Do you find yourself following your child to make sure they don’t trip and fall? Do you hear yourself yelling out warnings to “be careful” and “look where you’re going”? What about offering them a helping hand to get up, to climb, and to balance because that makes you feel safer when your child is undertaking something you have deemed as risky? Or perhaps your child is ‘shy’ and so you find yourself accompanying them everywhere.
We always have good reasons when we chase, follow, call out, or hold our children’s hands. Yet unwittingly, these very behaviours of ours hinder our children stepping into the rich world of child-led play.
“Children need space – or at least have the perception of having time away
from adults. We all need time to relax, de-stress from the day, get creative,
to ponder life, create a balance, and find joy. Children especially need this
time to become independent and capable.” Angela Hanscom
We need information and confidence to learn how to step back when we find ourselves in any of these ‘traditional support roles’. It is very easy to read, talk about, and agree with ‘taking a step back and observing your child at play’, but the transition to taking on a new support role while our child takes the lead in their own play - without us, can be very uncomfortable at first. After all, up until now we have spent a lot of time and focus on reading our little one’s cues and responding to their needs and wants by being there. How do we advance to the next level and learn to let go? How do we learn step back while making sure they are safe and secure?
Our dual objective is to support our children should they really need us, and to support their unfolding autonomy at the same time. Needs, wants and autonomy combine to strike a fine balance. Like every balancing act, there is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing while children find their own feet in the world. Even though we have to let go and step back, it’s also important to know that we don’t ‘just leave them’. The pivotal ingredient in creating a safe environment for child-led play is you. When you learn to step back and let your child take the lead in their play, you also create the safe environment that your child requires to make play the optimum learning experience.
An optimum learning play experience is an experience where there is no need for the child’s developing brain to go into alert. The more you learn to relax, get calm and present, the more the environment feels safer to those in your company. Your calm, relaxed emotional state allows your child the time and space to put all focus into their play.
This is the reason some children will not leave the parent’s side until they have summed up the situation, before their readiness-meter says its okay to venture off. Other children head off straight away and only glance back now and then to check you are there. In all cases, you are the anchor to their feeling-of-safety. It is genetically coded into human children venturing into the world - and into their autonomy - to check back with you.
One of the fastest ways to being a great supporter of child-led play is to become an observer. When you observe you create a safe environment by being there in an anchoring, non-intrusive way. At the same time you are nearby should you be required to step in. Being an observer also gives you the space to observe what is going on for you in this new support partnership with your child. Honing this respectful way of partnership-parenting early on makes other aspects of parenting easier.
The ‘observing-tool’ works for all ages and stages of development. It is the most appropriate support you can offer whether your baby is deeply engaged in learning to use her hands or exploring. It is the most appropriate support when she is moving, crawling, manoeuvring over objects, and generally working on her balance. It is even the most appropriate support for older children learning how to communicate and negotiate over objects. Whatever the play, observing is a great way to support children in their play without getting involved - unless intervention is genuinely required, of course.
Here are five easy steps to becoming an Observer.
1. Observers use their eyes.
- The eyes are silent and won’t interrupt children’s play; not their concentration, their choices, their conversations, or the creative learning ‘zone’ they get into when playing.
- Anchor yourself in a place where you can see them and they can see you.
- If you move away without warning, this can be distressing for the child. It is just as important for them to be able to see you, as it is for you to see them.
- If you can make eye contact you are giving them all the support they need.
2. Observers use their voice only when absolutely necessary.
- When you are supporting someone with your eyes, you do not need to use your voice. You watch, silently.
- If you feel the need to be closer just in case, step in. You will be amazed by the affect your increased nearness has on the play.
- While you are quietly observing, tune into your inner voice and just notice if it is busy giving you directions and stories. You’ll very likely hear your doubts and fears. Remember, they are your doubts and fears, and observers don’t pass them on.
3. Observers place themselves strategically.
- Your physical presence is the anchor point of safety for any child who is off playing. An anchor doesn’t follow the boat around, it stays put.
- Stand or sit somewhere and really be the ‘anchor’ your child is counting on.
- If you do feel a certain situation requires you to move closer, silently move into a position from which you could intervene and offer support, if you needed to. You will notice that situations often resolve themselves when you silently move in to ‘support’ without interrupting the play. You will probably feel calmer by being closer, just in case you are needed to physically save the day. That helps.
4. Observers know about risk.
Observers have sorted out the difference between a genuine risk and a hazard. They also have a growing understanding about the different types of play and developmental stages.
- Every new stage of any learning involves risk, risk is where the learning happens. Risking a new learning is exciting for the child, and it can also make the parent’s heart jump.
- Learning to identify the level of risk to the child, accurately sets you up to be ready to step in should you need to.
- Observers who are comfortable with risk get to see the pure joy and sense of self-achievement on their children’s face.
5. Observers have timing.
- When children are in their play, their play takes on a time frame that is very different from yours, it is technically termed ‘flow’ or ‘in the zone’.
- When you observe play, let go of your ideas of when you think things should happen; wait to see what unfolds.
- Don’t rush in so that you feel safer when your child is undertaking feats you think are risky. Quietly stand close by while you recalibrate to his risk level, while he finds his own capabilities. When you learn to identify the level of risk to your child accurately, you learn that what you used to think was risky and what is actually risky, are very often two different things.
- Give enough time for the child to assess her body position if she’s stuck, or after a small fall or tumble. She might be okay to keep going and to self-manage all that is going on for her, or she might call for you. Wait and observe.
“When children are free to play, they play naturally at the ever-advancing edges
of their mental and physical abilities...playing with other children, away from adults,
is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and
impulses, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences with others, and
make friends. In short, play is how children learn to take control of their lives.” Peter Gray
Pretty soon you will be an expert observer, always anchoring and always with one eye on the play.
Nature Play - Take a step back and observe your child at play.
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