Written by Clare Caro
Here at Nature Play®, we specialise in play... independent play, developmental play, free play, unstructured play, pure-play, undirected play and child-led play. The kind of play that unfolds human intelligence at natures pace - everything from the nervous systems, balance, coordination, memory, and personal development skills that will be a 'foundation' throughout life.
The big question for many parents and carers is, "How do we provide this critical 'play-time' for children?" So that they can safely follow their own play urges - free from adult direction, activities and 'helping' hands.
We have been supporting adults, to support child-led play since 2011. Here are 10 of our top tips that cover all ages and help us to create and maintain the time, space and place for independent play to unfold.
TOP TIP ONE
Slow down. Wait. See what unfolds and start noticing what your children are capable of.
A huge part of supporting child-led play is about waiting, stepping back and observing, but in order to do this, we must first slow down ourselves. We cannot be in a hurry or we will find ourselves rushing young players, rushing development and rushing is often the root of stress.
Slowing down opens up a world of opportunities... it is through slowing down that we find new ways of seeing the world, understanding behaviour, and learning to respond instead of reacting.
Slowing down is one of the most useful tools in a play-ally's 'tool belt'.
TOP TIP TWO
We cannot stress enough the importance of eye contact – make your eyes available when near or far. All children need to ‘check in’ with their ‘secure base’ during play, particularly when they move further away – and you need to ‘keep check’ to ensure their world is safe.
A great deal of working with young children is non-verbal. Whether we are caring for them and reading cues, or supporting them in their play. Getting in-tune with the way we 'speak' through our eyes, and getting to grip with the vast amount of information children pick up through their eyes is a helpful thing to know.
Eye contact doesn’t interrupt play, so take a seat and observe.
TOP TIP THREE
You are the Secure Base
You are everything your child needs to feel safe, and when children feel safe they can play with their full attention. The child moves from their secure base (you) when they are ready. Play is self-chosen so your child will choose when to get up and go – which means you stay in one place, or off to the side, where you are not encroaching on their space.
It's important we don't take the term "independent play" too literally, it doesn't mean we ‘leave our children to play’, far from it, we are present in a different way. We are the secure base for our children to move from and return to, the eyes of support, and there to step in only when necessary.
It can be very helpful to visualise ourself as a 'lighthouse' or an 'anchor', this helps us in our role of staying in one place and being the 'secure' base.
TOP TIP FOUR
Start Flat On The Floor
The youngest players (babies) always start on their back. Play begins with Movement. On their back babies can move limbs and look around and should always be able to see you, their secure base.
The move from your arms to your baby’s own play needs your careful attention. When you tune-in to your baby’s cues and movements, you will feel/know when she is ready to move into her own play. Responding to her ready cues, by slowing down, holding eye contact and talking her through this move, you offer a secure transition.
From lying on her back your baby is capable of playing her way to crawling, sitting and walking without your ‘helping hands’.
Reading between the lines... we have no need to prop the baby up 'to play' when they will play their own way up to sitting freely. The child who plays their way from their back to sitting, is the child who can move freely and safely without bumps and falls.
TOP TIP FIVE
Know Your Toys
Because play begins with movement - it doesn't start with toys. Our cultural understanding is that play and toys go hand-in-hand, so much so that we offer babies toys before they have found the use of their own hands or control of their limbs. The idea that children need toys to play is fairly common across most parts of Western culture.
It isn't really until the first months of movement play have unfolded that young players show an interest in objects from an internal desire to explore. These objects are what we know as "toys". They will be 'played with' by touch and mouth, reached for and manipulated in all sorts of ways holding the players' attention for lengthy periods. Young exploratory players begin to seek out objects, through their play, they gather information about their immediate environment. During this stage, many parents notice how the young player explores an object then moves onto the next thing they can find!
As play unfolds into later stages, objects are used in different ways. The objects become the props for play-schema (gathering, transporting, positioning and transforming are all great examples), role-play and imaginary play.
While objects play an important role in play, they should never take the leading role. All children will find what they need in their immediate environment to facilitate their play. We make sure environments have rich variety of objects (1) and that they are accessable and available (2) for players to use in their play.
TOP TIP SIX
The Ever-Growing Circles
Young explorers are all about Movement and Exploration work together. Moving towards new things to pick up and taste takes them on mini adventures. First getting to know the edge of the mat, then taking ever-growing circles, exploring and returning back to your side. Remember (tip 2) that you are the Secure Base, for our children to move from and return to, the eyes of support, and there to step in only when necessary.
You may need to get a closer view of what is being explored, so consider looking from the side with enough room for ‘the return’.
These ever-growing circles are the foundation of the Secure Attachment and the self regulation development. Secure attachment is the leading indicator for well-being, so it's worth taking a bit of time to get comfortable with learning our role in the 'circle'.
TOP TIP SEVEN
Children often want to explore further. Most children will only go as far as their feelings of safety will stretch from you, their secure base (the ‘invisible safety line’). If you move with them, they will keep going, but if you stay still they will find the edge of their safety line.
For the more experienced explorers, let them know one of the oldest rules of the forest – always stay where they can see you.
We have a saying at Nature Play, "the anchor does not follow the boat". Many parents who start following their child, find themselves in the game of chase, or to put it another way, they have a 'runner'. Learning to be the anchor early on, can save a great deal of being on alert and avoiding 'freedom of movement' later.
TOP TIP EIGHT
Flexibility and Resilience
On cold or wet days, standing may be preferred. In very wet or sub-zero conditions, keeping on the move may suit the day.
Our sessions usually involve the adults sitting or standing to the side. However on cold and wet days that's not so practical. It's totally possible to play on the move, to observe and hold the space on the move. ...And keep warm and dry.
When we see risk, conflict, struggle or falls in play, these are not cues to offer help. It can feel uncomfortable watching someone struggle when we are used to helping. We invite you to notice the difference between risks and hazards, conflict and aggressive behavior, struggle and suffering. Children are capable of picking themselves up – but only if we give them the space to be capable.
Noticing these differences requires us to learn how we perceive events and actions around us. What one person sees as "fine", another might see as "dangerous" - our perception was developed in childhood (greatly influenced by what the adults around us perceived as fine or dangerous). When we recognise that the 'perception glasses' we look through can be changed, we can see that struggle can be managed or not, that risk is exciting or not, and that children might not need the 'help' we would like to give them.
TOP TIP TEN
Helping the Helped
Players used to being helped and entertained may take a while to grow into their capabilities. The dependence of getting help is often what gets in the way of independent play.
Children learn what they are physically capable of by doing things unaided. When children are in the habit of being helped to achieve physical positions they are not ready for, they grow to expect help. Examples of unwarranted help include being lifted when climbing, steadied when balancing, rescued 'in case' they fall or get stuck - and all without waiting to see if they can manage for themselves. They also have no idea of risk.
It may take your child a little time to adjust when you change your style of 'support'. At first they will look to you to help and take the lead. This is where the switch point is, instead of helping, you now gently let them know that they can take the lead, and in doing so, they reset their assessment of risk. This can take some time, be prepared to slowly let go of their hand (physically and emotionally).
These Top Tips make it possible to nurture children and hold the space for their own play - a recipe for a content and capable independent player.