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  • Fiona Holiday

Grown-Ups Don’t Play: Three Things to Remember When You Join Children's Play


If you have ever tried to join a group of children at play and then watched as they gradually melt away and resume their game elsewhere, you’ll know how tricky it can be to get past the idea that play is not for grown-ups. So how do we go about joining in?

Firstly, abandon agendas.

That’s right, no ideas about finding out if they can count to 10 or name their colours or even introducing new vocabulary. When you approach a child with an agenda in mind, you are going in with an air of intention and purpose. You will spend the whole interaction waiting for the opportunity to follow your interest. Somehow, this will leak from you and the child will suspect on some level that you are there to complete a task. Your objective becomes the priority and NOT the connection. 

If you really want to play with the child, then it is all about the connection. 

Secondly, make sure you are calm and you are open to social cues. 

You need to watch carefully for cues that you are welcome as you approach: a turning away, a stiffening of posture might indicate that you need to stay where you are. Sometimes, our presence can be an intrusion or even a threat so we need to respond instinctively. We are excellent at reading social cues when we slow down and watch for them. When a child is unsure of your presence, they need time to get used to it. Direct speech, too much eye contact might be overwhelming – you may need to spend some time subtly mirroring the child’s actions, offering resources to support their play, before tentatively taking a turn at whatever they are doing. 

Finally – it is the child’s play. 

In the play, the child is charge. Follow their instructions, check how they want you to do something – if a group of 4 year-olds want you to be the big bad wolf, check how they want you to sound and if you are blowing down their house and they outsmart you, let them. Let them experience changing the narrative. When you are established as a worthy play participant, you can further co-construct scenarios and experiences with them. The negotiation and self-regulation required to maintain the play and an enjoyable experience are a significant benefit of child-led play. 

The chances are, when we are fully involved and accepted in play, the learning that happens will include the vocabulary expansion and problem-solving we are hoping for. It will happen naturally, when the child is at their most open and receptive to learning. 

We get all too few chances to truly play alongside children, so when we do decide to interact in this way, I believe it is important to commit to the experience. 

It turns out this grown-up does play after all!


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