Respecting Play: Observing & Interacting at the same time

June 6, 2011 · 22 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?

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