Paving the Way for Play

Originally written in April 2018, on the 4th day of the Foundations Course.


“How should my baby play?”

Reflections from the RIE Foundations Course (Beijing, 2018) 

All too often, we may hear the question, “How should my baby/toddler play?”

In a community like Hong Kong that seems to prize performance over process, we come across many accomplished individuals who have achieved myriads of awards and titles, and yet find it puzzling to dissect the mechanics of play.

Perhaps because we rushed through so many certificates, some of us have not quite been able to slow down, and understand “process.” Process is what makes play. Therefore, there is no course on “Effective Playing.” In the same token, no “educational” toys can replace the thought an adult can personally put in creating, and facilitating a space for play.


That said, here are a few helpful pointers I would like to share with you, from today’s sharing.




Remember these three phrases:

  • Physically Safe

  • Cognitively Challenging

  • Emotionally Nurturing

Physically Safe

For Magda Gerber, a “Physically Safe” space meant that even if you left the room (to use the washroom, to make yourself a cup of coffee, etc.) you could rest assured that your child can play safely. If you find that there is even one bit that you don’t feel comfortable with—like a socket cover that is easily removed, or a shelf that is not fastened to the wall—that is not a safe space. My own note for this is, is that we cannot compromise on this principle. Life literally may depend on it.

Cognitively Challenging

“Cognitively Challenging” is one that meets the child where s/he is. If you have a toddler who loves collecting (and don’t they just love putting things into baskets then pouring them out?), follow her/his lead by preparing objects of different sizes, shapes and colour, and bring out baskets in advance. There should always be an emphasis on the appropriate challenge—not too easy for them to lose interest, but not too difficult either, that they get frustrated at their inability to do something earlier than its time. For very independent-moving toddlers, for instance, make sure that you have enough safe but challenging structures (like blocks or climbing frames) that they can practice gross motor skills on.

Emotionally Nurturing

Last, but definitely not least, an “Emotionally Nurturing” environment is one that has you fully present in the moment. No, you don’t have to be there every single minute—but you have to be fully present in every moment that you choose to be there. Being fully present is not equivalent to being vocal (more on that in the next part), but rather that you are there to provide emotional support should the child look to you for it. A child wants to have you as her/his advocate, someone to witness her/his triumphs, offer a comforting shoulder during disappointments or setbacks. Whether being proud of a new skill he has mastered with the ball, or whether crying on your shoulder if she falls from the climbing frame, your full presence provides a child with the knowledge that no matter what s/he chooses to do, you will be right there supporting her/his decisions.




house rules

Every home has its rules. We must do our best to communicate these expectations, and be ready to mete out consequences. House rules are non-negotiable, and should be repeated whenever necessary. “I cannot let you hit another child. I want you to be gentle. I need to pick you up until you’re ready to play gently with you friend.” Children may try to push these boundaries, but we must be ready to repeat until the message is clear.

(As a side note, RIE teaches the use of the first-person-singular form “I” versus “we.” The use of “I” makes a very clear statement of expectations, teaches children to be direct, and, personally speaking, gives us a sense of responsibility for the words we choose to declare. It is more powerful than an indirect “we.”)



take a

back seat

When a child knows s/he is being watched, it is human nature to want to please and perform for the “audience.” Educaring approach teaches caregivers to encourage their children to be “Explorers, not Performers” (Magda Gerber). When a child does something amazing, we can share in that delight. “You did it!” Or, “I see you’ve managed to climb that box.” However, a genuine sharing of joy is better than a grand bravo, a big “Good Job!” that may get the child hooked on producing an output that pleases you or me.



Lastly, there is a reason that adults are present when children are at play. That is to intervene when necessary; for instance, when one child may begin aggressive behavior and potentially hurt another child. This is also the reason that caregivers need to be fully present—as adults, we are able to anticipate, and watch carefully before something untoward happens. This does not mean that we should be in perpetual stress as we watch the children, but just that we are fully present and aware.


A Last Note

While some of these points are very self-explanatory, I personally still enjoyed hearing the reminders. To be honest, being present is easier said than done. I hope that when I myself need to practice these ideas, I will have the generosity to be fully present, genuinely enthralled, but non-interrupting of a child’s magical work. After all, it is her/his special time, and I am just fortunate to be part of it all.