My day-to-day work with young children paired with the here-and-there trainings and consultations I do with other early childhood professionals continue to teach me this: one of the most difficult lines to toe in the complex world of play-based learning is the one that separates “too involved” from “disengaged”.  Scores of us champion the young child’s right to play, but the intricacies of such work are more difficult to articulate. In an effort to articulate how I discern the line, I have created a Ten Commandments-esque list, having just listened to one of my all time favorite episodes of This American Life.  This list captures my guiding principles when it comes to accompanying children through play-based learning.  Despite appearances to the contrary, I do not view this list as exhaustive, and if you have your own to add, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.  I found it challenging to describe distinct practices of accompanying children in play-based experiences because everything is so interrelated, but, distinct-ify I did, and the following list is the result.  Enjoy!

The Ten Commandments of Play-Based Learning

10.  Thou shalt always say YES unless safety or reasonableness are threatened.  Because, you know, a whole tub of glitter right before lunch when there is only one of me present isn’t reasonable, and 4-year-olds using the real, live babies in our program as their pretend baby dolls isn’t safe.  When you create a limit, offer an alternative in the form of a YES, helping children internalize the limit while affirming their intrinsic exploration, creativity, and autonomy.  “We can use glitter after lunch, or tomorrow” and “I can help you find a baby doll to dress, but Desmond has to stay in charge of his body.”  Alternative-less “no’s” shut down curiosity and developing competence faster than ice cream melting on an Iowa summer day, and despite the oft-touted responsibility of adults to “maintaining authority”, these hard-won power struggles undermine all sense of relationship.

9.  Thou shalt never interrupt a child deeply engaged in activity.  Our agenda, imposed on a child already deeply engaged, distracts and sends a message that the child’s internal drive is unimportant. Exceptions can be made, as in the event of mealtimes or time to leave for swim lessons, but care should be taken to respect the process of the child.  Transitions – regardless of how necessary – require leaving one task for another, and often, require children setting aside their efforts in order to accommodate our desires.  Involving children in protecting work across a transition time validates the importance of their efforts.  Photos to document work, special designated “saving spaces” in the room, or quick sketches can provide documentation to support continuity.

8.  Thou shalt respect the zone.  Thanks to marvelous work by Lev Vygotsky, we have a theory known as The Zone of Proximal Development, which in its essence says individuals who are in the zone are learning at their highest level.  On the days when children are in the zone, there is a palpable buzz. Children move from one activity to the next with purpose and intentionality, materials serve their purposes as supports for flexing cognitive muscles, and clusters of children solve problems quickly on the way to the next challenge.  Children who are working in the zone should never be interrupted.  (See commandment #9)

7.  Thou shalt love yourself, your friends, and your space. These are our guiding principles at Abundant Life, and comprise my intervene-o-meter signalling urgent intervention.  If the self-directed, exuberant play of young minds at work doesn’t impinge on care of self, friends, or space, then I can observe before deciding my role in the play.

6.  Thou shalt RESPECT.  The child’s process, the child’s space, the child’s body language, the child’s choice of friends, the child’s anger, the child’s needs, the child’s non-verbal communication.  [side note: I recently heard that 98% of all communication is non-verbal.  How do we foster that when we always require that children “use your words!”??]   Showing respect for each element of a child’s being communicates the very powerful message that their whole body is worthy of respect.

5.  Thou shalt honor thy child’s “No!”  You mean, it’s not all about obedience and conformity?  One of the foundations of early childhood interactions is that giving children a voice over their experience teaches them to have a voice over their experience long-term.  One of the richest grounds for developing this voice is through play-based learning.  Play is a child’s domain, and when I enter, I am a participant, and the child has the opportunity to remain full-of-voice.  If I ask a question that offers “no” as an answer, and I get “no” as an answer, I must operate with “no” as an option.  [another side note: if “no” is not an option, I must refrain from asking a yes/no question]

4.  Thou shalt always ask.  Challenging, especially when coupled with #5. “Would you help us clean up?”  “Would you like help to wipe your nose?” “Would you like to have some peas on your plate?”  Asking a child’s permission before engaging has a two-fold purpose.  On the one hand, preserving autonomy insures that children have practice knowing their bodies, limits, and voices.  The drive for autonomy is so strong, that as human beings, we will do almost anything to resist commands.   On the other, we must model for children the socially appropriate ways to meet our needs.  (See #1)

3.  Thou shalt speak clearly and directly.  Helping children play by offering phrases like, “share your toys” or “be nice” isn’t helpful.  Children need real, concrete language to define their experience.  “Thank you for giving the toy to Simone. That was friendly.”  “It looks like Tekoa would like a turn with the flowers.  One way to solve the problem would be to take turns.  After two minutes, maybe you can give the flowers to Tekoa.  Does that work for you?” (nod to #4)

2.  Thou shalt apologize.  Let’s be honest…when have we succeeded in parenting perfectly?  Show of hands?  Okay, now that we are all being honest,  In those moments when we don’t do exactly what we want to do, we apologize from the truest parts of ourselves, modeling authenticity and integrity.  And then we move on, and look for ways to connect.

1. Thou shalt embrace our inner model.   As Joseph Chilton Pearce says, “What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.”  We work at nurturing ourselves so we can be present for our children – acting in the heated moments out of our reserves, not out of our stress and anxiety.

Did I miss something important?  Leave it for me in the comments!  Happy playing!