I Am Capable! Nurturing Independence in Toddlers

A look at Guidepost Montessori's approach to helping 16-month to 3-year-olds achieve independence + 5 tips for nurturing independence at home

Toddlerhood is often an intense time, for the child and for her parents! Suddenly, she is able to walk, to go where she pleases, and even run from those who are seeking her. She is also able to talk, to voice her opinions and feelings, and declare ‘no!’ to the things she doesn’t want or like.

And prominently, she has a sudden awareness of herself as an independent human being—one who can move and act in the world in pursuit of her own goals, who has needs that, increasingly, she can recognize and meet on her own, and who realizes that there is a whole universe of tools and skills she must use and learn in order to live an independent, flourishing life.

Like infants and preschoolers, toddlers are most interested in building functional independence. They want to gain mastery over themselves and their environment. Toddlers, however, are especially interested in applying maximum effort to build on their newly formed abilities and to take their place in the world as wholly independent people.

1. Independence through movement

By the time a child is a toddler, he has gained some mastery over the use of his hands and body. But now he wants to refine that mastery, to deepen and challenge it.

Toddlers are ambitious. They want to jump long distances, carry big, heavy bags, and balance an abundance of objects in their arms. At the same time, they’re interested in actions that require precision and an orientation to details. They want to fill a glass with water up to the line and no further, to scoop beads and pour them in another bowl without spilling, and to stack things just so. With every goal the child pursues, he is subconsciously aiming toward complete self-mastery over his hands and body.

The activity or outcome, per se, are not that important. The child, for example, is not necessarily trying to achieve any specific goal by moving the chair across the room or carrying the jug of milk from the car to the kitchen after a grocery trip. Rather, he is focused on using the ability to move his body in a purposeful way. He’s pursuing an activity that requires effort, intentionality, challenge, and the coordinated mastery of his body.

In our Montessori classrooms, children are provided with abundant opportunities to build this self-mastery in increasingly sophisticated ways—all while also building problem solving skills, acquiring precise vocabulary, and forming positive social relationships. The child pours, scoops, and cuts with scissors. He runs, jumps, and rides trikes. Above all, he learns to channel his desire for movement and self-mastery towards meaningful, practical goals.

2. Independence through practical life skills

For a young child, there is nothing more exciting than doing what she sees adults doing every day. She wants to put on her own clothes, wash her hands, sweep the floor, and prepare a meal. She wants to use the objects she sees in her parents’ hands—a real hairbrush, a real mop, a real wrench. And she wants to do these things all by herself. She’s not content being waited on or watching all the action from the sidelines. She wants to dive in headfirst and get messy with real work.

The activities that are dull and uninspiring for older children and adults, are fascinating and rich with meaning for a toddler. When a young child, only too aware of how much smaller and weaker she is than her parents or other adults, accomplishes a task that even they can do, she recognizes that she is capable. She experiences herself as victorious, and is propelled forward to even more ambitious work. She gains confidence in herself—to think, to act, to figure things out, to persist through challenges, and to achieve her goals.

The tools and activities of adults, of course, are not set up for a toddler’s success. As ambitious as a toddler is, the tools and furniture are simply too big, too heavy, too high and out of reach. In a Montessori environment like our Guidepost toddler classrooms, therefore, the child is provided with an environment tailored to her size and level of ability. There are mini brooms and dust pans, sinks with stools for easy access, and activities to isolate and practice skills before putting it all together in a real-life task.

This way, the child is set up for success. Not in the sense that the task is easy—the challenge and the effort required is essential for the child to gain the benefits of a practical life activity—but in the sense that the child has access to everything she needs to be successful if she tries and persists in improving her skills over time.

3. Independence through routines

The whole world is still very new to toddlers. Why do things work the way they do? What’s this? What’s that? How should you do things? Older children are interested in evaluating and amending routines, but toddlers are interested in understanding and orienting themselves toward them.

The child who knows where things go, who knows how to respond if someone offers them something to hold, or what to do at the end of a meal, is a child who can navigate his day independently. The world makes sense, he knows what’s expected of him, and, if he’s provided the opportunity, he can build the skills to consistently meet those expectations.

In a Montessori environment, there are routines for every activity, each kind of social interaction, and for the classroom as a whole. Children learn how to roll up their mats precisely and put them away. They learn to wash their hands before a meal and to stack dirty plates when they’re done. They learn what to say when someone greets them and how to ask for help if they need it. The whole world becomes intelligible to them, and they grow in confidence each time they navigate a task or an interaction successfully.

The independence and self-mastery that a toddler gains over the course of the Guidepost toddler program are truly astounding to witness. There’s nothing quite as impressive as watching a not-yet-2-year-old serve herself a snack, sit down at a table, eat contentedly, throw away her scraps, and wash her hands before launching herself back into reading or working with a material—all by herself and without a word of reminder from an adult. She is capable, composed, and confident in her own abilities to navigate the world and achieve her goals. She is a child who is already on the path toward lifelong success and happiness.

5 Tips for nurturing independence in toddlers

  1. Set up your home for easy access. For example, using child-friendly stools in the bathroom and kitchen, placing hooks for coats and supplies low to the ground, and arranging toys and materials on low shelves are all great ways to empower your child to do things all by herself.
  2. Include your child in tasks of daily life. When you sit down to fold laundry, are putting away the clean dishes, or are preparing a mid-morning snack, find a piece of the task that your child can help you with or can practice.
  3. Set up consistent routines. Having a routine for what you do with coats and shoes when you come home or how you greet visitors to your home, can enable your child to navigate situations without feeling micromanaged.
  4. Offer plenty of opportunity for fine and gross motor movement. Trips to the playground, opportunities to sort small objects, or carrying objects from the car to the house can give your child the chance to build self-mastery over her hands and body.
  5. Allow for choices within limits. When planning outfits for the day, meals, or books to read, allow your child to select from a few options that you are fine with. This sense of control can reduce the frequency of power struggles while giving your child the chance to build decision making skills.