Helping our children to increase their independence is one of the biggest parenting jobs of the preschool years, but it’s so tempting to keep doing things for them that they could be doing for themselves.
Life is busy, and it’s not always easy to find the time and patience for them to develop and practice new skills. And it just so happens that it’s the busiest times of the day that offer the most opportunities.
Mornings, dinner time, and bedtime are rife with moments for children to give things a go for themselves, but they are also the time of day when whānau and caregivers are likely to be short on time and tolerance. Though, like all investments, the short term pain is worth it for long term gain.
Knowing what to encourage your child towards and what to hold back on, for the sake of safety, depends both on your child’s enthusiasm for trying something new and what is age-appropriate.
Anybody with a ‘me-do-it’ two year-old knows that one well. Independence is also a sign that children are ready for school. Doing more for themselves, taking responsibility for their own belongings and caring for those of others, are just some of the signs that tamariki are ready to take the next step to primary school. Without those skills, they will struggle to make the transition.
Teachers will already be working to ensure your child has the opportunity to practice doing more things for themselves with the safety net of adult supervision. Parents are often pleasantly surprised to see how much their child is capable of and how quickly they can acquire new skills, with a bit of practice.
“Often families come in carrying everyone’s lunch boxes and bags,” says Jane Hughey, head teacher at Kidsfirst McKenzie. “And we’ll say to the children, ‘Oh I think your dad is doing your job for you there. Come on, it’s time for you to do that now.’ Next thing, the child is being encouraged to dress themselves, and those are things they need to be able to do for themselves once they start school.”
Kidsfirst Nuffield’s Rachel Ryan says ‘time’ is the most important factor when encouraging self-sufficiency in tamariki.
“Time to practice, time to try, time to make mistakes, time to learn. And I know in the morning when it’s really busy, and children are trying to get dressed, it’s really easy to step-in, but the biggest thing is to just step back.”
One of the simplest ways to foster independence is by offering your child choices.
“We promote a child’s agency,” says Zdenka Reading , Head Teacher at Kidsfirst Hoon Hay.
“Letting them make decisions about what they would like to play with, for example. That means having lots of items around all the time that are available for them to choose. That’s what independence is about – making choices.”
Setting things up for toddler-friendliness helps children have the freedom they need to explore the options.
“So we have a nice, tidy shed where it’s safe for them to make choices. They can take a bike out and bring it back, or take extra, equipment whatever they want – walking stilts, hula-hoops and balls. Things are presented in such a way that it’s very inviting and thought provoking. We create a lot of different situations where they can make choices.”
Kai time is top of the list for independence promotion for Zdenka, too.
“They learn how to be autonomous, how to take responsibility for their lunchbox, washing their hands and looking after their belongings. So it’s ongoing, all the time.”
Promoting creativity can be another way to get them thinking and doing for themselves.
“We have an art programme where tamariki are able to explore a range of art mediums and experiences independently and we also show them how things can be done. A little bit of co-construction here, a little bit of scaffolding there, then we let them go free and create. We have really beautiful, creative artwork and plenty of independent construction. They can choose where they take it, and everything’s displayed for them. There are so many resources, and they’re using them so well.”
If you’re wondering if your child could be doing more for themselves, or you have concerns about their level of independence, have a chat with their teacher.