Enabling Environments

“Why Early Years Practitioners Should Let Children Lead Play”

  • “Why Early Years Practitioners Should Let Children Lead Play”

Resist the urge to stick your oar into children’s play – your participation may not be welcomed, counsels Juno Hollyhock…

I had the pleasure of spending some time with a two-year-old and their extended family recently. It was one of those situations where the adults focus on the child in a sort of informal competition to see who can elicit the most smiles, dry up tears the fastest and become the most pressed upon to come and play.

Invariably, of course – somewhat like those cats who unerringly ignore the person who most wants their purrs and head for those who look upon them with disdain and loathing – two-year-olds are on their own rhythm, and prefer to choose their own comforter and playmate.

I was somewhat on the outside of this grouping being only a step-by-marriage (a status I can highly recommend: all the pleasure, none of the accountability; all the fun none of the pain – until they are teenagers, of course, but that’s another story…). I took the opportunity to watch what was happening, and there were some interesting lessons to be learned around play and participation.

On one occasion a pile of Lego was emptied onto the floor (other modular, primary-coloured, plastic interlocking blocks are available), and this was the cue for all sorts of directed play approaches from the adults, who descended like a flock of seagulls onto some particularly tasty discarded fast food item.

There was ‘construction man’, who proposed the building of a tall tower – not to be knocked over but to be admired, with contrasting bands of colour and a clever twisty corner feature with decorated cornices. There was ‘home mother’ building a small picket-fenced house complete with happy family, Lego dog and the cunning addition of some natural materials for the garden (nice, I liked this one). Then there was ‘party auntie’, who arranged the blocks according to colour and size, chattered in a lively and excited voice and used all of her guile to persuade our two-year-old friend to work alongside her.

The two-year-old sat in bemused silence watching these strange antics, adults crouched on the ground talking in odd voices and playing with her toys.

Once the initial attempt to engage her failed, the novelty wore off and everyone decided that a cup of tea was in order. Left to her own devices, our two-year-old proceeded to dismember the tall tower, crush the cute house underfoot and scatter the neatly arranged colour-coded blocks to the four winds.

She then proceeded to join lots of sets of three blocks together and lay them in a long line. Small tongue poking out with concentration and breathing stertorous in the silence that surrounded her, she was oblivious to everything else in the room.

We watched as, one at a time, she then undid the sets of blocks and put them carefully away in their box. This was her play, her schema, her creation. She wanted no part of anyone else’s constructed game, and she was quick to select as the one person to help her put the blocks away the one person who had not tried to engage her in any way, but had simply sat and watched and participated in the play of her choosing.

There is time for directed aspirational, stretching, talkative play, but we must not forget the importance of child-directed play, even if it appears repetitive and boring to our over-developed imaginations.

Lego blocks are great, and I look forward very much to the appointment of the Lego-funded ‘professor of play’ at Cambridge University; I truly hope that they can see beyond the pre-constructed toy industry to the valuable resources for play available in the natural environment. I hope, too, that they can think about 101 uses for construction blocks out of doors. But most importantly I hope that they can understand that adults do not know everything about play; we must watch children and follow their cues in order to allow them the greatest freedoms to learn and explore the adult world, understand their own risk management, try out scenarios and stimulate their imagination.

Juno is former executive director of Learning through Landscapes, which offers a range of services to support outdoor learning and play in the early years. Its membership resources and publications provide a regular supply of fresh activity ideas, and it offers on-site support through advisory visits and half-day, full-day or twilight training sessions for nurseries.