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Advocates of Play: Millie's Garden

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

Hello, and welcome to the fourth in my Advocates of Play series. A series of blog interviews with play promoters around the world...

Introducing Millie, of Millie's Garden...

Please introduce yourself, and your family.

My name is Millie. I run a large childminding setting in Bristol, UK. Being a childminder means my family home (where I live with my husband, Sam, and our three daughters, aged 10, 8 and 3 years old) is a registered early years setting. However, it just so happens that I operate almost entirely from my large, wild garden!

I employ three assistants and have up to nine children attending ‘Millie’s Garden’ each day. I have a first class BA degree in Early Years Education, I am a qualified Forest School Leader and I also work as a Specialist Leader of Education (SLE) for the birth – three years age range.

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?

What stands out about my many happy childhood play memories is that the best play always happened in large groups of children (usually of mixed ages) away from adults! I am one of four children and my family had a strong social circle of parents with children. We went to the pub every Friday after school and a big gang of us children would squeeze through a hole in the fence of the pub garden and go exploring and playing around the area! We went on big group holidays together and did regular group walks in the countryside, so we spent most of our playtime outdoors.

Can you tell us about how you came to be an advocate for play? In what capacity does play feature in your life?

I became a mother at the age of nineteen and knew absolutely nothing about children (apart from having been a child myself until quite recently). From the moment my daughter was born, I became truly fascinated by attachment, nurturing relationships and the powerful impact of these on the child’s developing brain. This led onto the importance of play for a child’s development. I registered as a childminder and began learning about play.

When I trained as a Forest School Leader I came to see play as something that is under threat in modern childhood and that I have a role in protecting it. I finally started to think more deeply about play when I studied for my degree in early years. I studied neuroscience, play theory and play deprivation, among other things. I was particularly interested in sociological perspectives on play, for example, whether having ‘play parks’ has been part of the decline of children’s play in our communities and wildlands.

Play now features heavily in my life. My primary responsibility as an educator is in ensuring children can become deeply involved in play. My working life is organised around play, with all routines in my childminding setting (such as lunch, snacks and naps) totally flexible so that we never interrupt good quality play!

How would you describe your play philosophy?

One of the most important things that play theory tells us is that ‘play’ is only truly play if the child has chosen it themselves. If an adult is leading it, coercing a child to engage with it or setting too many rules/restrictions on how the play unfolds, then it isn’t actually play (and therefore doesn’t have the tremendous developmental benefits we know that play brings). Therefore, I am wary of ‘play-based learning’ and playful activities that are actually purely about an adult’s agenda. Unfortunately, a lot of Early Years settings and Reception classes in schools will claim that what they are doing is ‘play’ whereas actually it is outcomes-oriented.

So, the most important thing about my play philosophy is that it is led by the child. We do not do any forward planning at all in our setting. Instead, we begin each day by asking the children, “What would you like to do today? What resources do you need/how can I support you with that?” Adults in my setting are very engaged with the children when they want us to be, but we are always following their lines of enquiry and play.

Who or what has influenced your perspective on play? Are there any books, blogs, Instagram accounts that you would recommend?

So much! A lot of sociological thinking; Bob Hughes’ play framework (which really helped me understand how important it is to offer children a holistic range of play opportunities); the work of Simon Nicholson and loose parts theory; play work and the adventure playground movement.

There are so many books on childhood and play but a few that have stuck with me are:

Unfortunately online there is such a proliferation of adult-led/outcomes-oriented ‘play’ activities. But there are some real gems that give me a lot of inspiration (not to mention hope) for play:

· Let The Children Play on Facebook.

· Let The Babies Play on Facebook – these are both pages which provide inspiration from around the world.

· Carlene’s Cubby House Family Daycare on Facebook and Instagram – Carlene runs an early years setting in Australia that is just so inspiring, child-led and creative.

· Children of the Wilderness – inspiring outdoorsy education in Australia.

Can you share a top tip for encouraging children to play independently?

There is much adults can offer children as partners in play and learning. But sometimes adults detract from the quality of play. And sometimes children can find it hard to play independently or away from adults. When a child in my setting finds it hard to leave my side, I start by being incredibly responsive and giving them all the attention and love that they need from me. But once they are fully settled in, I will sometimes say to them, “Sorry, I’m a bit busy and I can’t play with you right now.” This little nudge is what the child needs to learn how to find their own interests/become involved in their own play or engage with their peers. And once they know how, the play becomes very rich indeed.

What type of play are the children in your home or setting really engaged in right now?

Sand! I use the Leuven involvement scales to determine how deeply engaged children are with different resources and sand has been coming out tops for months now. The children spend hours and hours playing schematically (transporting it in buckets; transforming it by adding water and mud…) and playing imaginatively (if I had £1 for every sand-cake I’d eaten this year…)

We don’t have an abundance of ‘toys’ but we do have lots of natural loose parts so children use these to support their make believe play a lot at the moment. And construction play. Always!

If you had to pick just three toys or play resources to encourage child led, open ended play, what would you choose?

Sand, water and earth.

If you could make one wish for your child, or for the children of today, what would it be?

Oh, there is so much to worry about as a parent and educator. Climate breakdown, the political landscape, terrible inequality… But as we are talking about play I hope that we can really start to reclaim the child’s right to play. Their right to play in their early childhood provision and in schools. Their right to play outdoors and in all parts of their local communities, not just play parks. Their right to play in their homes instead of being rushed from one club or activity to the next. I really believe this will have a positive impact on all those other things that I worry about.

You can read more about Millie's Garden on Facebook and Instagram. She currently has a vacancy, which you can find out more about here.

If you would like to contribute to my Advocates of Play Series, please send me a message at

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.

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