Explore the World: How to Encourage Independence in Infants and Toddlers

Provide a safe environment and offer opportunities for infants and toddlers to practice independence

The developmental transition from baby to toddler comes with a lot of new territories. A baby’s increasing desire for independence is one such example; it’s exciting to see them accomplish new milestones, but challenging to negotiate with a tiny person determined to do things for themselves despite lacking the skills to see the task through.

However, fostering a sense of independence in a baby or toddler is important. It can reduce anxiety, increase confidence, and prepare children to explore the world in a way that will teach them valuable lessons.

All by myself

“I do myself” is a common statement from toddlers. They are curious, persistent, and determined, which can be both admirable and exhausting. Caregiving involves a balancing act between keeping young children safe while also allowing them the freedom to try new things. Encouraging the children in your care to explore new opportunities contributes to their social, emotional, and physical growth.

Supporting young children’s independence has a variety of benefits. It allows them to experience the feelings of achievement that come with small successes, offers them a sense of control, gives you more to discuss, helps improve motor skills, provides a range of sensory experiences, and eventually, makes your life easier now that they can “help.”

How to help infants and toddlers gain independence

Empower young children while simultaneously reducing your frustration by creating a supportive environment for them to practice independence.

Give them choices

Offering children the power to choose shows that you trust them, and gives them a feeling of control over their life. Although it’s not always practical or possible, allow children to make choices whenever possible. Even something as simple as choosing to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt lets them practice decision-making while demonstrating that you value their opinion.

Get started

Sometimes a child just needs a helping hand or the inspiration of seeing you start the task yourself. Strike a deal by offering to get them started on a task or chore. For instance, you will pull the shirt over their head if they will put their arms through the sleeves, or you’ll start to peel a banana if they finish it.

Work together

Learning to work well with others is important and a good way for young children to practice skills that are slightly outside of their current abilities. Offer to work on new things together, such as using safety scissors, cutting soft foods with a butter knife, or pouring a drink. Hold their hands in yours to help them practice the motions associated with the tasks.

Finish the job

There are a lot of tasks that young children will insist they can do themselves, even when you know it requires experience they don’t yet have. Let them try with the condition that you’ll finish the job. This is particularly useful for tasks like brushing their hair or teeth. Wait patiently, praise their efforts, and then get the job completed satisfactorily.

Encourage risk-taking

When your instincts tell you to keep children safe above all else, it can be hard to suggest activities that lie just outside of either one of your comfort zones. However, doing things like going down the slide alone or approaching a potential playmate is an important part of practicing independence. After a few rounds of successful practice, it will become easier to encourage them to take the necessary risks.

Although young children may be vocal about their wish for independence, they may also be reluctant to leave the safety of your side. Help them by offering the security of your support while they explore their own identity by creating opportunities that allow them a safe space to practice independent activities.

The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.

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