Once asked by a university lecturer, what was my most enduring childhood memory, it didn’t take long to remember. Of course it was the hours I spent outside, playing with my siblings, my friends, no constraints and – most importantly – no adults looming. Our parents gave us clear instructions on where we could and couldn’t go, and what time we needed to return home; but freedom and the room to be independent were afforded to us. The expectation was that we made our own fun. I wonder if the same could be said now?
What do we mean by independence? The Cambridge dictionary definition is: ‘the ability to live your life without being helped or influenced by other people’. For young children it is about becoming an independent person. This incorporates self-esteem and relationships with others; being independent with life skills and becoming an independent learner – finding things you need, asking questions, solving problems, thinking critically and for yourself etc.
Where does it start? Recently I was shown a YouTube Clip – Ruby reaches for a toy. It is worth taking a moment to watch it.
The clip is about 3 minutes long and shows 6 month old Ruby’s determination to reach a toy. I have since used this at a parent information evening and also during an assembly to 4-7 year olds – their response was magical! They got it – this little baby could overcome barriers and reach the toy for herself. An extrinsic reward did not need to be dangled to entice Ruby, her satisfaction was evident when she began to play with the toy; it was intrinsic.
When I first watched the video I was overcome by two thoughts, the first being: just help her get the toy – which I quickly dismissed – and secondly, how this short clip summed up so much of what I believe in. In allowing children to do things for themselves, they will undoubtedly develop the essential life skill of independence
So how do we develop this? Evidence suggests that the ability to think and behave independently is possessed from a very early age. As such we need to nurture it in babies and young children. Reflecting on our behaviour is perhaps a good place to start: what have I done today for a child, which they could have done for themselves? As Lella Gandini of Reggio Emilia states:
‘children are strong, rich and capable. All children have preparedness, potential, curiosity and interest in constructing their learning, negotiating with everything their environment brings to them’
So how do we help a child become that independent person? As adults we need to find a balance between not overprotecting our children, or pressurising them to run before they can walk; our expectations need to be realistic, and we must bear in mind that children will always develop at very different rates.
The ‘Early Years Development Matters’, takes us through a child’s Personal, Social and Emotional Development and exemplifies the ‘Characteristics of Effective Learning’ from birth to 5 years old; some good ideas and guidance may be found in the DfE document ‘What to expect, when?’ which has been developed for parents and carers.
Furthermore, it is important that we encourage healthy risk taking, through climbing trees or doing something new, and the opportunity to embrace mistakes. In the words of Carol Dweck:
‘what we do not want is to encourage a fixed mind set where a child feels they are unable to do something for themselves so they will not try, we want a child who is comfortable trying for themselves and develops a growth mind set – they will experience the feeling that before success comes failure after failure. But that hard work and persistence works.’
In many ways it is easy to identify the opportunities we can give our children to be independent when developing life skills, such as encouraging them to get dressed in the morning, cutting their own food, opening packets and having a go at pouring a drink, tidying up their toys, being provided with a cloth to mop up spills, to name but a few. Many of these activities help a child’s physical development, so providing a sound foundation for writing and drawing – a win-win situation!
We also need to enhance a child’s innate desire to learn and explore. To do this we must ensure the home environment is ordered (a little like an Early Years classroom) and children know where to find things. Offering a couple of choices – such as what to eat at snack time or what to wear, (it is important not to ignore a child’s choice, as this will undermine their self-assurance) and making decisions, will enable them to develop their own thoughts, views and critical thinking. Allowing children to pursue their own plans, giving them the opportunity to choose what to play with and then leaving them for uninterrupted learning for increasing lengths of time in a safe environment, further supports independence.
‘Learning is intrinsic to life and because it is this important children need to be the owners of their own learning; they won’t see it as intrinsic to life if they don’t own it themselves – everything they do must have a purpose which makes sense to them’.
As already mentioned, children develop at varying rates; and as such it is important to know where each individual is on their journey, so we may support them in the next step. For example, if a child can put on their coat, next you can model, explain and encourage them to do up the zip. New skills may need practising, help may still be needed; but practice will ensure independence in learning new skill sets. In the words of Maria Montessori:
‘ Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed’
and Lev Vygotsky
‘What a child can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow’.
Giving time is essential too, though it may be quicker at this point to do it for them, in the long run encouraging independence will save us time and help our children grow.
Now, all we need to do to ensure we provide children with the best ‘independent’ start in life, is to permit them to feel in control of their lives, confident and capable, provide them with opportunities to master new skills, think for themselves and afford responsibility – job done!