Adult Play at Daycare: Lots of Pros and a Few Cons

When I’m at daycare, I tend to play a fair amount. I don’t mean so much play as in “play with the children”, as I mean I go off and build with blocks or legos, create something in the play kitchen, work on a new lacing pattern, or read a book. Outside I’m more likely to go off and play with loose parts, explore the yard, or color with sidewalk chalk.

There’s a couple advantages of playing this way at daycare:

  • Play is just relaxing but also focusing. It gives me something mindful to do that’s not being on my phone, worrying about what’s going on, or whatever
  • Children often come by to see what I’m up to, sometimes to watch, sometimes to join in. This works well because rather than me “playing with the children”, “the children are choosing to join in on play, or not.
  • Children coming by gives opportunities for lots of stuff including: observing new skills that are perhaps being modeled, practicing having to “read” the situation (e.g., am I building something special they have be careful about, or is this a kind of thing they can join in on without special consideration), … and honestly I have to decide what kind of play I am doing right now (is this for me and I don’t want children to join in or destroy it, or am I feeling like it’s ok).
  • Playing in the environment gives me chances to see the environment from a new perspective- physically, and interactionally, and socially. What does the space feel like sitting in this spot? Are there not enough new things to do in the house? Is it hard to find something I want? Is this space too crowded? Do I feel safe here? Does playing this way make me feel like I need something that’s not here? Can others join me here? When I play with this, do I want others to join in me? Where could I go if I wanted to be more alone?
  • Practice at play extraction. What I mean by this is, a lot of times, I will go play, and children will join in on what I’m doing. A good thing to happen is if I can leave the space, and children continue to play without my presence. This is usually a good sign that what I was doing was helping to enhance their play (rather than me entertaining them). I use this technique quite a bit if I notice children are unfocused. Instead of telling them to find something to do, I’ll just go do something that I think is interesting (and will likely be interesting to them), and then engage in it in such a way that invites others to play. But then, extract myself. Noticing what kinds of things hold their attention or what ways of being allow for my extraction helps me to become more aware of their emerging interests and how my ways of being do and don’t affect their play. In Bethany’s workshop, she used a video from a day where I setup the trains and did an nice job extracting myself.
  • Just getting better at play. The truth is becoming an expert player takes practice. The more I play, the better I become at play, and the better I become at recognizing what skills support play. This could be a subject of a whole other blog post.


There are also some disadvantages to focusing too much on my own play:

  • Honestly, sometimes I can get so focused on my own play, that I’m not being aware enough of the children and the environment. I am more prone to miss out on some escalating situation that could have been thwarted, or whatever.
  • There has to be a balance between me playing for myself and me playing to possibly spark children’s play. It can sometimes hard to find right balance. The best is not doing one or the other (and trying to equal them out), but rather when my own genuine interest in play is the kind of thing that will spark new forms of children’s play. In other words, there is overlap between those at the same time.
  • Honestly, me playing can be just be too much for everyone else, depending on what I choose to do. A common example is if I decide to play piano. A lot of times that is fine, but too much sound can just be a stressor, for the children, or more likely Bethany. (Sorry, B!)

There’s a quote about teaching inquiry that I can’t seem to find, but it’s something like: “How can you support the inquiry of your students if you yourself don’t live an inquiry-ful life?” I think it’s also true with play… how can you support the play of children, if you yourself don’t have a life full of play?

Cleaning Up: Making Domestic Routines Visible 

Last fall, the children were mostly engaged in play that involved dumping. They loved to dump out all the legos, or all the blocks, or all the puzzles. All the dumping meant a lot of pick up at the end of the day. 

By late fall, Bethany and I decided to just start talking about clean up. All that meant was that instead of just cleaning up around the children or at the end of the day, we began to verbalize what we were seeing in the environment leading up to it, and to talk about intentions to clean up, and maybe sportscast our own clean up. If kids joined in, we may or may not sportscast what they were doing or perhaps we would stop and model for them an action they were trying to mimic. Sometimes we would even invite them to help clean up. And since they were invitations, there was no pressure. 

Over time, the children started cleaning up more spontaneously, often as a form of play. After playing with the blocks to build, they might play “putting the blocks away.” The only times we ever required clean up was if children wanted to do something special that required space, which was currently occupied by a mess. For example, if children wanted to get out jumping bean (a mattress) or get out the tunnel, we’d tell them that we need to make room by cleaning up. If the children didn’t seem interested in cleaning up, that was fine. If they did, we were more than happy to help.

Cleaning up I have learned is partially about learning to see the environment in relationship to constraints and affordances for one’s immediate but also future actions. Thus, what was needed was to help the children to become more aware of the environment and their goals within it. The second thing we also accomplished was to associate positive feelings with clean up, which is a big help. 

We still do a lot of the clean up, for sure, but the children will commonly all join in to clean up a big mess. They experience the positive feelings of “working together” to accomplish a task. All of this has made cleaning much more of a habit for them Recently, the kids have even started cleaning up our messes! No joke. We drink a lot of tea, and it’s not uncommon for a mug of tea to be left out. Now when the kids see empty mugs, they super carefully take them over to the kitchen. 

I should say the development of “cleaning up” has not been an isolated activity, but is rather embedded within a culture around domestic routines. Bethany does a good job of engaging children in a lot of domestic routines, of which clean up is interconnected. At the end of the week, the children strip their beds and bring laundry down. They participate in loading washer, turning it in. When doable, children help make food. For example, they helped make BBQ sauce a few weeks ago. A lot of routines are around getting boots and rain suits in and out of the closet, or cleaning up after meal time. 

I think one of the keys things is just to make sure such routines are not happening invisibly. There are two kinds of invisible, invisible in plain sight and invisble behind the scenes. With cleaning up toys, we had previously been doing it in plain sight, but since we were not talking about it, or drawing attention, or inviting participation,  it was basically invisible. 

I’ll end by noting some of the trouble we had to navigate with clean up: 

One of the children already had negative feelings around clean up, so that anytime we would make an invitation, this child would either whinly say “no” and back away or try to sneak off. I don’t remember doing much except to not make a big deal about choosing to or not to clean up. They’ve come around just fine. 

Clean up as play can also create trouble. It has not been uncommon for one child to be playing with blocks, when another child decides that all the blocks need to be put away. In big picture, this isn’t any different than most other kinds of trouble that arises during play, but it definitely became a thing. We’d try just to sportscast, “you are wanting to clean up blocks, but it looks like A is not done building yet,” and intervene if necessary. 

One of the children here a few times seemed to use cleanup play as a form of bullying. For example, deciding something need to be cleaned up in order to wield an authority to take things away. This didn’t spiral out of control, because we were pretty equipped to deal with these sorts of scenarios. This particular child is keen to take on roles of enforcing rules and the sort, so we were not surprised. 

Anyway, I’m sure we will encounter new challenges and successes with clean up, but so far it’s been a pretty amazing experience to watch unfold. 

Keeping Connection When Caring Routines Change: Shoe Battles

When the kids here were first learning how to put on their shoes by themselves, this provided them with some wonderful one-on-one moments with an adult… face-to-face interactions with joint attention to a task, centered around learning they were really proud of. But as they have become more and more independent in these kinds of task, the need for those moments become less pressing and less frequent. At the same time, the novelty of putting one one’s shoes wears off. This, unsurprisingly, has resulted in some unpleasant “shoe battles”. More and more they request us to do it, or whine for help. At first, my reaction was to sort of refuse to help, maybe by reminding them they could do it themselves. Truthfully, at times I was not so much refusing to help, as feeling the pressure to address some other need. Sometimes I was even annoyed… feeling like, “Do it yourself! Can’t you see I’m busy!” But even a nice refusal could escalate the situation, leading to further whining or even everything falling apart.

So over the past few days, I have been trying to pay more attention to our interactions around these events, noting what my feelings are when they happen, and spending more time figuring how they might be feeling. There are a couple things I have noticed and changed.

  • First, I tried to see their request for help (not as a literal request for help), but a longing for connection. I am trying to see it, like when a friend says, “Remember that time we went on that trip together to,.. ” It would be really weird to respond to your friend by saying rolling your eyes and saying, “I don’t have time these days to go on a trip. Can’t you go by yourself?” WTF? Instead, a normal response is to feel good about those memories, and in a moment, reconnect around that past time by telling stories. So, one  of my changes has been to just be present with them as they work on their shoes, and to retell stories of the past about when they couldn’t yet tie their shoes, or when they were learning to tie their shoes. To basically say, “Yeah, I remember that, too. That was so great.”
  • Second, I learned that they are more likely to request help when they are only half-engaged in the task. When they were first learning, they would usually have all their focus on the task. Now that they are better at the task, I noticed that they would try more and more to multi-task. They would be watching what another child was doing while putting on their shoe, or whatever. And getting on their shoe wasn’t going so well, because they didn’t have their attention on it. Because the shoe putting on was going well, they were getting frustrated. So the second thing I learned to do, was to “help” by reminding them to use their eyes to focus on the task. I’d just say, “You are looking at L and trying to put your shoes on. Your eyes need to be looking at your shoes.” I might choose to then  “sports cast” what they are doing, or give helpful reminders, or just be there. I’m trying to think of this as “spotting”. Like when the kids are first climbing some difficult new obstacle in the backyard, we will often continue to spot them, even after they don’t need physical help with the obstacle. Someone there to build confidence is all that is needed. And in spotting, I did actually notice that they still need some help. The hardest parts for them right now are when putting on their shoes goes awry, like the tongue or the heel gets folded over. They still need help noticing those problems and trouble-shooting, and I can physically help them out of a jam if needed.
  • The last thing I have tried is to just tell them the truth about when I’m busy helping someone else. Maybe tell their options: patiently wait (like llama llama) or keep working out it until I can give them my full attention. This seems to be working OK, too, mostly because we have good established routines around waiting and being patient. Reminding them to be patient helps me to patient.

So far, this collection of changes seems promising, although it’s too early to tell. But more importantly, it just gives me a more mindful presence and a job to do (tell stories, help keep focus, narrate the action). Roles are comforting, and I now know my roles. Be a caring presence, a reminiscer, a spotter…

Examining My Own Discomfort: Learning to Respond rather than React

This is a new blog I’ve started for the purpose of reflecting about my experiences playing and learning in the family childcare that my wife runs in our of home.

One of the earliest things that I was learning in daycare (even though I didn’t even realize it at the time) came about when the kids would be doing whatever and I would turn to Bethany and ask, “Is it OK for them to be doing that?” Maybe they were climbing up a bench and jumping onto the floor. Maybe they were throwing something. Whatever it was, Bethany would usually respond the exact same way, “If it’s making you feel uncomfortable, …” At first, I thought that phrase was pretty annoying. I just wanted to know, “Is this safe for them? What are the rules here?” Or maybe Bethany was holding a screaming baby and I’d ask after a few minutes of unsuccessful soothing, “Do you want me to take him?” and she’d say something like, “It sounds like you are uncomfortable with him being so upset.” This was also slightly annoying at first. I would be thinking, “OK. I was just trying to help. You don’t have to get all ‘babies crying doesn’t bother me’ about it.”

Over time, I gradually realized what Bethany was doing. A lot times, I was intervening in situations (unnecessarily) simply because I was feeling uncomfortable. Sure, I might conjure up some concern for safety (or rules, or morality, or just trying to help), but really in the moment I was just reacting to my own discomfort. This is a problem for all of us–our own unexamined discomfort propels us to act in order to resolve the discomfort. Later we try to legitimize our actions through post-hoc rationalization. Bethany was asking me to examine my discomfort. Am I uncomfortable with this? Why am I uncomfortable with this? Is there a problem with the situation or do I have a problem with my discomfort? Is this situation inherently dangerous, or do I just feel like this is not what is supposed to be happening right now (irrationally)? This process was for me the beginning of learning how to respond rather than react. Discomfort, fear, uncertainty, frustration are all emotions that going arise in the process of caring for children. I was learning to become really aware of those feelings–what they were and what triggered them.

The second thing that Bethany was teaching me was NOT that I should completely ignore my discomfort, but the opposite. I should definitely be using my own discomfort as a gauge, but since my discomfort was not well aligned to the task of caring for children, my discomfort needed to constantly be examined and re-examined. Through reflection, practice, and feedback, I might eventually learn to rely more on my discomfort more naturally. Although, I’m not sure the process of reflection goes away, maybe it’s just not as hard?

For me, doing this meant observing what children were doing more, which is actually something I’m pretty good at from years of education research and teaching. Just observing has interesting consequences. First, observing and deliberately responding just takes more time, so events unfold more than they do when you react. As things unfold, you get a lot more data about what’s really happening, or what possibilities of happenings are occurring. So if you do intervene, you are doing so better equipped. But also, in reality a lot of situations just resolve themselves naturally a moment later. Your intervention in fact often makes the situation worse. You don’t get to see that if you intervene all the time.

A good example for me might be a kid throws a block across the room. Before I would have “reacted” immediately–jumping up to stop them, or immediately stepping in to remind them of a rule, or maybe even sternly saying no, or whatever. Now, I’m much more inclined to just watch. I want to see how it unfolds. See how the child reacts, how the rest of the children react. Does it look like the child is going to keep throwing blocks? Did the child look at me immediately after? If it looks like that was it for block throwing, I’ll most likely saying nothing and ignore it. If it looks like throwing is something they want to be doing, I can help them to find the bean bags. If someone got hit by the block,  I’ll attend to the hurt child and perhaps ignore the block-thrower.

Another really good example, is when one child steals a toy from another. My own discomfort took the form of some “moral-outrage” reflex. This feeling led me to intervene waaay to soon, and waay to often. It is hard to hold back when some moral outrage button is going off. But the truth is, for certain children, and certain age groups, in certain moments, sometimes they couldn’t care less about having a toy taken away, or they willingly hand it over.

I’ve come to see toy taking as more like when friends or couples pick food off each other’s plates at a restaurant. It’s overly simple to say, “Never take food from your a friend’s plate.” It depends on the friend, the mood, the type of food, and your shared history of success and trouble at sharing food in this way. Maybe you ask. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you use body language to communicate the request, and they use body language to refuse or accept. Maybe there’s an explicit offer, or just a subtle move of the plate. The truth is, sometime someone gets mad when you grab their food. You either misread the situation, or the problem was you weren’t reading the situation at all. You just impulsively grabbed. Learning to read the mood, the cues, and the unfolding events is what it’s all about.

For the youngest in our group, especially when he first came and barely crawled, things were constantly appearing into and disappearing out of his world, and it wasn’t the least bit odd for an object to sort of disappear out of this world. Sure, sometimes he would get upset. But even older kids, just sometimes don’t notice or don’t mind. Sometimes, they willingly hand it over, or they get distracted by something else. Children don’t need to learn a rule like “never take”… they need to learn how to ask (using words, subtle cues), read the mood (including their own), and learn how to read the unfolding dynamics.

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