they then constantly have to be told something is good, rather than refer to their own judgement.'

Q: Do parents allow children similar independence?

'Some mothers try to help their child as much as possible when perhaps it is not helping them at all.'

'At home parents are afraid that, perhaps, water might be spilt, and they rush to help the child. But that can affect the child's self-esteem. It makes them think they need help because they are incapable.'

'Some of the parents love the Montessori philosophy and understand the purpose of it, but there are parents who do everything for their child, such as take off their coats instead of letting them do it for themselves.'

'For some parents they just want to help their most precious being - they don't intend to go against the philosophy.'

'Some parents think their child is too young to do certain things, rather than just letting them have a go. It is a natural thought - they are young so I'll do it.'

'It is also quicker for parents to do things themselves. You shouldn't rush your child - give them the space and give them extra time in the morning. But that's not always possible.'

'When parents enrol their child we talk to them about what we are doing and the importance of allowing their child independence.'

'Independence allows children to learn to trust their own thought processes and feelings and to communicate them.'

'Children learn to learn through doing - it is one of the biggest life skills they have. To experience things for themselves then allows them to understand it.'

Q: Why is it so important for a child to have independence from an early age?

'Independence is the basis of everything. In fact, Montessori said about war that it is ridiculous that people can go to war and kill other human beings with no thought, unflinchingly. And this is because from a very young age we are told that we have to do what someone else is telling us. We do not learn to use our own heads because we are constantly being made to do things, rather than follow our own wishes, likes and dislikes.'

'When children say to us "I can't do this", then we say, "Well, let's try". Finally someone is giving them the chance to do something for themselves and they find that they are capable.'

'Independence allows children to do their own work and take pride in what they do.'

'Children from a young age should learn to trust their own thought processes and feelings and learn to communicate them.'

'Giving a child independence and freedom of choice helps them to love learning. Not all children are interested in the same topic, but being able to choose, or do things when they are ready, stops a child from shutting off their mind.'

'Independence allows children to experience things for themselves which allows them to understand it.'

'Creativity can only happen through a mind that has not been modelled. It comes through free expression.'


Michael Pettavel is head of Randolph Beresford Early Years Centre, London. He will be hosting a seminar called 'Children in the outdoors: Fun, risk and potential for learning in an Enabling Environment' at the Nursery World Show 2009 (23 and 24 January). For more information, visit www.nurseryworldshow.com.

'Independence' is one of those words that we use in the early years as a given statement of good practice. However, it is subjective, and as with all terms that we use frequently, it needs some scrutiny. Can independence limit or promote learning? Do children need support and direction in order to make good choices? If so, then how autonomous should they be, and to what extent should we support them?

Children need to gain mastery of their own lives, whether this be pouring water or climbing a tree. Sometimes we as parents and practitioners can limit opportunities because of our own agendas (time, mess, danger, the need for high levels of support and so on). In doing so, we run the risk of limiting the potential for learning. At the height of learning we are often at the cutting edge of our skills, and as a result we make mistakes. A high-quality setting sees that mistakes are an intrinsic part of learning and essential for development.

The environment we provide should ensure that children are able to become competent in their abilities. Therefore the 'context' in which we encourage independence is important (think of the difference between a three-year-old pouring cold water from a jug or boiling water from a kettle!). It is within our own interests, and society's, to support children in developing the skills and knowledge that allow them to operate as confidently and competently as possible. If you look at the rules and routines of your setting, do you find that you are supporting and trusting them to do this? Do ungrounded fears about safety infringe on children's independence to master skills they need to become safe?

Independence opens up rich opportunities for learning, but does involve a trade-off. In becoming independent, one of the most valuable skills we learn is how to be in control of ourselves. In doing so we are able to ask for help and understand the complicated balance between our own and others' rights.

As practitioners and professionals we must actively teach and support the skills, attitudes and knowledge needed to become independent, while welcoming the slips and mistakes that it often brings. We learn to drive a car with an expert sitting next to us, but if our driving instructor simply drove us around, we would never properly master the skills or confidence necessary to become a competent driver.

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