How nannies can encourage children’s independence

Maria Montessori encouraged adults to “never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed” as she had observed that often adults stifle children’s emerging independence by jumping in to ‘save the day’.

Unfortunately, not only does this rob children of the chance to try and to persevere, but it also gives children the message that they can’t do things and they need adults to help them with everything.

Whether the family you are working with has explicitly stated that they want you to use a Montessori-style approach with the children, or you just see value in promoting independence, there is plenty that you can do as a nanny that can help children to develop these self-help skills.

So, if you would like to encourage children’s independence at home, here are some good starting points;

Acknowledge children’s attempts at independence

encourage children's independence

Often we are in a hurry to get out of the door, and see the child having a tantrum about wanting to put on their own shoes as being “difficult” but if we step back and consider what is going on a little more carefully we will realise that the child is expressing a sense of frustration that we are preventing their attempt at independence.

Taking a step back, and acknowledging that this is what is going on is a great place to start thinking about how you can set up the home, and your routines with the children to allow for this growing sense of independence.

It is also worth noting here that most tantrums are a toddler or child’s manner of expressing frustration at boundaries, and lack of independence. This does not necessarily mean you should remove or reduce your boundaries; just that you should consider how you are acknowledging children’s feelings for what they are.

Creating a ‘yes’ space

Often we limit what children are allowed to do based on safety concerns, or worries about the mess and tidying up.

For example, you may tell a 3-year-old that no, they can’t play with their dolls in the lounge as it will make a mess, and no they can’t throw the frisbee inside the house as they may break something, and no they can’t jump around the house like a power ranger or a fairy or a superhero because they may hurt themselves.

Before you know it you’ve spent the morning telling them ‘no’, and if anything will frustrate a growing sense of independence it’s the word ‘no’.

As a nanny this can be a difficult line to tread when working with parents, as ultimately the house belongs to them, however, it is certainly something that could be discussed tactfully if you feel that too many rules are starting to affect a child’s growing sense of independence.

To combat this it may be a good idea to negotiate being able to set up a ‘yes’ space in the home; this might be a playroom, the child’s bedroom, or a play area.

The idea is to set the space up to be safe enough that you, as the caregiver, do not need to constantly say no. Montessori classrooms are largely yes spaces; somewhere that you can trust children to play independently and stay safe.

Encourage children’s independence with words 

encourage children's independence

What we say and how we say it can make a huge difference to children.

As we already discussed most children want to be independent and become frustrated when they are not allowed to be.

When we verbally permit, encourage and celebrate children’s attempts at being independent we validate them, and when children feel validated in their attempts at independence, they are more likely to persevere with what they’re trying and eventually succeed. 

As a nanny, you can try saying things like “You have a go” or “keep trying” to children.

You can praise the effort by saying “You’re working so hard at that” or “great trying” and acknowledge success with “well done, I knew you could do it!”

Use mealtimes as an opportunity

Meal times with little ones are a common source of stress, but they can be a great opportunity to build independence and self-help skills.

Even young babies (so long as they are over 6 months) can feed themselves at the table and using a baby-led weaning approach is a great way to promote that early independence, as a nanny this is something that can be discussed with parents.

encourage children's independence

For older children, encouraging children to serve or even help prepare their food, and pour water from a jug enhances their balance, dexterity and hand-eye coordination.

This also helps to divide responsibility at mealtimes which are perfect for promoting independence.

As a bonus, children tend to eat a wider variety of food when they select it themselves.

Avoid wardrobe battles

encourage children's independence

Children are often keen to select their own clothing and dress themselves, although their fashion choices can be questionable at times, allowing them to make attempts at dressing will pay off in the long run.

If a child’s choices are likely to be unsuitable for the day’s activities or the weather you could decide on an outfit together perhaps the night before and lay it out for them to put on themselves in the morning.

Younger toddlers and babies can be encouraged to lift their arms to put on a shirt or raise their feet to put on shoes and socks.

Use your best judgment as to when a child may be able to attempt dressing alone and remember, that wearing a tutu over a raincoat is not the end of the world.

Make sure children contribute

Involving children in running the household from a young age is great for promoting independence and also demonstrates their role in the family and enhances their sense of belonging.

It builds an understanding of working as a collective and is something that is highly emphasised in educational approaches like Montessori.

encourage children's independence

This is not to say that children need to be doing housework all day long, but small contributions add up and will help promote children’s independence too;

Little babies can be encouraged to help put their toys away in a box when they have finished playing, or wipe the highchair tray when they are done eating.

Toddlers generally love to help around the home and can use a small dustpan and brush or a handheld vacuum to clear up.

Matching socks and sorting laundry are also valuable learning opportunities for preschoolers and will help children to feel involved in the running of the home.

Encourage risk-taking

As nannies, it’s our job to keep children safe, but sometimes we can become overly worried about this responsibility and as a result, we can become very overprotective of our charges and actually hold their development back by doing so.

Healthy risk-taking is vital for children’s emerging sense of self because where there is a risk of failure, success is more valuable.

Allowing children to climb, run and jump and explore their limits is essential for the growth and development of independence, so we can consider ways to allow for healthy risk-taking that promotes children’s physical skills and sense of independence.

International Nanny Institute

We hope that some of these ideas will help you consider how to approach encouraging children’s independence.

To find out more about the natural pattern of Children’s development and how and when to support their growing independence sign up for our Child Development course.

Not only will this boost your confidence in working with children in an age-appropriate manner, but it will reassure families that you have the expertise in childhood and early years.

You may also be interested in

All about….Montessori

“Montessori” is a word that often gets connected to childcare and it can be used in a range of ways to express underlying ideas about childcare and education.

Nannies might hear it in the context of the kind of school that their charge, or potential charge, goes to, in the way that parents express their own ideas about child-rearing or the way that they explain the kind of approach they are looking for from a nanny. The term is also often used as a selling point, or descriptor for toys or educational resources. 

It is important to note that “Montessori” is not a protected term so it can be used by any company, school or person in a way that suits them; they do not have to prove that they subscribe to any particular set of principles or ideas in order to use the title “Montessori”.

Here we look at what the term means and some of the frequently asked questions about this approach.

What is Montessori?

Maria Montessori
Maria Montessori

‘Montessori’ is an approach to Early Years Education based upon the work of Maria Montessori.

Maria was an Italian medical doctor who set up schools for disadvantaged children and observed how young children learn best. From this, she devised an approach to Early Years Education that is now used all over the world.

Most of Maria Montessori’s work was with children of a preschool age (3 years and up) but her followers have advocated applying these principles to under 3s too, and Montessori childcare and education is becoming quite a popular choice.

How is Montessori education different?

Maria Montessori
Maria Montessori

The Montessori approach is quite distinct from ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ education in most countries. It is a holistic approach to education, so it seeks to develop each child as a whole. 

Freedom is a highly valued principle and children are encouraged to develop independence from a very young age. As such, the role of the teacher is very different and teachers in Montessori programmes are often described as ‘guides’ demonstrating that they have a significantly different role.

Often in ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ settings teachers are seen as a more knowledgeable other who builds children’s knowledge through teaching a series of information.


Children’s knowledge is then tested and work judged against an external set of guidelines.

In contrast, in the Montessori classroom learning occurs through all five senses, and is largely self-directed, auto-education is one of Montessori’s key ideas; that is, that children can educate themselves when given the tools, environment and support needed.

On the whole teachers do not grade or correct work but value it in and of itself and use their knowledge of each child and development to gently steer them to the next learning opportunity.

In Montessori, discipline is approached very differently; Rewards and punishments are not used, instead the focus is on helping children to develop social and emotional skills, and the ability to regulate their behaviour themselves.

What are the benefits of Montessori?


One of the most important benefits of Montessori education is that children learn how to learn.

When Montessori is practiced in line with its own principles children become independent and self-motivated learners.

This is important when we consider that the jobs that the children we look after today will end up doing have probably not even been invented yet!

In light of this, training children to retain a set of information is not enough, we need to equip our children with transferable skills and most importantly, being able to learn; knowing how to find out something they don’t know and how to attempt something new. Montessori aims to build exactly these skills. 

What is a Montessori school or classroom like?

The main thing that people notice when they visit a Montessori classroom is the volume has been turned down, we might expect a classroom full of young children to be noisy and a bit chaotic but this is rarely the case in a Montessori setting.

The environment is carefully prepared to meet the age, stage and needs of the children and children will on the whole pursue their own activities, or “work”, within that classroom.

A Montessori classroom is set up for children; all the furniture and equipment is the right size for the child to be able to use it in the way it is intended.


There is no focal point of the classroom; no teachers desk or interactive whiteboard, instead there are plenty of “work areas” which children can use in a variety of ways. 

In Montessori classrooms there are extended periods of self-directed activity, or ‘work cycles’ and Within these work cycles children are free to move about the classroom selecting the activities that interest them.

In the Montessori classroom, learning is hands-on and some specific Montessori equipment is used, though often in conjunction with other resources selected by the teacher.

The areas of learning in the Montessori approach are; practical life skills, sensorial activities, mathematics, language and cultural studies.

How can a nanny incorporate Montessori’s ideas into their work?


So, if you are working as a nanny and parents say that they would like a Montessori approach what might this mean in practice? 

First and foremost it is likely that parents would want you to promote children’s independence and encourage their self-directed activity.

This may be in small things like allowing them time and space to play in their own way, teaching them to put on and do up their clothes from a young age or allowing them to use tools safely, under supervision.

Montessori was also very keen that children contributed to keeping the environment clean, safe and orderly, so children could be encouraged to take part in daily chores around the house whether that’s sweeping the floor after breakfast, sorting the laundry or putting toys away.

A Nanny could help to select appropriate resources and prepare the environment in such a way as to allow children to engage in the self-directed learning that is characteristic of Montessori education.

Finding out more about the Montessori approach to childcare can help nannies to reflect on their own practice, explore new ideas and incorporate aspects that they find beneficial. It is also a good way to understand more about parents’ expectations and desires when it comes to finding the perfect care for their children. 

International Nanny Institute

You may also be interested in