Agency in early childhood—a child’s right to choose

As babies and young children grow and develop a sense of agency in early childhood, they realise that they can contribute to and make their own decisions and control their own lives. A child’s sense of agency is essential to a strong sense of identity3 and has been identified as a foundation for learning and wellbeing2 and is thus critical in early childhood education.

What is agency in early childhood?

Having agency means “being able to make choices and decisions to influence events and to have an impact on one’s world.”1

The National Quality Framework (NQF) and National Quality Standards (NQS) specifically highlight a child’s sense of agency as a key concept to a child’s development5.

  • NQF Outcome 1.2—Children develop their autonomy, interdependence, resilience and sense of agency.
  • NQS element 1.1.6—Each child’s agency is promoted, enabling them to make choices and decisions and to influence events and their world.

Making space for a child’s sense of agency to be expressed is actively encouraged and discussed in the approved learning frameworks.  Enable children to be involved in genuine choices and decisions by providing them with opportunities to decide what they’ll do and how they’ll do it.

A child’s sense of agency in early childhood is very much linked to a sense of belonging

This sense of belonging thrives when a child has trust in the adults and carers/educators around them and the environment in which they are cared for (NQS Standard 5.1—Relationships between educators and children).5

Developing such a trusting bond with infants and children during their early years is vital, and when we listen with respect to children’s voices, words and ideas, we enhance this trust, showing them that they are heard.

A young girl exercising her sense of agency in early childhood by choosing to play a triangle rather than a xylophone

Listening deeply, being present and being willing to see the world through the eyes of the child are just some ways of respecting a child’s sense of agency. 

All early years educators have a critical role in ensuring agency is promoted to help develop this sense of belonging in young children in a variety of learning contexts.

How can you support children in developing a sense of agency in early childhood?

Empowerment through choice

Decision-Making Opportunities: Offer children opportunities to make age-appropriate choices in their daily activities and make decisions to influence events. This can range from selecting activities to choosing toys or deciding on aspects of their learning journey.

Encourage Self-Expression: Foster an environment where children can express their preferences and opinions. This not only supports children’s agency but also helps build confidence and a sense of autonomy.

Create an inclusive and supportive environment

Acknowledging individuality—Recognise and celebrate each child’s uniqueness, acknowledging their diverse backgrounds, interests and abilities. Create an inclusive environment that values and respects the individuality of every child.

Cultural sensitivity—Incorporate diverse perspectives and cultural elements into the learning environment. This promotes a sense of belonging and ensures that each child feels valued and respected.

Nurture partnerships with families

Collaborative communication—Foster open and collaborative communication with parents and caregivers. Involve them in decision-making processes and keep them informed about their child’s experiences, achievements and challenges.

Understanding home context—Recognize and respect the cultural and familial contexts of each child’s life. This understanding enhances the connection between the early childhood setting and the child’s home environment.

A young boy plays with blocks at a table while his mother looks on

Respecting a child’s sense of agency and belonging involves empowering them through choices, creating an inclusive environment that celebrates diversity, and establishing strong partnerships with families to ensure a holistic approach to their development.

Ideas for ensuring you encourage children to exercise agency at your early childhood service

Promote agency in early childhood through play

One crucial aspect to consider is the role of play in promoting agency. Play is the primary mode through which young children explore, experiment and make sense of the world around them. By providing open-ended materials and opportunities for imaginative play, educators can empower children to take control of their learning experiences. This type of play encourages creativity, problem-solving skills and decision-making—all essential components of agency.

Furthermore, promoting agency in early childhood requires a shift in mindset from a traditional, adult-centric approach to one that values children as active participants in their own learning. This means recognising and respecting children’s ideas, interests, and contributions, no matter how small they may seem. By acknowledging children’s agency in everyday interactions and activities, educators can help build their confidence and self-esteem, laying the foundation for lifelong learning and success.

Create opportunities to promote agency in early childhood settings

Another important aspect of promoting agency is creating opportunities for children to take on leadership roles and responsibilities within the childcare setting. Whether it’s leading a group activity, helping to set up the classroom or taking care of classroom pets, giving children meaningful roles and responsibilities helps them develop a sense of ownership and agency over their environment. This not only fosters independence and self-confidence but also teaches valuable life skills such as teamwork, communication and problem-solving.

A young family sitting on their living room floor with blocks scattered in the foreground

Promoting agency in early childhood is a group effort

In addition to fostering agency within the childcare setting, involving families in the process is essential. Parents and caregivers play a crucial role in supporting children’s agency at home and can reinforce the principles of autonomy, choice and self-expression learned at childcare. By fostering open communication and collaboration between educators and families, childcare service owners and administrators can create a seamless transition between home and childcare, ensuring continuity in children’s experiences and reinforcing their sense of agency.

Moreover, promoting agency in early childhood extends beyond the individual child to the broader community. By actively engaging with the local community, childcare services can provide children opportunities to contribute to and positively impact their surroundings. This could involve participating in community events, collaborating with local organisations, or even undertaking community-based projects. By connecting children to their community and encouraging them to become active citizens, childcare services can help instil a sense of agency and social responsibility from a young age.

A young girl exercises agency in early childhood by pointing to a happy face held by an educator.

Understanding the role of educators in fostering agency

Educators in early childhood settings play a pivotal role in fostering agency in young children. Educators need to understand their role in creating an environment where children feel empowered to make choices and express themselves. Here are some key strategies educators can employ to promote agency in early childhood:

  • Provide guidance without control—Educators should aim to provide guidance and support to children without imposing control over their choices. This means offering options and opportunities for decision-making while respecting children’s autonomy and preferences. For example, instead of dictating how a particular activity should be done, educators can offer suggestions and let children explore different approaches independently.
  • Create a safe and supportive environment—A nurturing and inclusive environment is essential for promoting agency in early childhood. Educators should create a space where children feel safe expressing themselves and taking risks. This involves fostering positive relationships, practising active listening, and validating children’s feelings and experiences. When children feel supported and valued, they are more likely to develop a sense of agency and confidence in their abilities.
  • Encourage reflection and self-expression—Reflection is a critical component of agency, allowing children to evaluate their choices and experiences. Educators can encourage reflection by enabling children to openly share their thoughts and feelings. This could involve group discussions, journaling activities, or reflective prompts during circle time. By encouraging self-expression and reflective thinking, educators help children develop a deeper understanding of themselves and their actions.
  • Fostere a growth mindset—A growth mindset is essential for promoting agency in early childhood. Educators should praise children’s efforts and persistence rather than focusing solely on outcomes. By celebrating mistakes as learning opportunities and emphasising the importance of effort and resilience, educators help children develop a positive attitude towards challenges and setbacks. This fosters a sense of agency by empowering children to believe in their ability to learn and grow.
  • Empower children through play—Play is a powerful tool for promoting agency in early childhood. It allows children to explore and experiment with different roles and identities. Here are some ways educators can empower children through play.
  •  Provide open-ended materials—Open-ended materials such as blocks, loose parts, and art supplies encourage creativity and imagination. By offering materials that can be used in multiple ways, educators empower children to take ownership of their play experiences and express themselves freely.
  • Support child-led play—Child-led play allows children to take the lead in their play experiences, fostering a sense of agency and autonomy. Educators can support child-led play by observing children’s interests and following their lead. This involves stepping back and allowing children to take control of the play narrative while providing support and guidance as needed.
  • Create play spaces that reflect children’s interests—The environment plays a crucial role in supporting agency in play. Educators should design play spaces that reflect children’s interests, preferences, and cultural backgrounds. This could involve setting up themed play areas, incorporating natural elements, or displaying children’s artwork and creations. By creating a space that feels welcoming and familiar, educators encourage children to engage in meaningful play experiences that reflect their agency and identity.
An outdoor playground where children are free to exercise agency in early childhood by choosing what equipment to play on.

Promoting agency in early childhood is essential for supporting children’s overall development and well-being. By fostering a sense of autonomy, self-expression, and empowerment, educators help children develop the skills and confidence they need to navigate the world around them. Through intentional guidance, nurturing environments, and opportunities for play, educators can empower children to become active participants in their own learning journey, setting them up for success in school and beyond.

Respecting a child’s sense of agency and belonging involves:

  • Empowering them through choices.
  • Creating an inclusive environment that celebrates diversity.
  • Establishing strong partnerships with families to ensure a holistic approach to their development.

Promoting agency in early childhood is not only about allowing children to make choices and decisions; it’s about fostering an environment where they feel empowered, respected, and valued. As childcare service owners and administrators, it’s crucial to understand the multifaceted nature of agency and how it influences every aspect of a child’s development.

If you’re looking for ways for educators and families to collaborate on how to help children exercise agency in early childhood, Xplor Education’s dynamic duo of Playground (educators) and Home (families) work seamlessly together to streamline family engagement.


  1. Early Years Learning Framework V2.0 p.64
  2. PROMOTING CHILDREN’S AGENCY IN EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: Angela MASHFORD-SCOTT* & Amelia CHURCH**Novitas-ROYAL (Research on Youth and Language), 2011, 5 (1), 15-38.
  4. EYLF Postcards—Thinking about the EYLF—Thoughts to inspire.
  5. Guide to the NQF