Enabling Environments

Promoting independence – How to do it in Early Years

  • Promoting independence – How to do it in Early Years

Juliet Mickelburgh suggests achievable strategies for promoting independence and helping children reach their full potential…

In 1955, Dr Seuss wrote the wonderful lines “A person’s a person, no matter how small” in Horton Hears a Who.

Each child in our early years settings and Reception classes is a person, full of potential to grow and learn, and to become an independent lifelong learner, no matter how small they are now.

So, how can we work towards promoting independence and helping them to fulfil this potential?

Promoting independence via your learning environment

The environment within which children learn is often referred to as the ‘third educator’. It’s a place where they can continue learning experiences in the absence of an adult.

So it’s worth looking at this carefully when considering promoting independence. How does the environment help to facilitate independent learning? Does it provide a range of developmentally appropriate resources that allow children to make choices about their play and learning?

Are there different kinds of places to be, open and spacious, enclosed and small?

One key way of promoting independence is by enabling children to transport resources from one place to another.

They are much more imaginative than we are, so while we might think the spoons are most useful on the shelf near the play dough, they could have a much better use for them with the small-world figures.

Providing opportunities to carry bags and recycled tubs, or to push trolleys to relocate resources, promotes independence and enables children to act for themselves and think outside the box.

It’s also important that resources are well organised, and children know where to find them and where to return them to. Is there a place where children can independently display any projects – 2D or 3D?

Don’t forget the old trick of getting down low so you can take a child’s eye view of your provision: what do they see, what can they reach, where can they go?

Establishing routines

Having effective routines that children can carry out themselves is great for promoting independence.

During the pandemic, many settings adapted their routines as parents and carers were not allowed to enter early years learning spaces. This meant children had to manage the emotional and practical side of this.

Establishing a simple arrival routine, and communicating it clearly to children, making it their own, has helped many settings to ease the daily ‘goodbye’ moment.

At Tapestry, we heard from many users that their children embraced the independence their new arrival routines offered them – everything from finding their peg and changing their shoes to taking their coat off and putting it on.

Consider your language

How do the words you say promote independence? Research has shown that praise develops a desire to please the adult. On the other hand, encouragement provides feedback and promotes independence.

Reflect on the way you and your team speak with children as they play. Remember that your facial expressions and gestures are part of the language that you use.

Think aloud with children, pointing out the things that worked or what they kept going with. They will begin to make connections about why and how they achieved something.

Ask them what they think, invite their curiosity. And sometimes sit quietly with them and do some silent thinking together.

Learning from others

Children have many learning tools up their sleeves. Watching is one of them and rising to the occasion is another.

Think about how you can help children to learn from each other. Notice how they observe one another and then have a go themselves, copying actions.

Use self-talk to explore this with children, commenting on how another child tried something in a particular way and wondering how they did it. Model asking an adult or child for help with something.

Promote independence by suggesting to children that they ask another child rather than an adult. For example, if they need help with knotting some string, you can point them in the direction of a child who can tie knots.

Fostering an environment where learning is shared not only promotes independence, it can also strengthen children’s sense of community.

Metacognitive & executive function skills

Metacognitive skills, such as planning, thinking, problem-solving and evaluating, allow very young children to guide and make decisions about their learning.

Executive function skills enable children to take in information, filter it, make choices, stay focused and plan.

These skills are supported by your environment and the developmentally appropriate resources you have accessible for children to select from. Children also need to know how to use the environment as they develop.

How does your provision prompt independence by encouraging children to engage in more complex experiences as they progress?

The role of the adult is key here, too. You may be working with a child to overcome a problem or learn a new skill together, gradually withdrawing your supervision as they become more proficient.

Perhaps you are modelling the use of self-talk to encourage thinking processes, supporting the development of the language they can use to talk about their thinking.

As you encourage them, whether verbally or with gestures and facial expressions, you will be helping them to make connections and recognise how they achieved something.

Supporting these skills requires working with each child as an individual, responding to their strengths and noticing when they are ready for the next step. Knowing your children is really important.

Supporting self-regulation

Dr Mine Conkbayir defines self-regulation as “one’s ability to manage one’s own emotional responses and consequent behaviour and knowing how to control those big, overwhelming feelings such as anger or fear, in order to get on with the serious business of play, building relationships and learning.”

In order to learn self-regulation, babies and children need the support of adults through co-regulation. This involves guiding them through their emotions and introducing strategies that can be learned and used again.

In your setting, think about the resources, space, time and strategies you offer babies and children to help them learn self-regulation.

As practitioners we have so many opportunities to promote independence and support each child on the road to being an independent learner.

Five ways of promoting independence

  • Involve children in decision-making – e.g. ask them where and how they think resources should be stored and involve them in creating labels for different resources.
  • Communicate with children about routines and resources. Model how to use spaces in the setting and how to look for new experiences and resources.
  • Focus on your language, gestures and facial expressions. Do they encourage rather than praise? Recording audio or video clips of yourself with children can support reflection on your practice.
  • Share the importance of promoting independence with parents and carers. Suggest ways they can support this at home. 
  • Remember, independent learning is a skill rather than an instinct; children will learn it from the adults around them, other children, and the resources you provide.

Juliet Mickelburgh is education adviser at Tapestry (tapestry.info), the online learning journal, and a former primary school teacher. She also writes for the Foundation Stage Forum.