I Am Capable! Nurturing Independence in Preschoolers

A look at Guidepost Montessori's approach to helping 2.5 to 6 year olds achieve independence + 5 tips for nurturing independence in your preschooler at home.

By the time a child is 2.5 to 3 and ready to enter a Guidepost Montessori Children’s House (preschool/kindergarten), she has already made great strides in achieving independence. She can walk and use her hands to explore the world. She can understand others and talk, communicating her own thoughts, feelings, and opinions. She has even started to recognize and meet her own needs, and can feed herself, put on most of her own clothes, and use the bathroom independently.

But what are the next steps for preschoolers as they continue to build independence? And how does Guidepost Montessori's approach help them achieve it?

Children under 6 are most interested in achieving functional independence. They want to have mastery over their own functioning—over their bodies, minds, and decision-making.

1. Independence of body

The child at 2.5 to 3 years old, who can already walk and meet some of her own needs, is working to hone those foundational abilities in increasingly challenging and precise ways.

All the goals the child is interested in pursuing require her to use her body efficaciously. Whether she wants to zip her own jacket, spread peanut butter and jelly on bread for lunch, or move her chair to the other side of the table so she can work near a friend, she must be able to coordinate her body in order to be successful.

For most adults, these movements of daily life are second nature. We can brush our teeth or put on our socks with little to no thought or concentration. But this ability had to be earned. Coordination and dexterity do not spring up spontaneously or automatically as a person ages. It is only after countless repetitions that a child can internalize the movements necessary for navigating life with ease and grace.

In our Montessori classrooms, children are given the opportunity to perform these repetitions in deeply engaging ways. Above all, every child is provided with materials and individual support to learn practical life skills. The child learns to prepare her own food—chopping bananas, spreading jelly, scooping flour. She learns to care for her environment—sweeping the floor, wiping the table, watering plants. And she learns to care for her own person—washing her hands, fastening her clothes, and tying her shoes.

And beyond the activities directly related to daily life, every material the child engages with in the classroom has a secondary purpose of helping her refine the use of her hands and body. Many materials, for example, must be grasped by little knobs that help the child practice the pincer grip used when writing. While the child is learning about geography, shapes, or how to problem-solve, therefore, she is also repeating the movements she will need for later skills in a captivating way.

2. Independence of mind

Interconnected with building physical independence, the child is working to understand the world and think for herself. She wants to observe everything around her, understand how things work, and label what she grasps precisely.

The child at this age is unlikely to understand a lengthy explanation or lecture, but she can engage meaningfully with the world. In the same way a child can outsmart our child locks or find where we’ve hidden special snacks, she can learn about the things that exist and how they work. She can, with support, even learn how to read or how to add double digit numbers almost entirely by herself.

And when the child learns these things by engaging with the world independently, she learns how to focus and use her mind. She learns to take careful notice of details and how to connect those details to the goals she wants to achieve. She learns how to troubleshoot when she finds herself stuck, and how to persist through initial challenges.

The child earns the habits of mental independence at the same time as she’s earning the physical independence she needs to execute on her thoughts and decisions.

In a Guidepost Montessori classroom, the child is provided with captivating materials that inspire her to do this work—to pay attention to details, concentrate for long periods, and problem-solve to achieve her goals. She works with sandpaper letters, for example, and internalizes the connection between the sounds she hears and the symbols she can see and feel. She works with the number rods, and physically experiences how ‘2’ is twice as big as ‘1.’ She doesn’t need to have someone tell her what is true or false, because she can use her own mind to really see and understand for herself what is true.

3. Independence of will

Combining both physical and mental independence, the child is working to build the ability to control her own decisions. She’s learning to have an independent will or character.

Independence in decision-making obviously involves the child being free to make certain choices. But it is so much more than this. It’s more than the child declaring ‘I want apple juice!’ or deciding to work with one material instead of another.

Rather, the child is building the habits she needs to make her goals a reality—to gain knowledge so she can act when she needs to act and to do so in the right way; as well as to not act in certain ways that will thwart her goals. She’s building self-discipline.

In a Guidepost Montessori classroom, the child is given the freedom to pick what materials to work on and for how long. The goal is for the child to find one that fascinates her and thus entices her to concentrate and persist until she has achieved mastery. Usually, this begins with practical life materials because most young children are deeply interested in accomplishing the same tasks that they see their parents and teachers do every day.

Once the child has found an activity to be immersed in and has experienced the profound satisfaction from achieving mastery, she hungers for more. The next material she chooses will be more challenging and will require more of her focus and persistence. Over time, the child builds the habit of controlling her actions in order to achieve her goals across time. Instead of declaring she wants apple juice, she gathers her supplies, carefully pours the drink, and enjoys the rewards of her efforts.

This practiced self-discipline extends beyond action to inhibition. In a Montessori classroom, the child will partake in activities where she must stop herself from acting. A popular activity in this regard is the “Silence Games.” The children work together to make the room as quiet as possible. Each individual child must hold himself incredibly still, careful to stop any movement. The children delight in the chance to exercise their self-control, and stay so quiet that they can hear their name whispered by the guide from across the room.

The child who has achieved self-discipline doesn’t need someone watching over their shoulder or holding their hand in order to accomplish their goals. They can achieve them because they’ve built the habits they need to act or not act—decisively, confidently, and with delight.

The skills and attitudes that a child learns over the three years she spends in a Guidepost Montessori Children’s House serve as the foundation for her later work in elementary and secondary school. She builds the habits of mind, body, and character that will allow her to capitalize on her rapidly growing reasoning ability. Where she once applied these skills to buttoning her coat and decoding simple words, she now can use them to do deep dives into every subject area, build positive friendships, and invest in surmounting even greater challenges. By the time she’s an adult, she can move forward with confidence and chart a path to lifelong success and flourishing.

5 Tips for Nurturing Independence in Your Preschooler at Home:

  1. Encourage self-care: Help your preschooler to master basic self-care tasks such as brushing their teeth, dressing themselves and putting on their shoes. Provide child-sized tools and a clear space for them to practice these skills.
  2. Create a prepared environment: Organize your home in a way that allows your child to easily access and manage their belongings. Place toys, art supplies, and other materials on low shelves or in baskets, making it simple for them to choose and put away items on their own.
  3. Offer choices: Give your child opportunities to make decisions within age-appropriate limits. Allow them to select their clothes, snacks, or activities from a set of options. This fosters decision-making skills and a sense of autonomy.
  4. Encourage practical life skills: Involve your preschooler in daily household tasks like setting the table, folding laundry, or preparing simple snacks. These activities promote independence, fine motor skills, and a sense of responsibility.
  5. Foster a sense of order: Establish routines and consistent expectations at home. Clearly communicate guidelines and provide visual cues, such as picture schedules or labeled storage bins, to help your child understand and follow daily routines independently.