February 04, 2009

Stop, look, listen: the importance of observing children’s play

by Rachel Grob, Director and Cheryl French, Coordinator
Sarah Lawrence College
Child Development Institute

Readers of this website will likely already understand that play is an essential part of childhood, and already be committed to facilitating children’s access to rich play opportunities. But what may be less apparent is how, precisely, adults can be of use. If play is conceived as activity that is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, and child-directed, what part do the grown-ups who parent, teach, safeguard, work with and live near children have in helping it unfold?

Our advice to all adults committed to enriching play for children is this: be sure to learn and regularly practice the subtle art of observation. Though our lives at home and at work are often chaotically busy, we must all take time when children are nearby to simply stop, look, and listen. By observing children carefully, during times free from responsibility to intervene or protect, adults can build their own capacity both to appreciate the infinite richness of play, and to find that crucial balance between guarding children’s safety and facilitating their autonomy.

At Sarah Lawrence College, we prepare all adults embarking on observational work with orientation to the kinds of play they are likely to encounter. These include: rough and tumble play, locomotor play; practice play; games with rules; construction; sociodramatic play; and miniature world play. We also encourage observers to look for various play configurations: one child playing alone; children playing with each other; child or children interacting with adults. Through observation, adults can learn not only which materials children choose to play with, but also how children play with those materials. Such discoveries are enormously helpful for adults who strive to create rich play environments for children.

See the child’s interests and personality emerge. Step back and listen to the conversations that unfold: role negotiations and storytelling while pretending; discussions of which blocks to place in what way to create a sound structure; songs and rhymes of language play; exuberant shouts of joy on the way down a slide or up a ladder. When we observe children at play, we see the benefits of play: we see children experimenting, exploring, learning, growing healthy bodies and minds, and simply having fun. We see children being children, and can thus engage in advocacy around play that is undergirded by the best kind of knowledge, images and imagination.

development, experts