Children's physical and psychological needs

(Ruby at 19 months using a crinkle cutter to cut courgette)

A couple of years ago while I was still working as a teacher of three and four year olds, I went to an Early Years Conference. I remember the lingering feeling at the end of the day, where I felt so inspired by all that I had heard and seen, and couldn't wait to get back to my class and put what I had learned into practice. There were two keynote speakers, both of whom captivated me for completely different reasons. The second keynote speaker was a man called Martin who runs an incredible Nursery in Worthing, called Reflections. I was so inspired by Martin, that I persuaded my head teacher to let me go and visit his setting at one of their annual training days as part of my professional development. Sadly, I never made it to visit the Nursery - I was 36 weeks pregnant and went down with a sickness bug on the day of the visit. I still feel disappointed that I missed out on that wonderful opportunity.

The first key note speaker talked about children's needs, and what she said about the differences between children's physical and psychological needs really stuck with me, and I have found myself thinking on her reflections many times since, which is what I am going to write about today. In short, she said this:

Our physical needs are ones that will never go away. When we are hungry, the only way for the hunger to go, is by eating. Tiredness will only dissipate by sleeping. You simply have to respond to physical needs.
However, our psychological needs are quite different. Children need to take risks in order to learn. You never see a child who is learning to walk, give up when they fall over a couple of times. They simply keep on going until they have mastered this new skill. But, when we take the element of risk and challenge away from children by doing things for them, they learn that by not trying, someone will do it for them. If children stop experiencing the internal gratification that comes from overcoming a challenge, they will learn to stop taking risks and trying.

It is probably worth me saying that the term 'risk' is being used in a fairly general sense here. In other words, a psychological risk is one where failure, or an undesired outcome is possible. To expand, here are a few examples of the kind of 'risks' I am talking about in relation to the age of children I was working with at the time (3-4 year olds):
+ putting on shoes
+ attempting to do up a zip
+ turning on taps, operating soap dispenser and washing hands independently

These principles also apply to more specific 'risks' when there is an element of danger involved and the potential for physical harm to be caused.
+ using knives, vegetable peelers, scissors
+ using climbing equipment that presents a physical challenge

Drinking from a glass - trusting little hands with items that could break.

After I graduated from studying Early Childhood Studies, the first job I had was working as a teaching assistant in a Nursery Class of a Primary School. I had the privilege of working with a teacher who had three decades of experience in Early Years teaching, and I learnt so many invaluable lessons under her tutelage. One of the first lessons was to always encourage children to have a go at doing something, rather than just doing it for them. So often, I was faced with the temptation to just do things for them, for the sake of speed and to save my own frustration. Just simple every day tasks like:
+ doing up a zip
+ putting on an apron
+ opening the plastic cover on a straw
+ pouring a drink
+ turning the tap on
+ taking off / putting on items of clothing and footwear
+ tidying up
+ preparing a snack
+ climbing & balancing (this is a big one, where adult's help can actually be more detrimental than helpful - lifting children higher than they could climb by themselves presents them with a greater challenge and danger of them not being able to dismount safely without help.)

This is still a temptation now, with my own daughter, but in the classroom, I quickly learnt that when I held back and encouraged children to try something themselves, it was so rewarding to see their sense of satisfaction and achievement. In essence this teacher taught me to do what the keynote speaker articulated: allow children the time and opportunity to take risks - to try and do new things which are challenging to them - in order that they might learn and be willing to have a go without always seeking help. This is not to say that children should not ask for help - from a very young age with my daughter I would ask her if she would like some help., then when she was able to communicate her frustration, I encouraged her to sign and say 'help please' to give her the tools to communicate more effectively. I think there is a crucial difference here, too, with the way that we provide help. It is very easy to assume that children need help, and just do it for them without asking their permission first. Whereas when we take the time to ask children if they would like help, they are able to communicate from a young age whether or not our help is what they require.

In my teaching experience, I saw the effects of how we respond to children's psychological needs go both ways: I worked with children whose parents had done almost everything for their children for the first three years of life. As a result, these children had developed the 'learned helplessness' that the keynote speaker had talked about. They needed enormous amounts of encouragement to persevere when met with difficulty, and expected adults to do everything for them. I also saw children thrive when given the opportunity and encouragement to have a go at something that challenged them. Seeing their delight and excitement when they achieved something they thought they couldn't do, made it so worth exercising patience to allow them the space to just have a go.

From the perspective of being a parent, I am aware of how great the inclination can be to hold onto babyhood. I loved those months of Ruby being a young baby. I loved that she needed me to meet her needs. Now that she has become physically independent of me, my role in the way that I provide for her has shifted. I don't mourn the fact that she is no longer a baby - as much as I loved that stage I would never have wanted her to remain a baby forever - but so often I notice how I still refer to her as a baby. I have spoken with parents of children who I have taught, who have said that their four year old is still 'their baby', and that they love to do things for them. I am very conscious of this tension that exists as a parent between wanting your children to grow up, but to still need you to help them. I want to hold on tight to my daughter and let her go and grow in the same breath. If you are a parent of young children, or someone who works with children, I would love to encourage you to let children take risks (without being negligent or unwise!!), to step back and watch just how amazing your child is in what they can do before assuming that they need help, and even when they ask for help, do so in a way that still enables them to have a feeling of accomplishment. 


  1. Love this Hannah, what you say is so true xx

    1. Thank you Megan! I find children's development just so fascinating, and so I'm pleased that you enjoyed reading this super long post!


Post a Comment