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Supporting Independence for Children Under Three

By Laura Fritz, M.Ed., Birth to Three Montessori Educator

The Young Child

From birth to three years old, a child recognizes and accepts that they are a completely separate entity from others. There is a transition from infancy to childhood, during which the child has an opportunity to develop a strong sense of self, knowing who they are as an individual and their abilities. They are building their personality by absorbing everything from their environment. So much is happening during this critical early period of life!

Our Role

Our role as adults is to create that environment–considering both physical and psychological elements–to support the child’s development. In order to do this, we can observe how the child is interacting with things, model all aspects of being human, and adapt as needed over time. Specifically, offering opportunities to learn real-life skills is helpful to young children. Completing practical, everyday tasks independently allows a child to adapt to their culture; develop language and movement; and build intelligence, self-confidence, and a sense of personal value. They feel included and grow their capacity to contribute to their family and community.

Exploring Our Attitudes

Before introducing any activities or expectations, it is important to consider the limiting beliefs or biases we may have about what children can or should be able to do. These might be based on their age, gender, place in the family (oldest/youngest), or cultural norms. Children can be as capable as we believe them to be, and preconceived ideas about their abilities or interests inhibit them. Safety is frequently a concern for adults responsible for young children, so carefully consider what restraints are placed on children because of our fears and what boundaries do need to be set while still allowing children to explore freely as much as possible.

Preparing Ourselves

Continue your planning by looking at your family’s daily rhythms. How can your child contribute? What “jobs” can children help with? When can you build in more time so children are not rushed? Young children want to be involved and do things for the sake of the activity. Slow down and appreciate the journey instead of just looking for outcomes. Allow for repeated practice. Be present and enjoy the process! We’re showing children how the world works.

Supporting Independence

Consider these tips to support your child’s growing independence.

Let your child try before offering help. Pause often: is this something my child can do now? Notice where they get stuck and assist just enough or provide verbal guidance to get them through that part. Step back as long as possible before jumping in. When a mess is made or they experience a minor struggle, wait a few moments to see what your child does.

Give working, child-size tools and show how to use them. When demonstrating, go slowly and carefully to break apart the steps. Move your hands and talk separately. Young children can often only pay attention to one aspect at a time, so they will either watch your body movements or turn to look at your face while you’re talking.

Encourage collaboration. Indicate that you can do this part and the child can do that part. Gradually delegate more of the steps as they can handle them. Offer simple choices so they feel included in the decision-making about things that affect them. (Would you like to wear the blue shirt or the yellow shirt today? Do you want eggs or yogurt for breakfast?) Choices also help avoid power struggles!

Allow time for practice and making mistakes. When they get frustrated, ask “Would you like some help or can I make a suggestion?” Give some options before just jumping in to take over. Give space for trial and error and self-discovery.

Provide consistency. When rules are known it gives children security and builds trust with them. Say what you mean and follow through.

Understand there will be steps forward and back. Children can be SO proud to be “big” one day and then the next want to be cuddled and have everything done for them like a “baby”. These feelings can be unpredictable!

Introduce self-soothing techniques. Practice these during calm times so they have the tools later. Square breathing, singing, asking for a hug, taking time in a safe space, making art, doing yoga, naming things they can see/hear/feel/taste/smell are all options.

Support the gradual gaining of skills. Independence develops over time like other areas of growth.

Preparing Your Home

Use your resources. In most cases, you can use what you have already. Spaces for children often need to be simplified rather than adding more. It is possible to create beautiful areas and activities without spending a lot of money or buying many new items. Consider searching local neighborhood groups for things others are finished using and giving away! The key points are to create a place for everything, remembering that order and consistency provide comfort for young children.

Limit and rotate. Limit what is available at any given time by rotating toys, books, and clothing. Have available the things your child is interested in using, and switch them out when they lose interest or misuse them. Keep areas simple so children can help them stay organized.

Make the space child-friendly. In every space the child uses, it should be apparent a child lives there. It is so frustrating for children to try accessing what they need but they can only function with the help of an adult. Empathize with a child for a moment by imagining living for a day in a house built for giants! It would be nearly impossible to complete any of your typical everyday tasks. Aim for functional and purposeful spaces with real, accessible things. This inspires handling them with respect and care as children develop their capacity for responsibility.

Implement these practical suggestions. Start with what is manageable and build from there. Consider what works for your family and the design of your home.

  • Put everyday items where they can be reached.

  • Consider having space on the lower shelf of the refrigerator for children’s snacks and a low cupboard or drawer for dishes and utensils.

  • Use a chair that your child can learn to get in and out of for sitting at the dining table.

  • Hang art and decorations low on the walls where children can see them.

  • Have a small table and chair in the child’s bedroom or in the living/playroom for their activities.

  • Offer a few choices of clothing on a low closet bar or wardrobe.

  • To encourage independence with dressing, clothing can have simple fastenings and be loose fitting.

In Conclusion

Dr. Maria Montessori said, “To assist a child, we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely.” So we can provide the materials and space, prepare our attitude, model how to use things, and then step out of the way! These changes do require some work AND are invaluable to a child feeling included in home life and creating a strong sense of self. You will also be able to take a few moments to yourself when your child is focused on an activity that they have learned to do independently.

About the Author

Laura Fritz holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the AMI Assistants to Infancy (0-3) diploma from the Montessori Center of Minnesota, and a Master's in Montessori Education from Loyola University Maryland. She truly enjoys changing the world and working for peace through children and the Montessori community. She has served as a mentor, album reader, and school board member, and was a Toddler Community Guide for 12 years. Laura is an AMI/USA consultant and coach at the 0-3 level and lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


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