Autonomy is the holy grail of childhood

In my work with young people there are some needs that come up again and again.  The need for play is a great example.  Kids need lots and lots more play than we need and they let us know about their need in ways that are sometimes difficult for us.

But the unmet need that I notice most in young children is the need for autonomy.  Children desperately need to be able to do things on their own and to choose their own path and luckily for you, there are simple things you can do around the house to support your child’s autonomy.

First, take a tour through your home in your mind.  Starting at the front door, do kids have a place to put their coats and shoes when they get home?  Is the place for coats and shoes easily accessible?  For children under five years (and for older children and even adults) the easiest place to put a coat is on a hook near the front (or back) door.  And to put shoes on and take them off, a child-sized bench to sit on is quite useful.

As you move through your home in your mind, consider whether your child has access to the things she needs.  Can she reach toys and books in the living room?  Art supplies, dishes, water and a snack in the kitchen?  Is there a stool in the bathroom that makes using the toilet and washing hands easy?  Can he reach the towel to dry his hands?

Each room of your home should have an activity for your child available in case he wants to be in the same room with you, and in case he doesn’t!  By putting dishes within reach you’ll cut down drastically on the two year old tantrums that start with a screeching whine, “But I waaant the bluuuue cuuup!”

And, of all rooms of your home, a child’s own room should be the most accessible and easy to navigate.  Your child should be able to access clothes, a hamper for dirty clothes, a full length mirror for self grooming, toys, books, games and other supplies that she enjoys.  And when it comes to toys, small bins with a few items each are much easier to access than huge bins with tons of stuff jammed in.

Also, consider whether it’s easy for your child to make a mess and clean it up without help.  Learning to take care of one’s environment is a skill that can begin as early as 18 months and can last a lifetime.  Check out my blog about how to get kids to help with clean-up if you’re stumped as to how to start.

Here’s an Autonomy check-list that you can use to analyze your home’s accessibility.  This list is intended for children ages 3-5, but you can modify it for other ages:

  • Make sure jackets and shoes are easy to put on “all by myself”
  • Provide a low hook with easy access for a young child to hang up and remove his own jacket
  • Be sure young people have access to water for drinking and hand-washing
  • Provide stools where needed at sinks and counters
  • Help children learn practical life skills such as pouring, spooning, cutting, and cleaning up
  • Provide trays to help contain and easily store activities
  • Get a safety knife, and small cutting board for cutting fruits and vegetables, add a moist sponge for clean up.
  • Get a comfortable reading chair that fits your child’s body
  • Allow children access to their toys, books, thought provoking learning materials and art supplies
  • Be sure clothing fits, is within reach, and is easy to remove and put away
  • Provide all personal hygiene materials in easy to access drawers or on counters (i.e. tooth and hair brushes, tissues, towels, and washcloths)
  • Provide easy access to a hand held mirror and a full length mirror at child height
  • Get a child sized broom, brush and dustpan for clean up of dry messes and make them available
  • Make sure towels and sponges are easily accessible for wet messes
  • Provide breadbox sized baskets for clean up and current projects
  • Be sure your child is able to get into and out of bed without assistance
  • Consider whether it is possible to safely allow your child unassisted access to the outdoors

I hope these ideas and the list I’ve provided are helpful to you.  Please let me know how your autonomy renovations go!  And if you celebrate Christmas, have a happy one!  Warmly, Shelly

P.S. There’s another blog about autonomy here


Hey Vivian, Thanks for your kind words! I'm so happy you're getting value from my blog :) So far I haven't done any formal reviews of parenting books, but I do share the titles of some of my favorite books from time to time. Email me for my address if you'd like to send me a copy. And good luck with your new book!

Vivian Kirkfield
Vivian Kirkfield

I just got an email from you...I think I tweeted your post about autonomy...if I didn't comment here already, I must tell you your site and posts are awesome! As a former kindergarten teacher, daycare provider and mom and grandmom of 3 (each), I do understand how important it is to encourage (and expect) young children to grow in independence and responsibility. I will subscribe to your blog/newsletter...I know there will be very valuable info for me. You give the best kind of advice...practical and easy to implement!
Do you ever review parenting books on your site? You can check out my newly published book for parents and teachers of preschoolers that helps build self-esteem, develop preliteracy skills and create a life-long parent-child bond.


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