Respecting Play: Observing & Interacting at the same time

June 6, 2011 · 20 comments

Do not disturb! Child at play

Do not disturb! Child at play

Hello there,

I’ve been reading your blog for a little while (and love it). I actually have a question about RIE parenting. I’ve been doing some reading about RIE parenting, after reading about it on your blog, and I am curious how you’re supposed to play with children when you’re following their philosophy.

If you’re only supposed to observe them play, how do you interact with them? Do you just let them lead the interaction? If so, what does that look like with a one year old?

I’ve been trying to just observe my daughter but be present when she looks up at me and respond to her when she smiles at me and such, but I think my husband thinks I’m not interacting with her enough because I’m not actually playing with her and I don’t know how to defend what I’m doing (or if I’m even doing it right).

She is too young to ask me to read a story, or even bring me a book. Do I still try to initiate that? She is really too young to initiate any kind of play with me, she just plays independently. I’m not sure how to play with her and still respect her needs while playing. Any advice?



Hi Esperanza,

This is a wonderful question — my husband expressed that he felt the same way when we started practicing RIE in our house. It’s such a big change from hovering over our children, directing them to do this and that, and it often seems like we’re not doing anything.

Interactive observation takes some practice, and it’s something I am still working at, but I’ll do my best to describe how I believe we can respect our children’s play while still being involved.

First, periods of quiet observation were helpful for me to start, and it’s something I try to do a few minutes (10 or 15) every day. Sometimes I’ll sit with my children, and sometimes I’ll just watch them when they think I’ve been doing something else. It gives me a sense of what they want to do, completely on their own.

It also allows me to see how they develop, and when they learn new skills. I remember the first time I saw my older son give his cars actual voices and dialogue, and the first time I saw my younger son climb up a chest, onto the couch, and back down and around again (and again). Those are the moments when they surprise me and  I get to see things they won’t necessarily show me, which helps me know what to do when I want to be more interactive. Here are some ideas:

Effective Praise

There’s a growing body of research that suggests that empty praise like “good job!” may do more harm than good to a child’s self confidence. If you’ve spent a few minutes learning what makes your child tick, you have everything you need to provide directed praise. For example, when my younger son finally climbed onto the couch after working at it for a few days, I could say to him, “You made it up there! You’ve been working on that all week!”

It’s just a small interaction, but it lets him know I observed how hard he worked and understand what a big accomplishment it is for him.

Talk it out

Talking through what I do with my children was awkward at first. It seems strange to say out loud what we can all see is happening, “You’re climbing up the slide. You like to jump at the top before you come down. Wow, your cars fly off there so fast! That looks like it’s a lot of fun!”

But most of these experiences are new to our children, and they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it yet. When we verbalize what we see happening, it helps our children learn words as well help them understand what’s going on around them.

This technique (called “sportscasting” by RIE founder Magda Gerber) is also very helpful in working through difficult situations or conflict. If you’re with your child and they’re struggling to do something, talking them through it instead of helping them yourself is a good way for parents to stay calm and learn to trust their child’s ability to get it done themselves.

Provide options, and then let your child lead

There are some activities we like to do with our child, like read, that children may not initiate themselves. It’s perfectly fine to bring a book over, but it’s also important to respect your child’s abilities and interests. If your daughter squirms and protests when you sit down together, it’s probably not a good time to foster her love of the written word.

You’ll find some times are better than others to initiate some activities (we read before naps and bedtime, or when one of my sons brings me a book), and I try to find titles that are exciting and interesting to them (they love anything with cars, animals, or letters).

I don’t think there is harm in doing less when children are young. Often just being near our children is what they want, and their interactions with us can be very subtle — eye contact, or showing a toy. It might not seem like much in our hectic world, but I’ve found those quiet moments are the ones I treasure the most.


Photo credit: Chris. P on Flickr

There are many more experienced mothers out there — what other ways can Esperanza respectfully interact with her child during play?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Share |

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa June 6, 2011

Thanks, as always, for the great advice, Suchada! I think, too, that the thinking in the RIE community (forgive me because I’m new to all this as well!) is that we as parents can really make the most of our time with our children while they need our care – during bathtime, mealtimes, while getting dressed, etc. These times can be relaxed and playful, too.

When we focus on really being together and connecting as part of the daily routine, it’s easy to let go a bit more during play time without feeling like we’re neglectful. Having that free play time as down time, too, can help us as busy moms feel more relaxed so that we can smile and use things like thrown food and splashed water as an opportunity to connect without feeling overwhelmed by the mess. It definitely helps me, anyway!


2 Suchada @ Mama Eve June 6, 2011

Melissa, I’m so glad you added how important those routine tasks can be as moments to connect. Sometimes I feel they’re even more important as interactions than the play time, and taking the time to be present during those moments helps me from being overwhelmed, too.


3 MadameHilmar June 6, 2011

Hi Suchada,
Great article again. Thank you! I am so pleased when this topic is taken care of so precisely and wonderfully worded. I often feel actually sorry for those kids that are constantly entertained.

Since my son is 14months old I wanted to mention some experience I live right now. I do think that even a 1year old can initiate play. Sometimes he crawls away from me, then looks back and when I ask what he’s doing he’s crawling away even faster and laughing. It’s his version of catch me! I play along happily as long as he wishes. As soon as he’s distracted by some toy I leave him to it. In the beginning that felt like he dropped me there but it’s ok, i got used to it.

He also brings books along or throws balls in my direction. I then ask him if he wants me to play with him so either he reaches his arms and I throw the ball back or he goes after the ball himself.

It’s all you learn through careful observation. And yes, i do sing to him with clapping and hopping or so. But I stop after one verse and see if he likes it or not before I go on. It all doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be yourself and have fun with your child. But quietly observing helps to find the right way of LETTING and DOING.

Sorry for this long comment, just a topic I find so important.



4 Suchada @ Mama Eve June 6, 2011

I love your contributions, Nadine, and the descriptions of the play with your 14 mo old. My younger son is 13 mo, and he recently started playing peek-a-boo (copying his older brother), and he also likes to pass a ball back and forth with me. Their play is subtle, but it’s definitely there.


5 Imogen @ Alternative Mama June 6, 2011

thanks so much for this! We’re tentatively “installing” the RIE philosophy in our home so articles like this are incredibly helpful! *bookmarks*


6 Suchada @ Mama Eve June 6, 2011

Imogen, let me know how the steps go for you. This is a learning process for me, too, so I’m always interested in how other mothers are coming along!


7 Carolyn Hastie June 6, 2011

I like the way you have provided a lovely and clear description and example of child led development and the RIE approach Suchada. Thank you for that. You have a great way of making the complex easy to understand. I’ve recently seen the film Babies, have you seen it? I’m sure you would enjoy it very much. The film follows four babies from birth to walking in four differnt cultures on four different continents and is well worth seeing as a way of seeing different parenting approaches in action.


8 Suchada @ Mama Eve June 6, 2011

Carolyn, I love the movie Babies! I watched it before I was introduced to RIE, but I was already drawn to the African baby and her interactions with her family. I read later that the other mothers all were struck by their footage, and thought it was a wonderful way to be with a child. It makes me wonder if people even realize it’s possible to step back and have a simpler relationship with a baby, without all the “stuff” and stimulating classes.


9 Alicia C. June 6, 2011

LOL – I know nothing of RIE, yet it looks like I’m doing something really, really close! It took me FOREVER to get my husband to play along rather than initiate any particular type of playing. And keeping both him and my oldest from doing puzzles for my little guy was an uphill battle. I finally explained that, when they do things that he is attempting to do *for him*, it’s only saying, “Ha! Look what I can do that you can’t!” No one likes a show off!


10 Suchada @ Mama Eve June 6, 2011

Alicia, I’m always a bit jealous when I run into mothers who naturally know how to step back and just be with their children. I definitely wasn’t one of them! But I’m glad to know I’m in good company with other moms who have to work a bit to get their husbands on board :)


11 janetlansbury June 6, 2011

As a RIE facilitator for many years, I have to say that I’m blown away by Suchada and all of you. You seem to have an instinctive understanding of common sense ideas that alluded me until I had the luck of running into infant specialist and RIE founder Magda Gerber. With 3 children now, my oldest an 18 year old entering Stanford University in the fall, I can tell you, without a doubt, that this knowledge is gold. Our children enter the world with interests, passions, gifts and talents that can be trusted and need to be encouraged. And it all begins with letting babies lead at play time.


12 Nina Nelson June 10, 2011

I actually have a problem with not interacting enough. My husband is great at playing with the kids when they want him to. However, when I say I want to be more engaged with them and he tells me to, I don’t know what to do. I really like this approach because it seems like a good transition for me to become more engaged with them. One of my favorite things to do is watch and listen, which makes this much more appealing than trying to interrupt what they’re doing so that I don’t feel guilty about not interacting with them. Thanks Suchada.


13 Suchada @ Mama Eve June 10, 2011

Nina, I’m so with you. I’m not a very demonstrative person, and I’ve never been one to sit down on the floor and coo at babies. I’ll sit with them, but I never really knew what to say. Let me know how this works out for you!


14 Beth June 10, 2011

Thanks again for a great – and *practical* post. I love the RIE approach, but sometimes have a hard time visualizing what it is, and you give great examples. I’ve been trying the “sportscasting” and I have to say it feels so odd. My 8-month old is on the verge of crawling and I love watching her test her boundaries and safely get back to a “known” position, but when she gets into a positon where she’s on the brink of doing it and is frustrated it takes all of my will power to not run and rescue her! I tried the, “I see that you are frustrated because your leg isn’t getting underneath you.” and a few others, and it got down to “you can do it!” and cheering for her, then I buckled! I am going to keep trying, but when I get those frustrated, pleading eyes on me, I melt. Thanks for the words of wisdom!


15 Marcy June 13, 2011

Naptime is almost over so I am going to skip reading the other comments for now.

I have a 4.5 yr old who wants to control every aspect of playing together — what character I am at each moment, what my character says and does, and on and on.

Isn’t she old enough now that I should be the first, gentlest one to assert my own interests in playing together, so that she can practice / learn how to give and take / negotiate in playing with a friend?


16 Bing October 9, 2012

This is the first time I encountered about RIE and I believe in its principle. Maybe a lot of mothers don’t know about this method but is closely doing the principle of RIE I read a blog at where the mother lets her son explore his environment when playing. I also have a 5 year-old daughter and I think this would really develop her sense of competency, her confidence and a lot more.


I love to hear your thoughts. Please, join the conversation!

{ 4 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: