Updated: Jan 3
"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.
Play is really the work of childhood".
Hello, and welcome to my new blog series: Advocates for Play. This idea has been in the pipeline for well over a year, but for one reason or another, it has had to take a back seat while I work on other projects. I'm so excited to finally launch with an interview with... well, me!
Please introduce yourself, and your family.
Hello! I'm Rowan, the face behind Invitations to Play, and this is Elsie Bean, my love and inspiration!
We live in Bristol, in the South West of England, with our sweet and vocal cat, Lily. I work part-time, running Invitations to Play alongside my childminding business, and very much full-time, mothering and home educating Elsie.
Can you share some of your own experiences of play as a child? Do you have an earliest play memory, or a story to share about play that was particularly meaningful?
I was born and raised in rural West Wales. Our family home, where my Mum still lives, is surrounded by working sheep farms, with no neighbours within a half mile. My childhood was spent mostly outdoors in our large, wild garden, playing in the hedgerows and streams, tending to our menagerie of pets and building dens out of hay bales in the neighbouring fields with my younger brother.
We did have toys, but not as many as children tend to have these days. Our dressing up box consisted of hats, scarfs, handbags and oversized shirts, and we’d spend happy hours making up elaborate plays and skits to perform.
My brother had a tin of little plastic army figurines which he’d set up across our living room floor, and I’d be doing the same on the other side of the room with my collection of random dolls house furniture and Sylvanian family characters, using a basket of homemade building blocks to build a floor plan. I’m able to see now that this specific play experience was the foundation of my love for creating beautiful and intentional spaces.
Can you tell us about how you came to be an advocate for play? In what capacity does play feature in your life?
My professional background is in early years teaching, which I think offered me a firm foundation in how to observe children at play, identify the learning that is taking place and make provision for development.
While on maternity leave after the birth of my daughter, I registered as a childminder, having anticipated that I would want to be at home with her full time, and needing an income as a newly lone parent. It was my experience of working as a childminder, with the very youngest children in my care, that taught me to trust in the child’s innate ability to learn through play. Invitations to Play was born in January 2018.
How would you describe your play philosophy?
I firmly and passionately believe in the value of child led play for all children, not just those in the early years. My daughter is almost 9, and is still learning predominantly through play.
I believe that children can learn a great deal through play, especially if they have an adult in their lives who respects and values it. The role of the adult, in my opinion, is crucial, as it is through careful observation of the child at play that the adult can provide opportunities to extend the child's learning. This may be by leaving out a provocation for the child to discover (or simply one single element that transforms their thinking), planning a lesson or project that the child finds irresistible, taking the child on a field trip, sourcing books or online materials.
My experience with my daughter has been that she comes to life when she is motivated and enjoying herself. As the saying goes... 'Learning can only happen when a child is interested. Trying to teach a child who isn't interested is like throwing a marshmallow at her head and calling it eating".
Who or what has influenced your perspective on play? Are there any books, blogs, Instagram accounts that you would recommend?
My daughter has been my biggest influence. Observing her at play, and witnessing her development in areas that I had previously thought could only be learned through instruction has been eye opening.
When Elsie was a toddler, I discovered a Reggio inspired blogger called Kate (she’s based in Australia and blogged at aneverydaystory.com but is sadly no longer active online - if anybody manages to find her, please let me know!) She shared a wealth of information about how to set up child friendly spaces, and I particularly found her science investigation and art and craft areas so beautiful and inviting. I loved How to Raise An Amazing Child the Montessori Way for inspiration during the toddler years too.
In more recent years, Simplicity Parenting had an almighty impact on me, propelling me forward in my quest for a simpler and more meaningful life, and Brave Learner pretty much put a stop to the comparisons that I was making and enabled me to find confidence in the right path for my little family.
How do you facilitate child led, open ended play within your home or setting?
I believe that the key is in the prepared environment, and in an interested but non-intrusive facilitator. I focus my energy and time on observing my child at play, and then carefully setting up intentional spaces for her based on my observations of her needs and interests.
My priorities when planning spaces for her are:
Beauty - we are all attracted by beautiful spaces, children included.
Simplicity - again, we all have improved focus in calm, clutter free spaces.
Functionality - can my child be independent here?
Purpose - what skill am I trying to help her develop?
In recent years, I have massively simplified our home. It's taken a long time (and is still in progress) because I like to declutter responsibly, finding suitable homes for the things that we're ready to pass on. Our home is always evolving to meet our ever-changing needs, and I see it as my most important work.
Can you share a top tip for encouraging children to play independently?
I believe that you can encourage your baby to play independently from birth, by responding sensitively to their cues, allowing them ample time and space to observe, touch and feel, and respecting their boundaries. With older children you can gently model ways to play with things, stepping back once the child has taken over, but remaining close by, engaged in your own meaningful work.
I think it is important to mention that I have worked with plenty of children over the years who, for one reason or another, find independent play difficult, and this is nothing to worry about. Some children are naturally more inclined to enjoy independent play time than others.
What type of play are the children in your home or setting really engaged in right now?
At the moment, I have just one child who attends my setting regularly… a little girl, the same age as my daughter (8.5 years old). For the past year they have been deeply absorbed in doll play, particularly reenacting the weekly gymnastics class that they both attend. They gather together a great number of dolls, giving them all names, ages, personalities and relationships to one another, dressing them appropriately, writing registers, building the gym itself out of building blocks and soft furnishings, bending and stretching the dolls into all of the gym positions and acting out minor conflicts and resolutions. It may seem like ‘just play’ to an outsider, but they’re working on ALL areas of development.
If you had to pick just three toys or play resources to encourage child led, open ended play, what would you choose?
I always recommend investing in the best quality set of natural unit building blocks. Our set are from Community Playthings and are played with every single day. The very youngest babies enjoy them for their smooth, tactile quality; toddlers build towers, progressing on to simple enclosures and structures. My big girls, at age 8.5 years, build the most complex and carefully considered buildings, and every adult that visits gets drawn in to play. They have been the best investment I’ve made for my setting.
Paper, mark making tools, tape and the contents of the recycling box, are all great open ended materials for encouraging creativity. There is always some sort of creation in the making here.
Sand, water and mud.
If you could make one wish for your child, or for the children of today, what would it be?
That children are shown the same respect as adults, and not subjected to this double standard we have come to accept as the norm. It’s not acceptable to me that we can discipline a child through force. It’s not acceptable to me that we can shame and humiliate them for showing their feelings, or for demonstrating their immaturity. It’s not acceptable to me that we can expect a child to do as we say, without the need for an explanation.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again I'm sure, because it is something that I really believe... "There is no single effort more radical in its potential for saving the world than a transformation of the way we raise our children".
What are your opinions about play? What has influenced you on your journey? If you would like to contribute to the next series of Advocates of Play please send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org
This blog post contains affiliate links. If you do click through, Bean and I will receive a small amount of commission which will contribute to new books and resources for her home education. You can, however, find all of these resources elsewhere, including other online retailers, second hand selling pages and your local library.