To date, the preparation of free-standing 2D nanomaterials has been largely limited to the exfoliation of van der Waals solids. The lack of a robust mechanism for the bottom-up synthesis of 2D nanomaterials from non-layered materials has become an obstacle to further explore the physical properties and advanced applications of 2D nanomaterials. Here we demonstrate that surfactant monolayers can serve as soft templates guiding the nucleation and growth of 2D nanomaterials in large area beyond the limitation of van der Waals solids. One- to 2-nm-thick, single-crystalline free-standing ZnO nanosheets with sizes up to tens of micrometres are synthesized at the water-air interface. In this process, the packing density of surfactant monolayers adapts to the sub-phase metal ions and guides the epitaxial growth of nanosheets. It is thus named adaptive ionic layer epitaxy (AILE). The electronic properties of ZnO nanosheets and AILE of other materials are also investigated.