The Adult Role in Free Play

September 8, 2011

Once again, I’m inspired to post an article from the Environments’ archives. This excerpt, from the original article “You are the Infant/Toddler Environment,” explores the role of the adult in free play. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

“Me do it!” is a common call of toddlers. They are expressing their increasing desire for independence as well as an interest in doing more self-directed exploration. At this stage of development, it is very important for children to make choices about not only what they are playing with, but also how they are playing with it. Essential thinking skills are used as children construct their own learning through open-ended experimentation.

Toddlers move from one thing to another very quickly, so be sure to have a full variety of materials available for child choice. A one-year-old may pick something up, do something with it, then put it down – only to return again to repeat the process. This self- imposed repetition is a core practice toddlers use to learn about the nature of things in their world.

Adult-Child Interactions
Some of children’s most important understandings are learned on somebody’s lap! While we all know that children learn through their free exploratory play, we also know that the process of interacting with an adult is essential to brain development. The closeness of sharing a manipulative or a puzzle is fundamental to stimulating and developing the pathways of the brain that produce cognitive and social-linguistic knowledge. By demonstrating enthusiasm for a child’s exploration and thinking, and by asking just the right question or following a child’s lead, adults empower a child’s
natural learning. Through your use of language to illustrate the collective activity, children gain receptive (and some expressive!) vocabulary words that describe actions and things.

Open-Ended Questions
What do you say when you introduce a new toy to a child? Ask a divergent (open-ended) question. These are questions that do not have a right or wrong answer and which invite children to explore in their own way and with their own timing. An open-ended question sets the stage for both you and the child to make discoveries. The child will discover what the toy does and what she can do with it, and you find out by observation and further questioning about the child’s developmental level.
      Some Questions to Ask
• What can you do with this toy?
• What can you do to make this toy work?
• Can you try it another way?
• Can you do it faster?
• Can you make it move (go)?
• Can you put something inside?

Open-ended questions should be used with respect for children – to engage them as partners in exploration and discussion. The purpose of the questions is to promote critical thinking – not to quiz children.


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