The power of play – Part 5: Adult roles in child’s play

How can you best support your child’s play experiences?

Support your child's play without taking over.
Support your child's play without taking over.

Maria Montessori said that, “Play is children’s work.” So, where do you fit into their work? Are you the boss, leader, coach, coworker? While play may be the work of children, the work does not get done single-handedly. Quality play experiences are created and nurtured when adults are involved in the process.

Leading versus supporting

It’s important to make a note that supporting and leading or controlling are two different roles that adults can play when it comes to their child’s play, and only one of them is beneficial for the child. When adults control, lead or take over a child’s play, they are violating the basic principles of play being self-chosen and self-directed by the child. When children lose the freedom to explore openly, the experience loses its meaning.

Instead, if we support a child’s experiences by being present and engaged, but not taking over, we allow them to build up themselves, engage in learning and exploration and we can provide opportunities to help stretch and grow their experiences.

Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework’s “Learning and developing through play” identifies the following three stages of adult support of play.

1. Planning for play

Adults have ultimate control over a child’s environment. By making sure you have a fun and appropriate environment for your child to play in, you can help them grow. You can help plan your child’s play by:

  • Paying attention to environment and structure. When you structure an environment (either indoors or outdoors) based on a child’s strengths, abilities and needs, you can enhance their normal play and help them be successful and independent.
  • Building and extending. Challenge a child’s current knowledge or understanding through opportunities or materials that extend upon their current experiences or understanding.
  • Providing choices. Giving children the freedom to make their own choices is not only empowering, but helps them to lead their own learning experiences based on their interests and abilities.

2. Supporting play

In order to help a child learn and know, you need to learn to know your child, which you can do by supporting their play. You can support children’s play by:

  • Talking about play. Adults can extend and support a child’s play simply by engaging with children during play. Adults can talk to children about their play. By being involved, children learn that adults are invested in them and respect their play decisions.
  • Validating their efforts. Participating in play with your child is fun for them and shows them you value what they are doing. Your presence and proximity to children can communicate a lot to them.
  • Adding to children’s play. In actively participating in play, when invited, adults can extend upon a child’s current knowledge and help them make new connections. This can be done by modeling positive behaviors or interactions.
  • Preventing problems. By being actively involved in the process of play, adults are in a good position to intervene if a situation arises when a child might need help, whether it is an interpersonal conflict, a problem or a safety concern. It’s important to remember children need opportunities to practice problem solving and conflict resolution independently as well. Make sure to give children ample opportunities to practice these skills on their own and only intervene if necessary.
  • Building children up. Sometimes children may need help engaging in activities or joining an activity, and when adults are regularly a part of their play, they can be a good bridge to help children feel comfortable initiating and participating in play.

3. Reviewing play

Reviewing a child’s play can help collect information about the child and help you to extend upon their current activities and learning. You can review your child’s play by:

  • Checking in. By observing, talking and listening to your child, you can learn about the purpose, effectiveness and enjoyment of a child’s play experiences. This information can help you think about ways to keep their play engaging and meaningful in the future.
  • Observing the space. Having a space that is well suited for a child’s play is important. By thinking about how the space impacted your child’s play, you can think of ways to make it even better.
  • Thinking critically. You can really get to know a child by observing and interacting with them during play. Through those experiences, you can think critically about a child’s interests, interactions, relationships and preferences to check up on their progress and help inspire future successes.
  • Making plans. By taking all of the information gathered by planning and participating in play, you can make plans for the future to fix any issues, build upon a child’s need and enhance the overall play experience for your child.

By being actively involved in your child’s play, you can help them learn and grow. You create opportunities to build a supportive and trusting relationship with your child and help build them up in the process. You have the power to help your child unlock the power of play!

Don’t miss the other articles in The Power of Play series, “Stages of play,” “Born to play,” “Types of play” and “Characteristics of play.”

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

Other articles in this series

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