Your mission, should you choose to accept it : Supporting play without self-destructing in five, fou

So we have talked about the different stages of play (if you missed it, check out the blog post here). How do we as caregivers support play? What is our role in supporting learning through play?

It all starts with the caregiver providing a physically safe environment for exploration. Young humans will be unable to engage in play if they are constantly being redirected away from hazardous materials or spaces, or if they do not have enough space for freedom of movement. For example, in the photo below you will see a young human jumping off a balance beam onto a giant beanbag. The caregiver in this space observed the young human's interest in jumping and setup a safe space for him to explore jumping off the balance beam. This caregiver created a 'yes' space in which the young human can explore jumping while being and feeling safe.

Once a safe space has been established, then you can continue to support play by ensuring a developmentally appropriate cognitively challenging environment that encourages “busy children” rather than “busy toys” (Gerber, Greenwald & Weaver, 2013, p. 13). Materials should be basic, simple and safe, “able to be manipulated in many ways and not requiring adult help or supervision…requiring the [young human] to be active, not passive” (Gerber, Greenwald & Weaver, 2013, p. 13). For example, metal tins, balls of all sizes and textures (smooth:rough; rubber:fabric), egg shakers, platforms or boxes to climb on and off, items to stack (and knock down), fabrics, picture books, simple cars, and sensory items (i.e. water, sand, foam). Notice none of these examples include toys that require batteries to make noise/light up or the use of technology (in the form of screen time).

Most importantly, now that you have a safe space and developmentally appropriate cognitively challenging materials in that space, it is time to understand how to provide an emotionally nurturing environment for all the humans in the space. This is the main message that I want you to focus on in this blog. That is to provide an emotionally nurturing environment through careful observation, uninterrupted play, and “demonstrat[ing] love by showing and teaching respect” (Gerber, Greenwald & Weaver, 2013, p. 27).

So, what does it mean to provide an emotionally nurturing environment?

  1. Start by sitting quietly near the young human and watching them interact with the materials, themselves and others and only intervening if necessary for safety or if invited to participate. This shows your young human that you value their experiences, and respect their ability to engage and learn without someone or something ‘imparting knowledge’ on them and/or hovering. Where your body is placed is important. For example, sitting rather than standing puts you on the same level as the young human both physically and emotionally. It also ensures you are stationary rather than moving around. Moving around young humans all the time while hovering around them like a shadow sends the message that you do not trust them. Hovering may lead to young humans becoming anxious and/or feel like they are not ‘doing it right’. Also, when the caregiver is moving around a lot in the space, the young human will not have a secure base to seek. Young humans, especially infants, seek to find the familiar adult in the environment when they are exploring their environment. They need to know that they could find the familiar adult in a specific location in the space when they need support. When the caregiver, secure base, moves around in the environment it is unsettling for the young human who is seeking the secure base. Therefore, get a stadium chair (the BackJack brand is best, see photo below), find a spot in the environment where the young human is playing and sit, observe and enjoy.

  2. When invited to participate, it is important to keep the validity of the young human’s play scenario active. Remain in the background of play, i.e. using quiet tones when talking, stay seated, move slowly and wait for the young human’s cues or directions for your role. For example, if a young human hands you a pot, do not jump in and start “cooking” exclaiming loudly that you are ‘making lunch’, because maybe to the young human, the pot is not a cooking pot but a musical instrument, or maybe your role is to ‘serve’ the food not make it. Jumping in has the potential to alter the play, sending the message that the play the child was engaged in is not as important or that they are not engaging with the materials correctly. It is important to make room for children’s creativity, choices, initiatives, and reflections. Instead, you can reflect on their actions, "You are handing me a pot" and hold the pot until further information becomes available from the young human.

  3. Do not jump in to solve problems unless someone is in danger. Mistakes are a part of learning, and problem solving is a skill that needs to be practiced. “Reevaluating after a mistake and making a new plan supports critical thinking and problem-solving skills”(Rymanowicz, 2015, October 19). So, refrain from correcting your young human, remember that they are learning about the world through exploration. Therefore, riding the bike ‘backwards’ or holding the book upside down are all learning moments. Corrections can sometimes lead to shame (‘I am horrible because I can not ‘do it right’), worry (‘what if I can’t do it right’) and fear of exploration (‘I know I can’t do it right so I will not do it at all’). A way to help alleviate your desire to jump in is creating a space that has open-ended materials that can be used in many different ways. Also, creating a ‘yes space’ in which the environment and materials are safe for engagement so there is less of a risk of danger. Furthermore, identifying the importance of making and recovering from mistakes is vital to how they handle obstacles in the future. (Check out our blog post here on falling safely and recovering successfully to read more)

  4. If the experience needs to end, or the play needs to be interrupted for safety concerns, let the young human know what you are going to do and why you are going to do it rather than swooping in to stop them. For example, if a young human is preparing to throw a block, moving closer, holding up your hand to stop the block and saying “I am holding my hand here to stop the block, it looks like you are going to throw the block, that will hurt their body.” This models respect, and allows them to practice self-restraint and problem solving skills, whereas scooping them up and removing them from the space startles them and teaches them that they need others to solve problems for them.

  5. But what about learning? Well, to assert that young humans do not learn through play is demeaning; assumes they are not able to take control of their own learning and exploration. Through play they are learning about the world around them. For example, they are learning about density, vibrations and waves by exploring the sound of two wooden blocks tapping together. They are learning about quantity and cause and effect by testing how many blocks can stack up before the tower falls. When introducing new concepts or language, natural integration is the key. It is the difference between pointing to a tree and saying “oak tree” and noticing that the young human is staring at the oak tree and reflecting “you are looking up at the leaves on the oak tree.” The difference between sitting a young human down forcing them to count and noticing a child lining up cars and saying, “you are lining up all the cars, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, you lined up 5 cars!” Play should be child-led, that is, something in-line with the young human’s interests and desires rather than something they are not interested in or something unnatural that they are forced to do. “It is much more engaging to participate in activities that are interesting and relevant to one’s own needs and interests”(Rymanowicz, 2015, October 19).

  6. Identify interaction with your child as quality time and value it as such. Focus on the process, what your young human is doing, the relationship you are building with your young human. Those 50+ tasks of the day can wait for another time (and if they cannot, re-evaluate a safe space for your young human to engage independently while you focus on those tasks), because time spent with your young human should be 100% focused on your young human, but it does not have to be 100% of your time. For example, if you have only 20% of your day dedicated to spending time with your young human, then during that 20% of time give them your 100% attention and engage based on your sensitive observations of your young human rather than giving them 20% of your attention for 100% of the time.

In conclusion, your role as a supportive caregiver is to provide a safe, cognitively challenging and emotionally nurturing environment for your young human to learn about and explore the world around them. “Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges” (Gray, 2013). Therefore, it is our role as caregivers of young humans to ensure they have the time and place to pursue those interests, practice skills and learn from the world around them, which includes you, their primary role model.


Gerber, M., Greenwald, D. & Weaver, J. (2013).The RIE manual: For parents and professionals expanded edition. Los Angeles, CA: Resources for Infant Educarers.

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn : why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York: Basic Books.

Rymanowicz, K. (2015, October 19). The power of play – Part 2: Born to play. In Michigan State University - MSU Extension. Retrieved from