It was a sunny, Winter morning and the children were playing outdoors. A group of children had invented their own game with sticks and soccer balls, while others painted underneath the trees. I stood and surveyed the space for a few moments, then got the feeling that I should be doing something, should be interacting with the children. I spied three children busily “cooking” in the sandpit and thought I would join them, perhaps scaffold their play. Within moments of sitting down and opening my mouth it became crystal clear that my “interaction” was not wanted. The children glared at me and began gathering up their cooking things before moving to another area of the playground.
It hit me instantly. I had no business pushing myself into their play – it was theirs. I started thinking about what I had been saying to my educators for many years, how I had been telling that they needed to be playing with the children, not standing back watching. Was I wrong? How would I backtrack from this?
This story is one that I tell during training sessions and even though I cringe while telling it, I feel that it is an important story to tell. Despite my good intentions to be involved in the children’s play, to be an active educator, rather than standing off to the side inspecting my nail polish or chatting to my colleagues about weekend plans, I had made quite a big error of judgement.
Over the years that have passed I have had a lot of time to reflect on my actions that day. How did it go so wrong? Why did the children react in the way that they did? How could I have done things differently?
How did it go so wrong?
Perhaps the first thing to note was that I wasn’t looking for a cue or an invitation to join the play, instead I just plopped down beside the children. To put this in perspective: I am sitting in a restaurant with some friends eating lunch. A colleague spots me and decides to sit in the empty chair at the table. Although I like this person, my friends and I are in the middle of a conversation and the interruption brings a halt to it. This is exactly what I did to these children. While they knew me, and liked me (let’s hope!) and I wasn’t trying to interfere with their play, they were in the middle of something that I wasn’t a part of and I brought a halt to their play.
Why did the children react in the way that they did?
Obviously, the children felt that I had intruded on their play. Thankfully for me, their reaction manifested in a relatively positively way – there was no kicking or screaming, they simply moved their play elsewhere, somewhere that I was not.
Peter Gray speaks of the result of adult interference stating, “Attentive adults can ruin games even if they don’t intend to intervene. Children perceive them as potential enforcers of safety, solvers of conflicts, and audiences for whining; and this perception invites the children to act unsafely, to squabble, and to whine. Play requires self-control, and the too-obvious presence of adults can lead children to relinquish their self-control.”
While the children in my instance may not have felt that I was coming to enforce safety or solve perceived conflict, I was still an unwelcome intruder in their play space.
What could I have done differently?
Watch. For as much as I once nagged my educators to play and interact and be involved, this experience showed me that sometimes you really are better to just sit back and watch. Watching doesn’t mean chatting about your plans for dinner with a colleague or glancing at your watch every two minutes to check how long until your lunch break. Watching is about being present. It is about taking time to notice the little things about children’s play – their body language, the way they communicate with their peers, the tone of their voice, the themes in their play. When you take the time to notice the little things, you open yourself up to seeing play in a different way. You also become more aware of the cues that a child or group of children may want or need you to become involved.
Listen. Often if a child wants you to be a part of their play or needs something from you, they will ask. When we are present for children, they come to know that even though we are not asking them about their game or directing their play, we are available, should they need us.
How will I know if I am interacting or interfering?
One of the most important things we can do in our work with children is to spend time getting to know the children in our care. When we know our children on a deep level, we begin to understand their body language, their tone of voice and their cues that say “hey, I need you!”
When we interact with children we engage with children, we are playful. When we interfere with children’s play, we tend to take over, to enforce rules and organise the play.
Children deserve opportunities to play. Peter Gray defined children’s play as:
- Self-chosen and self-directed; players are always free to quit
- Play is an activity in which means are more valued than ends
- Play is guided by mental rules
- Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality
- Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.
When we look at those key elements of play, it is easy to see that adults are not a huge part of this process. While we may provide a basic environment, resources and support for play, our well-intentioned attempts to involve ourselves in play could in fact be interfering with the very nature of play.
- Gray, P. (2009) How to Ruin Children’s Play: Supervise, Praise, Intervene: How to enjoy, not destroy, children’s play, psychologytoday.com (retrieved 7th June, 2017)
- Gray, P. (2008) The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights psychologytoday.com (retrieved 7th June, 2017)
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