Play Advocacy Via Social Media: Engage Carefully

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Over the last six months, nearly a dozen frustrated early learning professionals have shared tales of developmentally inappropriate social media content they’ve run across. The content has ranged from cookie cutter craft projects, to infant toddler learning apps, to chatter about play from people who did not seem to understand play. These frustrated folks wanted to engage with the content creators and advocate for play, but were understandably reluctant.

We live in a world where voicing an alternative opinion, sharing information, or asking a question online can be seen as a viscous personal attack. I’ve experienced it plenty of times, for example, I once shared an article I’d read that suggested there were more appropriate alternatives to taking recess away  from children unable to sit still in class—I was called a “teacher-hating asshole” by someone kind enough to message and tell me she was unfollowing me on Facebook. Social media can be incredibly uncivil.

Can you effectively engage with the creators of content with which you disagree and advocate for the playful perspective? I think yes—in some cases. If you’re careful. There are opportunities to engage with people ready for a baby step who are in need of a bit of support and guidance. What follows are some thoughts on  careful engagement.

The first step to careful play-advocacy-via-social-media-engagement is to choose who to engage.

Choose your playful learning advocacy battles wisely. There are not enough hours in the day to thoughtfully comment on every post or pin depicting developmentally inappropriate practice that sets your passion for play to boiling. You’d type the skin off the tips of your fingers if you tried. Be on the lookout for high-value engagement opportunities likely to result in real conversation and an honest exchange of ideas instead of low-value exchanges that may be seen as attacks.

Who should you engage? For lack of a better collective pronoun, let’s call them Experts. Entities who, because of their professional standing, should know better than to push forth ideas, products, activities, policies, and practices that are not based on a solid understanding of child development and early learning research. They also tend to have larger followings so your interactions have the potential of reaching and influencing more people. This group includes:

  • Professional Organizations And Their Representatives
  • Government Entities and Employees
  • College And University Programs and Personal
  • Companies Marketing To The Early Learning Community
  • Training Organizations And Trainers
  • Authors, Bloggers, Podcasters, And Other Content Creators

Who should you avoid engaging? Let’s call this group Civilians. Individuals who, for whatever reason, do not know better than to engage in developmentally questionable practices. These people may have had limited, or no, exposure to developmentally appropriate practices, early learning research, or play theory. They may be at a point on their professional journey where they are still unable to embrace more playful practices—or they may be under the influence of one or more experts dealing in developmentally inappropriateness.

In most circumstances, engaging directly with this group—no matter how noble your intentions—will come across as hostile. You may think they should ‘know better’—and maybe they should—but the odds are your comment on their toddler circle time photos won’t lead to a change in practice. The only time direct engagement with a civilian may be fruitful is when there’s a strong pre-existing positive relationship with the person—especially if that relationship exists offline.

Note that although you may not engage directly with civilians, you reach—and possibly influence—them when they’re exposed to your interactions with experts.

Here’s an example to wrap up this section—You may want to engage when a local university early learning department shares photos from a training they hosted focusing on direct-instruction seat-work for infants and toddlers. You may want to swipe right on past the post by the caregiver who attended the above mentioned session gushing over the great new ideas she has for “teaching the babies about the Solar System and Whales”.

The second step to careful play-advocacy-via-social-media-engagement is to engage thoughtfully.

Social media tends to both amplify and polarize—people seem more ready to rumble, more prepared to pounce, and more eager to escalate online than they ever would be in person. When there’s a difference of opinion, every effort should be made to try keeping the exchange friendly. This is nearly always easier said than done. It’s so easy to dehumanize the person on the other side of a post that set your blood to boiling. Simple differences of opinion can turn adversarial, personal, and nasty in a blink. Here are some things to consider when attempting to keep online engagement civil:

Seek Common Ground

It’s worth some effort to find commonalities with the person you want to engage—it’s a step toward community and connection. Maybe you both run family child care programs, maybe you like the same music, or maybe you shared the same cat video last month when it went viral. Before jumping in and engaging about the post that made your head explode, scroll through their other posts searching for something you have in common.  Common ground helps you see them as more than a single infuriating post and creates a small connection—“He liked the cat video too! He must not be a total meathead.” The end result is that you’re able to separate the person from the post. If there’s no common ground to be found, move on.

Share Your Journey

Taking time to share a bit of your journey with the person you’re engaging helps them see you as a real person instead of a jerk who doesn’t like their paper plate craft activity.

“Wow, that paper plate fish sucks harder than a car wash vacuum cleaner!” is less likely to open a door to a thoughtful exchange than “I did that same project for the first ten years my family child care program was open! I was the queen of paper plates—I went through so many of them over the years. My practice has evolved, though. Now I…”

Avoid Sarcasm

Sarcasm can be a ton of fun in the right situation, but this is not that situation. Avoid glibness, snark, and irony while you’re at it. Save them for another time—they’re not the tools for this job. Think about it, when was the last time a glib, sarcastic, and snarky social media post lead you to self reflection?

Setting aside sarcasm, snark, glibness, and irony leaves some of us feeling completely disarmed and a bit vulnerable.  That’s probably a good thing. Feeling vulnerable and disarmed of sharp words and biting comments is more likely to lead to conversational connection.

Maybe Nudge—Never Shove

Sometimes people are ready for a nudge, sometimes they’re not—they’re rarely eager to be shoved. Think ZPD, Vygotski, and scaffolding. Look for opportunities to help the person you’re responding to stretch a little beyond their comfort zone. Try out a “What would happen if you_______?” or a “I used to do it that way, too. Then I read ________ and it really offered some helpful ideas. I could share a link if you’d like.”

Take The Test

Before pressing Send, pause for a moment and take the Would I Say This To A Stranger In Person Test. If you wouldn’t, do some editing.

Retreat Strategically

If none of the above proves successful, there’s nothing wrong with strategic retreat. If your attempt to engage is met with disinterest or anger, move on. If there’s no chance things can stay civil and move forward, RETREAT! Don’t keep pushing and risk escalating any negative feelings, swipe away from the conversation. Retreating now leaves the door open for a later attempt when the person may be more ready and willing for a nudge.

The third step to careful play-advocacy-via-social-media-engagement is to consider strategy.

How can you most effectively reach out with your alternative ideas in this situation? Here are four basic ideas that you can mix and match as you like.

Ask Questions

One engagement strategy is to ask open-ended questions. Questions can seek information and clarification, deepen knowledge, open conversation, help identify common ground, and more. The key is to keep questions friendly and nonthreatening—avoid an inquisition. “Could you help me understand why ________?”, “Are there links you could share about that idea so I can learn more?”, “What’s the reasoning behind doing it that way?”

Suggest Alternatives

Suggesting alternatives is another useful engagement strategy. “Have you considered ________?”, “________ has worked for me in similar situations.”, “I always had luck with ________.”

Offer Resources

Strategically offering resources is a nonthreatening way to engage. Sharing links to books, articles, research, blog posts, and podcasts can expose people to new ideas and practices.

Share Examples

Sharing real-word examples from your personal journey or your professional practice offer opportunities for connection and reflection. We humans are drawn to stories—sharing your stories is a great way to connect

What Now?

Get out there on the interwebs and advocate! Focus on relationships. Look for ways to connect. Keep it playful. I’d love to hear about your play advocacy via social media successes or failures.

Or, if you’d like another perspective on internet engagement, check out this article from the satirical Babylon Bee website.

Content Creator and Curator at

Jeff is an early learning speaker, toymaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ who is really bad at getting his picture taken.

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