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Sense of self

Feeling safe and secure helps children develop their independence, find out how you can help them.

Why sense of self is important

Babies develop a sense of self by interacting with others and by exploring their bodies and the objects around them.

Feelings of identity grow as you make attempts to understand what a child is thinking. The more you interact with a child and help them to express themselves in words the more understood they will feel. A sense of self comes from the experience of being in the mind of others, feeling valued and understood. If children do not feel understood this can affect feelings of intimacy, trust and attachment later in life.

Human behaviour is motivated by a desire to belong and find a place in the group, in our families, neighbourhoods, schools and society. Relationships with others help children understand that they have a place in society. Supporting children to understand diversity, including that others will have a different background or family type from themselves, will help all children to feel valued and understood.

Sharing everyday experiences supports children’s understanding of how social interactions work. Childcare settings are where children meet new adults and other children.


In this video, an early years expert explains the importance of sense of self in the early years foundation stage framework. There are also some tips on how to support children in this area.

What the EYFS framework says

Strong, warm and supportive relationships with adults enable children to learn how to understand their own feelings and those of others. Children should be supported to manage emotions, develop a positive sense of self, set themselves simple goals, have confidence in their own abilities, to persist and wait for what they want and direct attention as necessary.

Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, page 8, childminder EYFS, page 10, group and school-based EYFS.

What this means in practice

Children need to explore their own potential to discover new things and develop their knowledge and interests. To support children to achieve this you should offer a wide selection of activities planned around children’s individual interests.

Encourage children in your home or nursery setting to make choices. Support children to feel good about themselves and their choices as this will increase their confidence.

Be patient and attentive. The way you interact with children will encourage their sense of themselves and self-confidence. Knowing each child is the key to supporting their sense of self, so plan the environment to reflect their interests.

Make sure children know where everything is in the setting. It helps to offer them continuity and consistency. This supports children to use the environment independently.

A predictable routine encourages a secure sense of self. Giving children advance notice that things are going to change helps them feel prepared. Talk with parents and carers to prepare children for changes to their normal routine.

Suggested activities

‘Our names, ourselves’

Early in the year ask parents or carers how and why their child’s names were chosen. You’ll hear all sorts of family stories and the deeper meaning of some of the names. It can sometimes be quite moving and often intergenerational, for example when children are named after a Grandad. You and the children can make books called ‘the stories of our names’ and they can think about how their names connect to themselves and their families.

Children will enjoy hearing the story of their names and listening to the story of other children’s names.

You can also talk about other family members’ names. Try to learn their names as well as the childrens’ so you can welcome them each day. This leads into the idea that families may have stories or traditions that are specific to them, such as new pyjamas every Christmas Eve, lighting a candle if you pass a Church or an annual family holiday. This will give you a range of materials to work with every year but it starts from the families and works outwards.

The focus is on the child’s sense of self. Through the process you will be questioning, describing and widening their technical vocabulary, as well as technological vocabulary (communication and language). Handling the objects develops the children’s fine motor skills (physical development). Children will explore themselves in relation to others and a range of emotions may be explored.

Non-verbal storying

You’ll need:

  • a range of open-ended found materials, such as newspaper, cardboard boxes and tubes
  • a large whiteboard or paper
  • a simple story script that the adult has written, based upon a familiar conflict, such as a conflict over sharing a special toy

Gather the children in small groups as part of your familiar story-time routine.

Draw their attention to a line of masking tape on the floor. This indicates the ‘stage’ area where the story will take place.

Use found material resources to create characters and props in front of the children’s eyes, as the story takes place.

Follow basic 3-point story arc, setup, problem and solution. This should focus on an aspect of emotional learning that children are currently being challenged by, such as sharing resources, or being separated from a parent at drop-off.

Use noises, vocal intonations and drawn symbols and faces to signal thoughts or feelings.

Pause throughout for ‘I wonder’ moments, offering children a chance to contribute their ideas around characters’ feelings or possible resolutions.

At the end of the story, leave the resources for children to explore, perhaps using the pre-made characters to re-tell, innovate or invent stories, or create their own props and characters using the modelling resources.

The focus is on children expressing emotions. Through the process you will be questioning, describing and widening their technical vocabulary, as well as technological vocabulary (communication and language). Handling the objects develops the children’s fine motor skills and enacting the experiences gross motor skills (physical development). Children will explore their developing sense of self and their relationships with others.

Other activities

The I see you game helps children learn some identity skills.

The Make a treasure box and Make a memory book activities help them to store memories about themselves and make a history.

What other nurseries and childminders are doing

“In our childcare setting each child has their own special box. They can put whatever they want in it, for example their blanket or a toy car”.

Nursery worker, Pen Green centre, Corby

“We care for children as individuals and remember what is happening. If they leave on Friday telling us about going to a birthday party at the weekend we will talk to them on Monday about it. We also make sure we remember the important people in their lives”.

Nursery worker, Kingswood nursery, Corby


  • Children who have a sense of self are able to challenge themselves. This helps them become independent and secure to face challenges in other areas of learning.

  • If children do not feel a sense of security, they may not be able to settle into their environment and may struggle to learn or develop.

  • If you respond to children and try to understand their feelings, they will feel safe. A feeling of safety encourages children to be their own person and take part in the experiences on offer.

  • Children need to try out different ways for asserting themselves and keeping themselves safe.

Next steps

Consider this as a possible activity to examine how well you know each child. This will help you develop an awareness of their sense of self.

Imagine the child is asking you these questions. What would you answer on their behalf?

  • Do you know me?
  • Can I trust you?
  • Do you hear me?
  • Is this a fair place for me?

We suggest doing this every half term and going back to revisit it. You could keep a folder for each child.

Consider how your curriculum supports children to play independently.

Review your curriculum to ensure you cover the requirements in the EYFS for this area of learning.