Last week, a colleague of mine asked, "What does a child-led, play based program look like for infants and toddlers?" For many, it is really easy to see how to follow a child's lead with older children. It is easy when children can communicate with you, when they can tell you what they are doing or want to do, but how to do you embrace a child-led, play philosophy with our youngest learners?
As a home based childcare program with mixed ages, I have the wonderful opportunity of learning, growing, and playing with children of all ages. In our program we support a play based program for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, school aged children, pre-teens, teenagers, and sometimes even adults! Regardless of age, supporting play boils down to relationships and trusting the player.
For infants, this means providing a lot of materials that support child development and what we know about children at this age and stage of development. For infants it means getting rid of the "containers" and allowing them the ability to trust their bodies. Placing them on the floor or ground where they can work on building their gross motor skills is crucial. Additionally, you will want to make sure to have an adequate amount of materials readily available at their level.
It also means that you need to be a close, careful observer. Before young children verbally communicate, you can read body language. Facial expressions are crucial to understanding what a child may want/need. Children generally will develop an understanding of language (receptive language) prior to expressive language. Having a strong relationship with the child and watching and listening to their cues will assist you in understanding what the child wants/needs.
Young children need to have a variety of materials available to do the things that young children do.
They need things to fill,
things to dump,
things to climb,
things to hit,
things to grab,
things to push,
things to pull,
things to bite,
places to be alone,
places to be next to each other.
Young children need you to support their play, but not interfere with it. Sometimes you will hear this referred to as an invisible support. This means that you pay attention. You look to see what additional materials may be needed.... If you all of a sudden have an influx of infants and toddlers, you may need more of the same materials as those children are solitary players or parallel players. It also means that you may need to step in to help children problem solve. However, keep in mind that if you really trust children, you will see that they generally find a way to work things out. I try not to interfere unless I am concerned about harm to self, others, or materials. (This does not mean that I do not sometimes play with children. I wait for the child to invite me into the play, and I follow their lead.)
The children in this photo spent quite a bit of time playing independently in the same space. There was the "classic" give and take of materials. I often see it as part of the game, they take turns giving and taking things from each other. I've seen a lot of adults jump in when they see a young child take something from another, wanting the child to "give it back." Obviously if the children need help facilitating this I am all for jumping in to help them express what they want/need. However, 9 times out of 10, I have observed that this give and take is merely part of the game. It is part of the interaction and learning of how to play and be together. (You may notice that when an adult does interject and ask a child to give something back, often times, no one actually wants the item anymore.)
You may have noticed the majority of photos in this post are of a young child playing with a receiving blanket. She spent quite a bit of time lifting the blanket, lowering it, straightening it out, and lifting it again. At first glance, it may have looked like peek-a-boo. However, instead of intruding on the play and making the assumption that she wanted to play peek-a-boo, I sat back and observed. She did not look over to me at any time as she played. She did not have a visible change in facial expression when the blanket was lowered. I trusted that she knew what she needed to do. I watched quietly and took some photos. Was she exploring the air movement when the blanket moved? Was it about the difference in light? Was she trying to set the blanket just right? Was it about up and down? Could it have been something else??? There are so many things she might have been up to, but really it was her play, she owns that... It may have just been fun... and that's okay too! We will never know what was really going on, but I know for sure that it wasn't peek-a-boo. Now, if I had intruded, it would no longer have been play. I'm sure she would have smiled and followed my lead, but it would not have been what she was really trying to do.