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Advocates of Play: Free Range Edventurer

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

Introducing Emily Dalby, mother to Jack. Thank you for sharing an insight into your home education journey with a child on the autism spectrum. What a wonderful, rich, tailored education you are providing for your son. I think others will find your story very inspiring.

Please introduce yourself, and your family.

I'm Emily, married to my soul mate James and Mummy to our 7 year old son, Jack. We're a home educating family living in the East Midlands in England. We love learning through play, providing lots of opportunities to learn and explore and we love to take our toys out and about with us on adventures too!

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?

As a child I grew up with three younger brothers. We loved making up our own imaginative games, making dens, using foil over kitchen roll tubes to use as telescopes when pretending to be pirates and playing games outside a lot in the garden. One of our favourite games was with my nan who used to send us off in the garden to find things of a certain colour and bring them back to see who could find them first (we were all really competitive so this game often kept us occupied for hours!). We learnt so much and discovered lots of different insects and bugs along the way that we were all fascinated with watching!

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

Play is very important to us. I trained in childcare where I went on to work in both nurseries and schools, as a nursery nurse, in a special educational school, as a teaching assistant and a one to one support for children with special needs, mostly working with children with autism. I loved making learning both fun and educational through play by setting up activity tables, role play areas and creating story sacks. A few years later we had our son, Jack and it soon became apparent he was on the autism spectrum and we received his diagnosis last year. Due to his needs nursery was a struggle for him so before he started reception we made the decision to home educate him. To help with certain aspects of his development that he was delayed in we found that activities that were fun, engaging and open ended helped him so much with his overall development. Play is still a very significant part of our day and there isn't much that can't be learned whilst having fun! Play for us has brought on his development leaps and bounds and has also helped him to deal with tricky emotions and to understand new situations through role playing with his toys.

How would you describe your play philosophy?

Our play philosophy is all about learning, discovering, exploring, trial and error, cause and effect, making sense of the world, being creative, being imaginative and most importantly to have fun! We see the benefits daily of how important play is both in free play and more structured activities in how it helps him to learn and develop in a holistic manner. We believe this is important to his development in becoming an adult that can have a go and make mistakes while building his confidence as well as being beneficial as down time on days he struggles with his anxiety.

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

A lot of influences on my perspective on play have come from my own experiences, training and work and the main one, being a mum and watching Jack excited and engrossed in his imaginary worlds that he creates. Lots of the little worlds and scenes he makes take him off on various tangents of discovery and leads to lots of questions we find the answers to together as well as lots of giggles! Since discovering wooden toys we've been able to do even more open ended play and has opened up even more of his imagination! We love using Pinterest for ideas and challenges and also join in weekly with The Wooden Playden weekly play challenge which Jack looks forward to every week. Other than that we usually base a play set up on our current topics or around his current interests.

How do you facilitate child led, open ended play within your home or setting?

In our home we have many ways that we facilitate child led and open ended play. We have a playroom which all items are on display and within his reach so he can choose what he wants to play with independently. We don't have a huge amount of toys but toys and books carefully chosen to aid in various aspects of his learning and development. Everything has a place so it is easy for him to find and put away and we also have some small shelving downstairs which we use for our toy rotations. He always has access to pens, crayons, pencils and paper, a note pad and a few books both fiction and non fiction. The other items usually relate to our current topic and a few things he selects of his choosing. Play silks, a game or puzzle and kapla are also always available to him as he loves to create and build whenever the moment takes him. By giving him clutter free and open spaces with a small collection of toys allows him to feel in control, less overwhelmed and to be able to make independent and confident choices about his play.

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

Getting Jack to play independently has been something that we struggled with for a long time! More recently he is starting to play with things without needing as much adult input even if that is sometimes just being there to support him when a build for example doesn't go to plan and he needs that little bit if encouragement to try again! For us we've found that it's all down to the activity! For example, Kapla or Lego he would quite happily sit and play with for hours creating! So if your child isn't quite there yet maybe try something new and different to what they would usually play with or something that stimulates their mind and imagination with an open ended toy.

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

The type of play that engages Jack right now is anything that he can use to create or build. He loves designing things and thinking of new ideas to try out and see if and how he can bring them to life.

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

If we could only pick three toys to encourage open ended play it would be Kapla, Lego and his wooden animals. His Kapla is used for all sorts from marble runs to tree houses, Lego is often used to create volcanoes or roller coasters and his animals are used to take him off on magical adventures.

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

If I could have one wish for Jack it would be that he always keeps his imagination and curiosity about everything and doesn't stop being himself. He has a beautiful mind and soul and I hope that he always stays that way.

Our Instagram is fairly new but we share play ideas, our home ed-ventures, meals and bakes and our home grown fruit and vegetables. You can follow Emily and Jack's adventures @freerangeedventurer

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

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