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How do young children learn to make decisions?

by Jules on August 2

Why do we want children to learn to make decisions?

Being able to make a decision is an important life skill. We begin to learn how to do it as infants, and continue to learn through childhood and even as adults, when some of the decisions can be bigger and more complicated. Whether an adult or a child, the decisions we make say something about who we are. We are showing a preference and taking control of a situation. When a baby chooses which toy to play with, or when a toddler chooses what to wear, they are expressing their individuality. They are also making their first moves towards independence. Children who learn that their decisions are listened to and respected will gain confidence in their own abilities. They will be more self-aware, develop their own style, and experience trust and responsibility.

Stages of decision making

Decision making starts in infancy, when the immediate environment is a new and exciting place to explore and express an opinion about. As Jenni Clarke explains: ‘Babies are constantly asking questions, processing information they receive through their senses, making decisions based on experience, evaluating situations depending on their comfort levels, problem solving in order to make sense of all the experiences they have and being creative in their exploration and expression of the world’. Babies should not be underestimated! From birth to eighteen months a baby can make decisions about who or what comforts them, likes and dislikes about food and clothes, and what they want to play with (Judy Miller). They can communicate these preferences in a variety of ways. A baby who likes to be held upright may cry when cradled lying down. At about nine months a baby will direct their gaze to an object to show that they want it (Mary D. Sheridan). Gradually they will begin to grab, point and shake their head when given choices (Miller).

From eighteen months to three years children can make decisions about the clothes they wear, the activities they do, who they like to be with and what and how much food they prefer. They express this with a mixture of movement and language (Miller). A toddler will turn their head away from food to show they don’t want it, perhaps accompanied by an emphatic ‘No!’, while a three year old can explain whether they would rather walk or go in the buggy.

From three to five years, pre-school children progress to participating in decisions about whom they play with, their daily routines, solving problems and setting boundaries. As their language gets more sophisticated they can learn about decision making through role play and circle time. Miller says it is important to remember that ‘young children may not know as much about the world as most adults do, but they do know about themselves – how they feel, what is important to them, how they work things out and make sense of the world’ (p.31).

At each of these stages, what is necessary to the decision making process is that the child can make their preferences known: ‘Communication is the key to helping children begin to make choices independently’ ( This depends largely on a child having caring adults who are familiar with them.

Shaping their own environment and learning

So babies and young children can make decisions about a variety of things. But, as Miller explains, decision making is not just about stating a preference. It is about a child being actively involved in the process of deciding and seeing their choices acted upon: ‘Participation is not limited to children saying what they would like to happen, it is about enabling them to decide for themselves, where ever possible, what they would like to happen and then being able to make it happen’ (p.35). Allowing children to make real decisions in real situations is the ideal way to enable participation. Involving children in the reorganisation of an indoor or outdoor area of the nursery provides plenty of opportunities for decision making with a real purpose. They could also help to plan what to eat at snack time or which book to read at story time. The children themselves may initiate some sorting out, labelling, planting, or displaying of work, all of which require decisions to be made that can be followed through and supported by adults. This ownership of their environment is highlighted in the EYFS which states that practitioners should ‘encourage children to help plan the layout of the environment and to contribute to keeping it tidy’ (card 3.3).

Young children can also make decisions that will shape their learning journey. Angela Owens writes that ‘giving children a voice when making decisions about the educational program will help to ensure that it remains relevant and interesting to them’. Many of the approaches to learning used in the early years, such as Problem Solving, Child Initiated Learning and Sustained Shared Thinking, involve active decision making about their own learning by young children. This can also be seen through ’schemas’. We know that, from infancy, children will choose what interests them. As they grow and develop we call these patterns of play ‘schemas’. Young children begin to manage their learning as they explore a schema, choosing their own way to play and experiment with resources (Miller, Owens). The practitioner can respect the child’s choices while exposing them to related ideas. The EYFS is clear that in providing opportunities for children, practitioners should ‘allow them some control over their learning’ (card 4.2).

How can we support decision making in young children ?

Perhaps the most important – and hardest – element in helping children to learn to make decisions is to hand over some of the control to them! Owens says that ‘to genuinely engage children in making choices it is essential that adults are prepared to share their power with children, and trust that children are competent decision makers’. Practitioners can act as partners and guides, working with children as they make their choices and learn from their mistakes.

Listening and observing are also key tools in helping children to make decisions. A practitioner who has observed a baby’s preference for a special mirror book will be able to extend their interest by hanging mirrors and glitter balls for them to look at, or collecting together some small hand mirrors for the baby to hold. Asking parents and carers to share their knowledge of a baby or young child’s preferences is another way of allowing children to have a say, through those who know them best: ‘Younger children and babies can also have input into planning decisions when childcare professionals seek to find out about children’s interests and ideas by observing their play and explorations and talking with families about their child’ (Owens). This can be particularly useful for feeding and sleeping routines, how a baby likes to be held or what a toddler likes to drink.

Managing children’s choices is a helpful tool for both child and practitioner. A baby may be able to focus on a choice between two toys, but be overwhelmed by more. Older children will be able to cope with more choices at once, but too many will be counterproductive. Limiting the number of choices allows the practitioner some gentle control over the situation. Choice can also be used to define boundaries, as the EYFS states: ‘giving children choices helps them to learn that while there are several different options they can only choose one at a time’ (card 3.1).

Having time for decision making is really important. Children need time to work through their ideas while supporting adults stop and wait for them to emerge. The EYFS advises ‘giving children time to think about what they want and to express their wishes, rather than stepping in to help by making decisions for them’ (card 1.3). Time for feedback on their choices is also valuable. For example, a child may have decided to add lots of pebbles to their sandcastle because they wanted to decorate it, but the sandcastle collapses under the weight. Having time to evaluate why it fell down and whether they would make a different decision about the decoration in the future helps the child understand that they can learn from their choices and make changes. Clarke believes that feedback is useful from infancy: ‘Ensure that reflection time occurs – babies and very young children need to hear adults’ comments about what they have been doing’. A baby who has a selection of bells and rattles to play with may reach out for the bells and be very pleased when they make them chime. The adult can reflect the baby’s pleasure in their own facial expression and respond by commenting ‘You chose the bells. They make a lovely sound!’ Through this kind of positive interaction, practitioners are affirming the baby’s choices and valuing their decisions.

Decision making is a natural part of child development and young children will relish the many and varied opportunities to make choices with the appropriate support.



Jenni Clarke, Fostering Young Children’s Thinking Skills,

Angela Owens, Involving Children in Decision Making,

Judy Miller, Never too young: How young children can take responsibility and make decisions, 1996, National Early Years Network, UK

Helping Your Child Make Choices,

Mary D. Sheridan, From Birth to Five Years: Children’s Developmental Progress, 3rd Edition, 2008, Routledge, UK

The Early Years Foundation Stage, DfES


Education Advisor and Content Editor

Jules qualified as a teacher at UCL Institute of Education and has taught in both schools and nurseries. For a while she was writing articles for the Foundation Stage Forum and bringing up her three children, then in 2018 the FSF and Tapestry team finally agreed to take her on for real. She is an education advisor and has also taken on the role of content editor. She looks forward to continuing to connect with educators, hearing their voices, and the important work that needs to be done to support children who will become the adults that shape our future society.