The Art of the Play-Worker
“Decades of research have shown that play is crucial to physical, intellectual and social-emotional development at all ages. This is especially true of the purest form of play: the unstructured, self-motivated, imaginative, independent kind, where children initiate their own games and even invent their own rules.” – Dr. David Elkind, The Power of Play.
Try to craft the conditions for child-led play, where the child sets the agenda and you, the adult, take a more supportive and distanced role. This is different than adult-led play, where the adult sets rules the child is to follow or where the adult follows the child and interacts directly with the play. In order for children to use play for development, they must be the ones experiencing the various types of play. Thus, in child-led play, the play-worker does not interrupt the child, but does still have some responsibilities.
This has informed my approach with the mud kitchen in a large way.
Play-worker job duties:
- Create and maintain a safe play environment.
- Develop a space filled with prompts for exploratory, imaginative, and creative play.
- Allow children to follow their own agenda rather than adult urges.
- Observe from a distance, letting them move about physically on their own.
- Act (upon request) as a character in their role-playing.
- Introduce new ideas through questions or briefly modeling play behavior.
Put simply, don’t “play with” your child. Instead, think of yourself as an architect working to create a space that will help those within it discover their greatest potential. The design (of which you are a part) is most successful if it is not noticed and fades into the tapestry of the walls and corridors. I’ve found the greatest strides come when there are failures. Being quiet and removed allows me to observe when the children are hitting walls where their play is stinted. When their water sources run dry or when their dirt is all gone, the nature of the play changes, and it’s evident what’s needed. When the space is too small for multiple children, you can see what’s needed. The job of the play-worker is almost counter-intuitive. When I have a weekend to spend with my children, my instinct is to play with them, but their experience is enriched when my job is focused on enabling their play, independently.