Engaging in Your Child’s Play Without Interrupting

A parent hopes to encourage her 21-month old’s self-directed play by sitting with her in her play area observing, “ready to respond if she engages with me.” Lately, she says, her daughter has been asking for help with tasks she can do by herself, and also actively directing both she and her husband to perform various roles. “She wants us to play, and she will watch.” This mom feels this dynamic may be stifling self-direction, so she’s wondering if Janet has any suggestions how she can encourage her daughter’s play without participating herself, while still letting her know she is present and engaged.

Transcript of “Engaging in Your Child’s Play Without Interrupting”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I have an email I received from a parent who has some questions about encouraging her 21-month-old’s independent play, her self-directed play, and how the parent can participate in that without interrupting. And how the parents should handle the child’s requests to play with, help, do something for the child during play. This is one of my favorite topics and I could talk for days about it, but I won’t.

Okay, here’s the note I received:

Hi Janet, I found Magda Gerber‘s approach and you, when my daughter was just a couple of months old. It has been wonderful as a parent to read your blog and listen to your podcast. I also loved your book, No Bad Kids. I believe your approaches have helped me to be able to thoughtfully approach parenting. My daughter is now 21 months old, and I have a question about self-directed play. As often as possible, I try to make time to just be with her in her playroom and let her direct her play. I sit with her and I’m ready to respond if she engages with me. Sometimes she asks me to help her with something that I know she can do, and I typically say something like, “Oh, I would like to help by watching you do it.” I believe she often just wants to make sure I’m paying attention and engaged, which I try to be.

Lately, she has taken to directing my husband and, or I in play. For example, she will say, “Mommy, play with train.” She doesn’t appear to want to play with the train herself, instead she wants us to play and she will watch. Or, “Mommy cut food,” when she wants me to cut the pretend food we have in her play kitchen. I struggle with how to respond to this. On one hand, I want her to be in charge of play and do what she requests, however, it also seems that by doing this, she isn’t actually playing, but just watching or directing us. And sometimes what she wants us to do, like sit in her small playhouse, ends up not being comfortable for us because we’re sitting in a tiny house not made for grownups. How would you handle these scenarios to encourage her to direct her play, but also let her know we are present and engaged? Thanks again for all of your wonderful advice. It has been life changing for me.

Okay, so as I said, I love this subject and I’m going to zoom right to the end and answer her question, “How would you handle these scenarios to encourage her to direct her play, but also let her know we are present and engaged?”

So, this is sort of a simple answer and that’s why I wanted to get to at first, to kind of frame the other things I’m going to talk about. Letting our child know that we’re present and engaged requires one thing: that we are present and engaged. So we don’t have to prove this to children, we just have to be really present, which of course isn’t easy for any of us. But that’s why Magda Gerber recommended we practice this mindful exercise of taking an imaginary basket, putting all your concerns, your phone, ideas of how your child’s play should look, all of your adult thoughts about this, put those away. Put those aside and just be there with your child for however long you can or wish to.

And then when you’re not going to be paying attention, let your child know, “I’m going to be reading this book while you play,” or, “I’m going to be going to the kitchen,” or whatever it is.

So that clarity of “I’m with you” or “I’m not with you” mentally, or maybe “I’m part with you,” like “I’m reading a book,” but you’re there, being clear with ourselves and clear with our child. And interestingly, I’m so glad all these studies are proving this now, even an infant, even a newborn can sense our emotions, can sense if we are comfortable, and can sense if they have our attention. So we don’t need to make a big show out of this, we just have to be genuinely attentive.

And then the beginning of that sentence, she says, “How would you handle these scenarios to encourage her to direct her play?”

So, our child’s ability to direct play is actually something else that we can trust. Every child is born with the ability to create and initiate their play. But they do need a couple of things from us for their self-directed play to flourish. They need opportunities and they need us to not distract them or otherwise get in the way, which we may do with the best of intentions.

So opportunities mean that while babies need a lot of holding, if we are constantly holding or carrying our baby, they don’t have opportunities to be initiators, to have a moment of agency in deciding where they want to look, what they want to do. They are passengers to what we’re doing. And I’m not saying this is a terrible thing, but it gets in the way with self-directed play if that is taking a majority of the day.

Sometimes we’ll see an infant “playing” on a diaper changing table or in the bathtub or during some other activity, even when they’re feeding or breastfeeding. We’ll see them maybe look over at something and seem to be engaging in it, and right there, we can show our attention, we can say, “You seem to be looking at something over there. I wonder what you’re seeing. Is it that shadow? Are you hearing that bird outside?” Giving space for our child to take in our words, which of course they don’t understand completely as an infant, but they begin to, because we’re putting words to things that they are choosing and they are experiencing.

So another question I often receive is about, “Well, if you’re letting your child play and you’re not interrupting, how are you going to do this serve and return that we’re supposed to do?” And that’s of course a newer expression, studies show that children need that back and forth for language development. And of course, that’s something that Magda Gerber recommended for over 50 years, that we start engaging with babies as people from the moment they’re born, especially when it’s about something that’s going on with them directly.

There are so many moments in the day for this, “I’m going to pick you up. We’re going to take off this diaper. Can you put your arm through the sleeve a little bit? Here’s the warm water. Oh, you feel that on your back, right? I see you’re making an expression.” It can happen naturally if we embrace this approach.

It also happens in play in a way that does not interrupt our children. It sounds like this parent already understands this, which is great. She waits for her child to initiate or show that they are engaging us and then she responds, “Wow, I see you. You lined all of those up in a row.” Whatever it is. It can be natural. We don’t have to worry about performing for our child in this way.

So back to the two things our children need: they need opportunities. With older children that gets to where there are so many scheduled activities sometimes that their child never has this downtime, this opportunity to think their own thoughts and figure out what they want to do, to self-direct play.

And the other part is, are we interrupting?

And what’s interesting about this parent’s questions is that one of the big ways that we can interrupt, without meaning to of course, is by not being completely comfortable having limits with our child around play. And that distracts, because one of the things that young children do amazingly is they seek to understand, they learn. And at this age, this child is primed for wanting to learn about her leaders.

And now I’m sensing that my leader is kind of uncomfortable when I ask her to help with something that she knows I can already do, and I feel I can already do. But I asked her to help and she got a little uncomfortable about responding to that. Then I asked my dad to do this play activity, and they got a little uncomfortable.  And then maybe they did it or they didn’t. But now instead of directing my play, I’m seeing where my power is with these adults. I’m seeing if these leaders are confident with their limits and where their limits are. I’m trying to find where my power fits with theirs.

So that actually distracts children from the play they might normally be doing at that time to learning about us. Now that’s not a terrible thing, but it obviously isn’t something we want them to be focused on all the time. Especially if we want their self directed play to flourish and become independent from us, which again, they can do very early on as babies. They can have time where they don’t need us to be right next to them. They don’t need us to be interacting or paying attention even. They can take off on their own knowing that their relationship with us is stable. They’ve gotten that nourishment from us during their attentive feeding that we give them or the attentive diaper change we’ve given them and now they’re able to take this time.

If we want children to be able to do that, which of course, especially in times like these with children being home and parents having difficulty finding care for children or other things for them to do, this is a godsend, right? That our child is able to direct their own play and not need us there. But if a child gets used to that presence from us, it can become an expectation for them, it can become a habit that: I can’t develop my own ideas, I need my parent. I need to be working with them all the time.

So, back to this parent’s note, she has all the understandings and right ideas here to be able to help her child’s play to flourish, but where she’s getting stuck is her comfort level with these questions. This often actually happens during the transition from infant to toddler. Infants’ needs are pretty straightforward. They will let us know and it’s clear. Then it gets a little more interesting and a little more complicated because toddlers are, again, exploring us as leaders and exploring their power in the world much more.

So, backing up, this parent says, “I sit with her and I’m ready to respond if she engages with me. Sometimes she asks me to help her with something I know she can do and I typically say something like, ‘Oh, I would like to help by watching you do it.’”

So that to me comes off uncomfortable, and this parent says she’s struggling with this, so I know that too reading this. But if I was really comfortable with my child kind of testing me this way, I would say something more like, “You want me to help? Sure, what would you like me to do?” I’d have my child get into the specifics, so then maybe she shows me some task. Since this parent brought up trains, let’s say that the child is saying to help her to push the train. “Oh, sure. What would you like me to do? How would you like me to help?” And then let’s say my daughter points that she wants me to do something with the train, “So are you saying you want me to touch the train? What are you saying there?”

She nods her head, and so, “Okay, sure. I’ll put my hand on the train.” If the train is right there, I’m not going to get up and walk over, I would stay seated and stay comfortable in your role with your child.

So let’s say the train is within arm’s reach, “Sure. I’d be happy to hold that.” And then I’m getting the idea she wants me to push it, and I would say, “Here, you can could push it. I’m going to keep my hand here, but I don’t want to be the one to push it.”

So I’m not being rigid, I’m being flexible. Let’s say now that the train is over across the room and I don’t want to get up, “You know what? I’m going to stay here, but thanks for asking.” So I feel not worried that I’m letting my child down, that she now needs me to do something with her there, that she needs my help to make sure she’s self-directing her play.

I’m comfortable with the situation because I understand what’s going on. I’m realizing I haven’t been clear about this and I’ve been getting kind of bowled over by her, or what I see a lot and I felt with my own child, is kind of, you get under their spell. They’re so amazing, especially your first one. You kind of fall under their spell and then you don’t trust that if you say no to helping, if you have your limits there, that somehow they’re going to feel you still love them and it’s okay.

So I do understand all the doubts that can come in, and I don’t know which ones exactly this parent has, but as she said, she’s struggling. The main thing is to make peace with that struggle, and that’s true with so many things we do, pretty much everything we do as parents to make peace with the decisions and the struggle. And to trust our child, to see them as capable of play and of not getting everything they ask for from us. They’re capable of both of those things.

Obviously, people have to do this in their own words and it just depends on the moment a little, but I wouldn’t decide that I’m not going to touch it at all and I’m not going to help her or that: Oh, I need to help her, because if I’m not helping her then I’m not being helpful and I’m not being kind. There aren’t hard and fast rigid rules about this. If we come from a place of comfort in ourselves and trust in our child, then we can even change our mind.

And let’s say we start to push the train and then we say, “Okay, I’m going to stop now.” And she says, “No, no,” like she wants me to keep going. Then I let her get upset about that, because you know what? I’m done. But I’m not going to say, “I’m going to watch you do it,” because now I’m trying to get her to do something and that’s not my job. My job is just to let her know what I’m doing and where my limits are.

And the other interesting thing behind this, this other layer is that as adults we tend to think in terms of doing it, of having it done. We tend to jump ahead is what I’m saying, and children aren’t like that. They will naturally be more in the process of things. So when she says, “Help,” let’s say she wants me to open some kind of a plastic canister or something like that. And I try to leave things in her play area in a way that is possible for her to do things, so I’m not going to put something on really tightly. I’m going to leave it on loosely so that I know she can take it off and put it on or whatever.

But let’s say she says, “Help,” and she brings me the jar. So most people, and I actually have a post about this called, A Jar Not Opened, most people feel that: Oh gosh, I’ve got to open this jar. She’s saying, ‘Help,’ and I’ve got to complete the thing. Instead of, “Oh, you gave me the jar. What do you want me to help with?” And then she points to the top, “Hmm, are you trying to get that open?” And then she she’s trying and trying, “Oh, it’s really hard for you to do that, isn’t it?”

So I’m showing her that I’m helping by being in it with her, giving her emotional support, but staying behind her, not pushing ahead to: Oh, now she’s got to get it open. A lot of times children will put it down and they’ll move on to something else and they don’t need to finish it. So understanding that too, that we tend to see differently. I guess that’s part of putting our thoughts into the basket — that we become this open beginner’s mind person as best we can. It’s a fun challenge.

But then let’s say our child persists and persists in asking us to finish this. I think I would, well, I’ve done this in classes, I just loosen it a little bit so that they can do it and then I still wait. I don’t say, “Well, I want you to do it,” or, “I’m going to wait for you to do it.” I just say, “Hmm. Okay, I think it’s a little looser now, if you want to give it a try.” So no pressure. I’m not trying to make it happen and put the ball in their court in a way that puts pressure on them and also indicates that I’m really not that comfortable being in the struggle, or maybe you not getting what you want from me (or what you say you want from me in the moment).

So all of this can be very freeing when we get comfortable nailing the trust, nailing the attitude, being able to own that role as flexible leaders. The strongest leaders are the flexible ones. We can be ourselves in this role.

And then let’s say I did decide to open the jar, that’s okay too. But now I’m going to remember that I’ve just shown my child that they need me to do this, so I may get exploration again with my child. And maybe next time, I’ll try to give more room for her to do it without putting pressure on.

And this parent says, “I believe she often just wants to make sure I’m paying attention and engaged, which I try to be.” That is absolutely right. She’s spot on. When we’re not really present, like our phones near us or we’re thinking about other things, that we’re not really paying attention, that is a reason that children will commonly try to draw us in, “Help me do this.” And that’s pretty smart of them, right? Look, let me get your attention. You’re not paying attention, is what they’re feeling.

So that’s another reason we want to be clear with ourselves and with our child, whether we’re there or we’re not there. And we’ll get more of a child that can let go of us and do her play thing, do her work, and we can be a witness to it. It’s always much more interesting when we get to see where a child goes with something. The self-directed play is a gift in so many ways — that’s why I write so much about it and talk so much about it. And that’s what we demonstrate in parent-infant classes and parent-toddler classes: how to observe and how to allow children to be explorers and not get in their way.

So now she says that, “Lately she’s taken to directing my husband or I in play. She’ll say, ‘Mommy, play with train.’”

Okay, I sort of talked about that. But if she says, “Mommy, play with train,” well, first of all, that’s not definitive, “Mommy play with train.” So I could do two things there, I could say, “I’m not going to play with the train right now, I’m going to be here. If you want to play with the train, you can.” Very open-ended, not, “I want to watch you play with the train,” just so comfortable setting my boundaries.

I could also say, “Oh, what do you want me to do with the train?” If I feel like being a little more engaged there. I mean, it’s not even more engaged, it’s more active. “What do you want me to do with the train?”

She says, “Move it over here.”

“Oh, which way?” I’m always going to keep bouncing it back to get her to do as much as possible, and me to do as little as possible.

“You want me to, oh, move it over there? Which way? Can you show me?”

And then she says, “No, you do it.”

“Hmm, no. I’m not going to be the one to do it.” Comfortable.

If she gets mad at me there, then I’m going to realize she needs to get mad at me, she needs to share some feelings about what she doesn’t control in her world. It’s really okay. It’s not about me moving a train and doing her job for her.

If she says, “Cut the food,” and she wants to hand me a knife and hand me the food:

“Okay, like this? Which way? Down the middle, like that, or which way do you want me to turn it?” I might do that. I might just cut the food. I might say, “I’m not in a cutting food mood, but I’m here. I love being with you. Thanks for asking.” Something like that.

And then the key is that this parent says, “I struggle with how to respond to this.” That is exactly what her child is sensing and why her child is continuing in this manner. As a very capable self-learner, her child wants to understand this struggle that she’s sensing. It’s brilliant, the way children do this. So she’s focusing her learning on that instead of other things. But when we clear that up for her, when we stop struggling and we’re decisive and comfortable, she will stop with that, depending on how long we’ve gone on. If we’ve gone on for a while then it’s going to take a little longer for her to check it out in different times of day and different moods of ours, but she will let go of it.

She says, “On one hand, I want her to be in charge of play and do what she requests.” Right, but being in charge of play in an atmosphere where she has leaders that don’t always do what she requests. And that’s where freedom is, within those boundaries, within the comfortable leader’s presence. That’s real freedom. And that’s what I want to clarify here for this parent. Doing what she requests isn’t part of what she needs to be in charge of her play, it’s actually distracting her from creating and developing her play.

So I hope some of that helps.

And you can find both of my books on audio, Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can even get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website and find them there. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and apple.com.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.


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