Autonomy is the quality or state of being self-governing. It is the freedom to determine one's own actions and behaviour. Autonomous children have the ability to self regulate and become self directed. It is the freedom of self-construction. It is the freedom of choice and the ability to act on those choices.
It's not only about being independent, for example the child has the ability to pour their own drink, it is that the child can identify they are thirsty then move, pour themselves a drink and consume it, with independent thought and without barriers.
The small child knows they are hungry or tired, or have the need to move. When we take away their choice and their freedom the child become passive and waits to be told what to do, waits to be fed or presented with food, or told it's bed time.
I have found children with a greater sense of autonomy are more resilient, respond better to change and challenges such as a change in environment like day care or school, they become good problem solvers and critical thinkers, they learn to think and act for themsevles at a earlier age. I have found they become active learners, self directed change leaders, they question authority and are doers. Why wouldn't we want that for our children?
Montessori schools are well equipped to support the child's autonomy but how can we replicate this at home? Our homes are not schools, parents are not teachers, there will always be compromise. Dr Montessori said "Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed". This applies to activities, actions but to choice as well, if the child is able to make a choice we must allow it and provide an environment which supports it (freedom within limits).
We want the child to make as many decisions for themselves as they can, as they are able, through actions not through words. In many cases through free movement and it starts at birth. From birth we feed on demand, follow the infant's sleep cues and allow for free movement. As the child gets older we allow for self dressing, self toileting, self feeding (when, what, how much) and the choice of activities or toys. We give the child skills and tools for practical life so they are well equipped to take care of their own needs and become less dependent on adults. We show the child that we trust them and in turn the child becomes more confident in their decision making.
A floor bed, access to a potty or toilet step stool, low tables and chairs, a snack table, care of self centre or low mirror and hand washing bowl, free flowing indoor-outdoor environment, free access to toys, materials, practical life equipment, all of these contribute. But there is no list, we need to follow the child and determine how we can best support the child's autonomy with the context of our homes.
We don't offer choice just for the sake of it. We want the child to maintain that sense of self regulation, we want them to stay in touch with their own needs, it can lead to fufillment. I can see in our home it reduces frustration and when it works well the children are calm and content. The child will eat when they are hungry, use the toilet when they need but they will also choose activities and work that calls to them, this can be deeply satisfying.
Things are always faster, cleaner and easier when your child is compliant or does what they are told. It's often easier to do things for the child than have them do it for themselves. But if the child has autonomy at (Montessori) school but not at home, what have we achieved? Autonomy at home is as equally important as it is at school, we just need to learn how we can provide the space and time to allow it.