Will You Let Your Children Play?

“Letting our children play” sounds easy and so obvious, doesn’t it?

We all know play should be encouraged, because it’s essential for healthy development: physical, cognitive, psychological and, most imperatively, the development of extended potty breaks for parents. Yet many of us find it surprisingly difficult to refrain from interrupting or interfering when our children play. This might be because:

We don’t always recognize play when it happens. Friend and fellow blogger Laura Grace Weldon related this anecdote:

A friend with two kids under three read one of your play posts today and remarked that she’d been harassing her kids to finish breakfast while they’d been making their spoons talk to each other. Inspired by what you wrote, she stopped bothering them. They played in their seats for a full half hour in quiet delight. She says it’s changed her outlook entirely.

We are excited to show children how it’s done or share our ideas with them. Nadia Bata from Amman, Jordan, shared a moment of clarity:

There was a small thing today that made it all very clear. My son has a Duplo set, and it has a fence made up of four parts, all the same. They hinge together to create a long piece. I have always been showing him how to use it as a fence, and I even went as far as putting his animals in there and feeding them. He was never really interested for long.

Today I just watched, and commented, and expressed joy… he turned the “fence” into a worm (he got it to move like a worm would), and he then turned it into a slide for the sheep….afterwards he made it into a triangle shape, placed his sheep inside and told me that his sheep had a car!!! How amazed was I? The best part about it all is that he is much happier playing this way, I can see a big difference, and he can tell that I appreciate him as he is, doing what he can and wants to do.

Where children perceive an engaging process or experience, we see a “problem” that needs resolution. Teacher Victoria Byres shared a video and note about her son. Child-led play geek that I’ve become, I could watch this all… day… long. I got goosebumps and kept thinking surgeon.

(I found the toy Victoria’s son is using HERE)

Hello Janet,

I’m a teacher. I found you originally through Teacher Tom and have been following your blog for years. I love all aspects of your approach in theory, but I still struggle with some in practice. As I watched my son play with his stacking set today I was itching to jump in and show him how to do it, but because of your writing I managed to keep myself from ‘helping’ and am so glad that I did. It was such a joy to watch the intense concentration as my son worked through the problem, experimenting, working methodically and showing great persistence. I love that when he’s finished there is no great fanfare — it’s just onto the next task. Job done!

Thank you so much Janet for this experience! Your blog is changing children’s childhoods for the better!
Victoria Byres

How do we control our impulse to get in the way with play? Child specialist Magda Gerber encouraged parents to place our distractions, concerns and agendas in an imaginary basket. Letting go, relaxing, observing sensitively with an open mind allows us to see our child more clearly, perhaps even get a glimpse or two through his or her eyes. This is a challenge with many delightful pay-offs.

Now that I have been reading and following your blog for a couple of weeks I am starting to understand everything and am in the process of implementing…I know you must get this a lot, but it has changed my life!!! I am so much more relaxed now and enjoying my boys just as they are, no pressure…..I almost never yell, have no problem living without the TV, and I don’t feel the need to put on a circus show to keep my son happy.
Nadia Bata


You’ll find much more about this approach to parenting and play in my book:

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting



(Photo by Ding Yuin Shan on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Such a great video – my daughter has been in an RIE preschool that is also inspired by Reggio -Emilia. She has done so well there but we are moving to a new area and have to find a new school. She is two and we can’t find anything like – I am curious if a Montessori might be more similar than a play-based program, but would love your insight.

    1. Hi Kath! A simple, play-based program could be quite compatible, as could a Montessori school. My advice is to check out all good options thoroughly, including visiting the school (maybe without your daughter, so you are completely focused) for as long as the school will allow.

      “Montessori” and “play-based” can mean different things to different people. What matters are the staff and the implementation of these approaches.

      I’ll add that most parents I’ve worked with have had difficulties finding a school with every element they are hoping for. Then it comes down to knowing their child and what might be the best fit for him or her.

      Good luck!

  2. Hi Janet,
    1st of all, thank you very much for everything that you do. I honestly don’t know any other website that is as useful as yours.

    I have no doubts about the importance of playing, autonomy and the “can do it” attitude for a child but i have a lot trouble letting go, relaxing and basically I’m controlling quite a lot of stuff “for her”!

    my daughter is now 2.5 – I’ve been controlling everything, wanting to be with her/around her all the time since day 1 to make her life easier. I started RIE basic principles very late (when she was 2), and although i’ve been trying to set independent play format, it’s not working well – it’s like she doesn’t want to me to leave her, or she wants me to help her do stuff.

    i’m very struggling with my “controlling” problem and my “can’t do” attitude, and i don’t know where to start.
    Do you have any tips or best practice for “late” comers?

    thank u very very much ♥

    1. Yes, absolutely! There are a couple of things to look at here:

      1. Your comfort and confidence with boundaries, which entail being able to calmly accept your daughter’s displeasure (and that’s the hardest part for all of us! 😉 ).

      2. Learning a new way to play together and “help” your daughter when she asks for it.

      Here are a few posts I recommend:

      https://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/05/stop-entertaining-your-toddler-in-3-steps-2/ and this similar post I wrote for The Mother Co: http://www.themotherco.com/2013/08/supporting-your-childs-independent-play/

      And: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/02/the-powerful-gift-of-i-did-it/

      Also: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2009/11/becoming-unglued/ and https://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/08/solo-engagement-fostering-your-toddlers-independent-play/

      I hope this isn’t overwhelming! You can definitely do this!

  3. I love your wisdom and have a specific question regarding my 4year old son and his 4yo female buddy who is very curious about her body and privates . I am all for curiosity and exploration but this is almost obsessive and feels unhealthy. How can I be supportive of my son and his pal but set a limit?

    1. Thanks, Amy! I would allow looking, but not touching. You might use the guideline, “No touching in the areas that would by covered by a bathing suit. Those are private.”

  4. metalmama says:

    My daughter is 2yrs 9months. Do you think the toy in the video would be too young for her?

    1. Hmmm…That’s a good question. These are actually just block-shapes that could be used creatively in a variety of ways, so even if she found the puzzle aspect easy, she could still enjoy this set and combine it with other toys, etc.

  5. love the way the video ended with him being allowed to finish and move on without an adult interrupting and ‘praising’ him.

  6. My daugher (18.5 mo) likes to play with her food when she’s about done eating, which is usually a short 5-10 minutes into meal time. She would squeeze food between her fingers, and use her spoon to push food around on the plate. We have been telling her not to play and would take her plate away if she continues to do so. She even knows and would say “playing” when she is doing that. Is this something we should stop or encourage her? Is she actually “exploring” and “experiencing”?

    1. I agree with you about setting the limit, because playing with the food is usually a clear signal the child is done eating. It is possible that she is exploring productively (rather than testing), but it is still your prerogrative to disallow her to make a mess of the food you’ve prepared for her.

  7. Hello Janet, I have been letting my son (now 2 years) play and just be the observer for a while now. I am not sure how good I am at it, I think sometimes I interfere, but mainly, when we are in the playground he interacts with other children and I am just the base that he returns to occasionally. Sometimes he also asks for help or wants me to come with him. I was wondering though and I researched your website: how much should a parent play WITH the child. My husband plays ball with our son. sometimes we play catch, or silly games (covering with the blanket and discovering each other, ride around with his tricycles etc.) but when we are at the park he will approach not only other kids, but even other adults (who are flying a kite, play ball, play tennis) to play with him. I was wondering, if he is now so used to me being the observer that he does not consider me as a playmate at all anymore. I see other parents play with their children and I am wondering, how much I should engage or not? He is very sociable and outgoing, sometimes when he approaches other adults to join their ball playing I am wondering, if he should not just play with me. Maybe I feel a little uncomfortable, because I don’t want people to think we are interfering. Since I am mostly the observer it also does not happen that another child approaches us to join. Or on the day I bring a ball or when I bring a kite to the park that is usually the day he is not interested in it. Oddly, only when others have it…I am not sure what to make of it.

  8. Hi Anja! With respect, I think you are overthinking this. 🙂 It sounds to me like he knows he’s in the park to reach out and socialize, rather than play with his mom. Seems VERY healthy to me! He has social confidence and a great interest in engaging. Are others not welcoming of him?

    Ideally, at home, there is a balance. Yes, of course it is wonderful to play catch, etc., but children also appreciate and benefit greatly from inventing and directing their own play.

  9. Great article; great video

  10. Hi Janet,

    I was delighted to discover your book, No Bad Kids recently and it is the only book I have had my husband read as well. I feel like I’ve finally found my philosophy put into words and a reliable source I can go to when I have questions.

    My question is about play time with my 16 month old. I love to observe him quietly and let him work things out for himself, but he seems to get frustrated quickly (especially when he is tired). For instance, he has stacking cups and when he can’t get a larger one to fit inside a smaller one, he often begins to fuss and pretty soon he throws the cups in frustration (then picks them up and throws them again as if emphasizing it). He’s otherwise pretty easy-going, but I sometimes find myself at a loss for how to respond to his playtime meltdowns. I sometimes say: “you seem frustrated by those cups, let’s see if we can find a toy that is less frustrating for you”. But now I’m thinking maybe I should just observe his frustration without saying anything (or should I verbalize it?) and let him discover a different game or go back to the cups on his own? I guess I’m wondering to what extent a little help while he is playing (e.g., helping him get the shopping cart he is pushing up the step in our living room) is interfering with his play vs. letting him get on with his playing instead of having a meltdown. I would love to hear your thoughts!


    1. Hi Sara! Thanks for all your support!

      Regarding the stacking cups, it’s great to acknowledge, “you seem frustrated by those cups”. But then I wouldn’t jump to a solution for him: “let’s see if we can find a toy that is less frustrating for you.” Here’s why:

      1. Encouraging him to swich gears actually discourages him from persevering through struggles.

      2. It’s enough to acknowledge where’s he at and let those feelings be. You might add something like, “It can be hard to fit the cups inside each other.” Then, WAIT. Silence is fine. It’s okay for him to feel what he feels. Breathe.

      3. “It’s okay to struggle and feel frustrated” is an invaluable message. Not that you would say those words, but your actions (or lack thereof) will. Young children tend to be far more accepting of struggles than we are… This is wonderful and worth encouraging, in my opinion!

  11. I love the end of the video – how the child doesn’t seek parent’s approval or praise. Great example of how play is truly a child’s work. Thanks!

  12. It is so tempting to jump in to “help” or interrupt our children to teach them at any age really, something that is of importance to us.

    That’s why I love Magda Gerber’s emphasis on observing so much. We interrupt with the best of intentions when really we should learn to be led by the baby. Observe first, and pace your input. Tricky, but it can be done.

  13. I am a first time mom and have really enjoyed absorbing the wisdom of your articles. My baby just turned 7 months old and he is a master at independent play. I set up little stations around his large play area and he does the army crawl and inspects them all quite methodically. He decides what to play with and when to move on to the next. Just yesterday I was watching him as he surrounded himself in the sheer curtains of our living room. He started playing peek-a-boo with me using the sheer curtain as we do with sheer scarfs in our mommy and me classes. He made the association with the sheer material of the curtains even though we never played with them. I was in shock with delight and he loved my enthusiasm. I was even able to capture it on video. Then he went right back to his balls and cups station. I wouldnot have known he could even do that if he were not engaging in this independent play times. I find I am watching him do new things every day! I love your tips and love watching my son find his way…even at just 7 months. I will be staying tuned!!! Thank you!!!

  14. Another commenter asked about engaging in play with a child. I’ve struggled with this a lot. I have a 14 month old who I am only home with on weekends. The other five days of the week, she is with my sister in law or husband, both of whom nearly always engage her directly in play and don’t often just allow her to construct her own play. I used to think I gave her a balance on weekends, and she does know how to play independently, but this weekend my mother was visiting from out of town. She commented that I play with my daughter way too much. I’m not sure if I’m actually providing much independent play time, though I had thought I was.

    Can you describe how you know that you’ve found a good balance? I know things were a little out of whack in front of my mother since she was staying with us and it is hard for toddlers to have big changes like someone sort of new and different visiting for three or four days, so my daughter did request more attention and reassurance than normal… But I can’t help but feel that maybe my own perception of how much to engage is off now.

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