This next post, written by Cassie Henderson, explores the benefits of fostering independence in preschool aged children.
As an early childhood teacher, when I meet people and tell them what I do for a living I always get interesting responses from people curious about what I could possibly teach to such young children. The truth is, I don’t ever have a definitive answer. I could construct an obscure list of academic milestones that I think the children should reach by the time they go to public school, but I don’t care to do that. Children in the preschool world develop at different paces and I would hesitate to place strict limitations on what they need to learn. The alphabet, colors, counting, science—these are not the most important things I teach or the concepts I put the most emphasis on. If I had to choose one concept to impart to each child before they go to public school it would simply be how to be independent.
Independence is vital to young children. A sense of autonomy allows them to be happy, healthy, and enjoy exploring the world. I do not force the children to sit and memorize what I want them to know because I would much rather them feel an independent drive to learn. If they have confidence and self-assurance, I am sure they will succeed in school, and—more importantly—in life. On the other hand, a child who can read full novels at age four but has no desire to explore or think for him/herself will be less likely to develop in a healthy way.
Sometimes it is difficult for the adult to let go control of the situation. Time is often an issue, and it is easier to help the children than have them do something for themselves. But it is vital to their development. In my pre-k class, I still have children insist to me that they can’t put on their own shoes or coats. Every day I have a child ask me for help in building a castle or tower out of blocks. I try to direct them back to helping themselves. Usually they are afraid of not doing something the “right” way, and disappointing someone else. Assuring them that they have good ideas and abilities to accomplish tasks themselves helps boost confidence and foster independence.
So where do we start this journey of fostering independence? At what age can a child begin to exert autonomy? In truth, they can start as early as they are able to communicate verbally. There are many good ways to foster independence in the daily routine. Free play and art are both excellent methods of boosting independence. This can start as early as 18 months. Asking questions such as “Do you want to paint on yellow paper or blue paper?” and giving realistic choices teaches small children to take control of their daily activities. Allowing uninhibited free play teaches them that their ideas have value and their imagination is their own. Taking a step back and allowing a child to be frustrated can seem harsh at first, but the best way to teach conflict resolution is to let children talk through things and get themselves out of difficult situations. As long as the adult is watching carefully, ready to lend guidance and step in if a dangerous situation arises, it is best to let the children work out their own problems.
The most effective way to teach children to behave like independent beings is to treat them as such. Talking to children and reasoning out rules and ideas is important. A child is much more likely to listen if they understand that there is a reason why an adult has implemented a rule. Evaluating information that an adult supplies teaches children valuable life skills that they will use every day for the rest of their lives. And most importantly, children should be taught that they are sometimes right and adults are sometimes wrong, and that they have the power to make their own choices, and their own mistakes.