Learning and Development

How to support autonomy in early childhood settings, and why you should

  • How to support autonomy in early childhood settings, and why you should

Alexia Barrable explores the whys and hows of supporting autonomy in early childhood settings…

“I want the blue one,” says two-year-old Maddie, pushing the yellow beaker away. She looks at Tom, her key worker. He’s holding the blue beaker in his hand, and offers it to Maddie. “Why don’t you come and help me pour the water into this one, then?” he says.

Maddie is at the stage of development where children start to explore their autonomy. Although defined in many different ways by the philosophical and psychological literature, the essence of the term can be about self-determination.

To put it simply, autonomy in this context refers to the freedom to have choice and control one’s actions. It can be seen in children as young as 18 months and it is mostly fully developed by age three.

Years of research have shown that autonomy can be seen as a basic psychological need that needs to be fulfilled in order for humans to flourish.

In this sense, being able to behave in an autonomous way is essential to our wellbeing. In the case of young children, it’s the socialising agents, the parents and educators, who need to support this basic need.

Nurturing autonomy

Supporting young children’s autonomy has been found to have far-reaching positive effects on the child’s development, including benefits to executive function, mastery-related behaviours and general socialisation.

Failing to support children’s autonomy, on the other hand, or actively thwarting it by being controlling has been associated with increased levels of anxiety in children.

And it is that crucial age, between two and three, where autonomy support can make a difference in the way the child develops a healthy sense of the self, and, ultimately, self-regulation.

So, how do we do it? How do we support autonomy in young children? Below are three simple research-backed ways.

1 | Structure

Contrary to what we may initially think, having clear rules, regulations and expectations can be supportive to children’s autonomy. Communicating such rules in a consistent way gives children a clear framework within which to work and develop.

This is applicable to both time and space. Having a clear structure for the day, for example, that includes free time to play and explore, can give the child the precious power to choose how to spend her day.

The same applies to space: setting up clear boundaries can allow a child to roam and choose where to be and what to engage with.

A note of caution – structures and boundaries should be clear, but allow for freedom within them, both in time and space. The opposite, structures that are too limiting, thwarts feelings of autonomy in the child.

2 | Hiding spaces and dens

Children thrive in environments where they are given the time to play on their own terms. Some of the most common ways that children assert their autonomy is by claiming their own space.

Hiding away, alone or with friends, can enhance a child’s feelings of control. Set up spaces within your indoor or outdoor area where children can build their own dens, or claim their own space in already existing structures.

Pop-up tents are particularly useful, as they can be easily set up and taken down by the child herself. On the other hand, providing materials for children to build their own den – inside or out – can also be great fun!

3 | Risk-taking

Taking measured risks is part of life, and giving children the skills to learn how to assess risk is key to supporting autonomy.

Take the time to discuss potential risks with children and support them in making an informed, but autonomous, decision. Use informative and neutral language and let children develop their own skills of planning and risk assessing.

Overall, nurturing children’s innate need for autonomy is a key skill for early childhood educators. The above three ways can inform practice in a variety of settings, to support autonomy and enhance children’s sense of wellbeing.


Alexia Barrable is a lecturer in education at the University of Dundee. She conducts research on nature connection and early childhood, and her book Growing Up Wild (Little, Brown, £13.99) documents the importance of our relationship with the natural world and ways to enhance our connection to nature.