The preschool years are a time of burgeoning independence when children develop their intellectual, verbal, and social-emotional skills. It’s a time when they tackle an increasing number of tasks independently. As children learn to be more responsible, they are practicing their large and fine motor skills at the same time. This period is also their chance to gain self-confidence and build their self-esteem.
At each age and stage of early childhood, independence looks different. Infants, while still completely dependent on caring adults to respond to their physical and emotional needs, nonetheless learn to express themselves and become more mobile. Toddlers demonstrate increasing motor and cognitive abilities, and they express the desire to do more for themselves. Children in preschool begin to control their feelings, and their communication becomes increasingly verbal. The statement “I can do it myself” becomes a common refrain.
Becoming increasingly independent is a hallmark of children’s growth and development. According to psychologist Jim Taylor, Ph.D., if your children are independent, then as a parent, “You have provided them with the belief that they are competent and capable of taking care of themselves.” It means that “You gave your children the freedom to experience life fully and learn its many important lessons.”
Fostering independence isn’t always easy. A child who wants to do it herself might end up pouring milk all over the counter, or putting her shoes on the wrong feet. You may be in a hurry to get out the door, but your child wants to zip his jacket by himself, and he might take some time doing so. (Many parents want to give their children confidence in their own abilities, but they also need to get to school or work on time.) There may also be safety concerns, especially as children attempt to reach for things that are beyond their grasp.
Psychologist Jeanne Williams has stated that “habitually doing things for your child that she’s capable of doing herself sends an inadvertent message that you don’t have confidence in her abilities.” So how can you help your child develop his or her skills without regularly having major cleanups or delays? While some of these are unavoidable, there are steps you can take to pave the road for your child’s growing independence.
First, look for signs of readiness for more independence. Children who are asking questions or trying things themselves are demonstrating their readiness to progress to the next stage of their development. Now is the time to show your confidence in their abilities!
Next, look around your home environment. There are many ways to create a physical environment that helps foster independence. Items such as small chairs (that are easy to get in and out of) and step stools at sinks and counters (to maintain safety and remove obstacles to children’s independence) can create such an environment at home. Give them small pitchers so that they can pour drinks themselves. Keep hooks low so that children can hang up their own jackets. Organize your home so that your child knows where everything goes and can take and return everyday items on his or her own. Find household tasks that your child can do independently, or assist you with, such as setting and clearing the table, or putting their clothing in a laundry basket.
Finally, it makes sense to adjust your own expectations. For example, if you think you need only 30 minutes to have your child dressed and ready to go, try allotting 45 minutes initially. This way, you won’t get frustrated by your child’s doing something for himself slowly that you could do much faster. You’ll also feel less compelled to jump in and take over a task your child is attempting. And finally, bear in mind that it takes time to master such things as putting on a shirt or pouring cereal. Allow your child sufficient time to accomplish these tasks.
At The Learning Experience, we work with parents to foster each child’s independence and individual development. We provide a physical environment specifically tailored to fit small children — including child-sized facilities and furniture — that encourages independence. Teachers help children learn where to put their personal items each day when they enter the classroom. Toys, art materials, and books are placed where children can retrieve these supplies on their own as well as return them when they are done. Children learn to set a table, wash their hands, and clean up after their meals all by themselves. They also enjoy a variety of opportunities to pretend to participate in “adult” tasks. In our Make Believe Boulevard®, students pretend to be firefighters, store owners, auto mechanics, and whatever else inspires their imaginations. Children love to interact with one another through pretend play that prepares them for their growing independence.
Think about parenting as the art of slowly releasing responsibility over time, starting when your child is in preschool. It’s your job to keep your child safe and healthy while still allowing for personal growth and development. By taking these steps to help your child become more independent, you also show that you are your child’s best advocate and cheerleader!