The Ten Commandments of Play-Based Learning

My day-to-day work with young children paired with the here-and-there trainings and consultations I do with other early childhood professionals continue to teach me this: one of the most difficult lines to toe in the complex world of play-based learning is the one that separates “too involved” from “disengaged”.  Scores of us champion the young child’s right to play, but the intricacies of such work are more difficult to articulate. In an effort to articulate how I discern the line, I have created a Ten Commandments-esque list, having just listened to one of my all time favorite episodes of This American Life.  This list captures my guiding principles when it comes to accompanying children through play-based learning.  Despite appearances to the contrary, I do not view this list as exhaustive, and if you have your own to add, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.  I found it challenging to describe distinct practices of accompanying children in play-based experiences because everything is so interrelated, but, distinct-ify I did, and the following list is the result.  Enjoy!

The Ten Commandments of Play-Based Learning

10.  Thou shalt always say YES unless safety or reasonableness are threatened.  Because, you know, a whole tub of glitter right before lunch when there is only one of me present isn’t reasonable, and 4-year-olds using the real, live babies in our program as their pretend baby dolls isn’t safe.  When you create a limit, offer an alternative in the form of a YES, helping children internalize the limit while affirming their intrinsic exploration, creativity, and autonomy.  “We can use glitter after lunch, or tomorrow” and “I can help you find a baby doll to dress, but Desmond has to stay in charge of his body.”  Alternative-less “no’s” shut down curiosity and developing competence faster than ice cream melting on an Iowa summer day, and despite the oft-touted responsibility of adults to “maintaining authority”, these hard-won power struggles undermine all sense of relationship.

9.  Thou shalt never interrupt a child deeply engaged in activity.  Our agenda, imposed on a child already deeply engaged, distracts and sends a message that the child’s internal drive is unimportant. Exceptions can be made, as in the event of mealtimes or time to leave for swim lessons, but care should be taken to respect the process of the child.  Transitions – regardless of how necessary – require leaving one task for another, and often, require children setting aside their efforts in order to accommodate our desires.  Involving children in protecting work across a transition time validates the importance of their efforts.  Photos to document work, special designated “saving spaces” in the room, or quick sketches can provide documentation to support continuity.

8.  Thou shalt respect the zone.  Thanks to marvelous work by Lev Vygotsky, we have a theory known as The Zone of Proximal Development, which in its essence says individuals who are in the zone are learning at their highest level.  On the days when children are in the zone, there is a palpable buzz. Children move from one activity to the next with purpose and intentionality, materials serve their purposes as supports for flexing cognitive muscles, and clusters of children solve problems quickly on the way to the next challenge.  Children who are working in the zone should never be interrupted.  (See commandment #9)

7.  Thou shalt love yourself, your friends, and your space. These are our guiding principles at Abundant Life, and comprise my intervene-o-meter signalling urgent intervention.  If the self-directed, exuberant play of young minds at work doesn’t impinge on care of self, friends, or space, then I can observe before deciding my role in the play.

6.  Thou shalt RESPECT.  The child’s process, the child’s space, the child’s body language, the child’s choice of friends, the child’s anger, the child’s needs, the child’s non-verbal communication.  [side note: I recently heard that 98% of all communication is non-verbal.  How do we foster that when we always require that children “use your words!”??]   Showing respect for each element of a child’s being communicates the very powerful message that their whole body is worthy of respect.

5.  Thou shalt honor thy child’s “No!”  You mean, it’s not all about obedience and conformity?  One of the foundations of early childhood interactions is that giving children a voice over their experience teaches them to have a voice over their experience long-term.  One of the richest grounds for developing this voice is through play-based learning.  Play is a child’s domain, and when I enter, I am a participant, and the child has the opportunity to remain full-of-voice.  If I ask a question that offers “no” as an answer, and I get “no” as an answer, I must operate with “no” as an option.  [another side note: if “no” is not an option, I must refrain from asking a yes/no question]

4.  Thou shalt always ask.  Challenging, especially when coupled with #5. “Would you help us clean up?”  “Would you like help to wipe your nose?” “Would you like to have some peas on your plate?”  Asking a child’s permission before engaging has a two-fold purpose.  On the one hand, preserving autonomy insures that children have practice knowing their bodies, limits, and voices.  The drive for autonomy is so strong, that as human beings, we will do almost anything to resist commands.   On the other, we must model for children the socially appropriate ways to meet our needs.  (See #1)

3.  Thou shalt speak clearly and directly.  Helping children play by offering phrases like, “share your toys” or “be nice” isn’t helpful.  Children need real, concrete language to define their experience.  “Thank you for giving the toy to Simone. That was friendly.”  “It looks like Tekoa would like a turn with the flowers.  One way to solve the problem would be to take turns.  After two minutes, maybe you can give the flowers to Tekoa.  Does that work for you?” (nod to #4)

2.  Thou shalt apologize.  Let’s be honest…when have we succeeded in parenting perfectly?  Show of hands?  Okay, now that we are all being honest,  In those moments when we don’t do exactly what we want to do, we apologize from the truest parts of ourselves, modeling authenticity and integrity.  And then we move on, and look for ways to connect.

1. Thou shalt embrace our inner model.   As Joseph Chilton Pearce says, “What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.”  We work at nurturing ourselves so we can be present for our children – acting in the heated moments out of our reserves, not out of our stress and anxiety.

Did I miss something important?  Leave it for me in the comments!  Happy playing!

Categories: Emotional Development, Open-Ended Play, Respect, Social Development, Wisdom | Tags: , , | 51 Comments

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51 thoughts on “The Ten Commandments of Play-Based Learning

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  5. Sue

    Terrific Katy! I agree w/ all 10 . Here’s one more . As the adult, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Laughter often ensues and makes one more human . Kids love it!

  6. I’m a Montessorian (a “traditional AMI” one at that) and many would say that play-based learning and Montessori are complete opposite. Yet reading through your list, it sounds so much of a typical day with 3-5 year olds in a Montessori classroom, just different language. #9 – Maria Montessori always said protect concentration at all cost – do not interrupt concentration. #8 – Montessorians call it “the prepared environment” so that children can freely choose the materials (toys) to get in their own, individual “zone”. #7 – Do not hurt yourself, others, or the materials. #1 – The Montessori guide (teacher) knows that s/he is the role model for the children at all times: handling of materials, how we treat others (with respect, with love, without harm), how we enjoy life, how we handle all of our emotions. We do a great deal of self-reflection and training of ourselves to work with young children. It is such a gift! Thank you for sharing these “commandments.” What a lovely cross-over of Early Childhood Education! We often focus on our differences, as there are many, but I love coming across the things that bring us together.

    • I too thought, “Sounds like Montessori!”

      The sentiment of practicing and sharing best practices in Early Childhood Education is my cup of tea.
      Thank you for posting.

  7. Donna

    Only suggestion is not to time the sharing. Otherwise it is still adult controlled. Let the child decide when it is time to share and they will do it with ease.

  8. julie k

    Great article! I posted this to my school website.

    As for the “use your words,” I first taught them explicitly and through day to day modeling how to express our feelings, whether positive or negative. For example, as a class we came to a consensus that saying “I feel ____ because/when….” is a good way to communicate, and also helps resolving conflicts. We (teachers) also point out the non-verbal communication while facilitating the conversation, such as saying “how does he/she look?” or “___ looks really uncomfortable. See how he/she is moving away from you?” In combination with these nods to the nonverbals (see what I did there?), I don’t think it’s wrong to encourage children to use their words.

  9. Inspire Learning

    Thank you for taking the time to write this! Its inspiring! Re posting on my ‘Inspire Learning’ fb page. thanks!🙂

  10. Gaie Judson

    What a fantastic post…I’m going to be quoting you! Very wise words, indeed!
    Thanks so much from Stomping in the Mud Play Group!

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  13. Lynne Cropper

    Regarding #4, my mother also taught me to phrase some of my asking in this way:
    “Can you stop (insert inappropriate behavior) by yourself or do you need me to help you?”
    So when my kids were doing something they needed to stop doing, I would say, “Can you stop taking things off the shelves while we are here at the grocery store or do you need me to help you to stop?”
    99% of the time they would opt to stop themselves, and usually they stopped. If they (or I) found that the request was beyond their ability to stop, I would step in and say, “It looks like I need to help you stop.” Then I could help them. My mother worked for years as a therapist in a children’s center for children with mental and emotional issues. This is one technique that they used to help kids feel empowered to behave.

    • That is so awesome. I stumbled upon a version of this with my almost-3-yr-old the other day– she was playing with some Sharpies at the dining table, I told her write on the paper ONLY, and of course it went onto the table… then she made some more lines on the table… I looked at her pointedly, and she went “Humph!” I said, “Do I need to take those away or can you put them aside?” She said, “You need to take them away, Mama.” Was I surprised! But then, I have trouble resisting temptation, too. I was so proud of her for recognizing that she needed my help to do the right thing!

  14. jacqueline Brandwood

    What a brilliant post, a great inspirational for all #ECE Teachers, and parents,,love love love this!!!

  15. CFP

    My 3 year old son has autism and has recently starting speaking. His speech therapist often uses the “use your words” or tries to get him to say “my toy” “im mad” etc b/c his non verval communication is hitting/biting/hair pulling….
    So we use that phrase too. is it “always” ill advised?

    • Hello! It sounds like you are working with a very specific outcome which does make the use of “use your words” a little different. You are actually wanting him to cultivate a strategy he doesn’t have yet. I don’t think it is always ill-advised, but I do think children at all developmental levels benefit from specificity. “Use your words” is very vague – kids (particularly with difficulty verbalizing) need very specific verbal models. For example, if your child is tantruming for a toy, and you are encouraging his verbal request to get that toy, “Ask. Say, ‘My toy’ or ‘my turn'”. Or when he starts to bite, say, “I won’t let you bite. Say, ‘I’m Mad!’ or throw this ball to show me how mad you are.” These very specific verbal models can help. Children with autism also benefit from visual supports, so having a visual cue that means “words” might be more effective than just saying, “Use your words.” You can say, “Ask.” while pointing to a picture of a child talking.

  16. Hi Emily- loved your post. you might be interested in looking at my blog where I’ve done a couple of posts recently about natural play. i shall follow you! see

  17. Emily, I just love this. What a beautiful post!

  18. Emily, this is so insightful and eloquent – I’ve shared it everywhere I can think of where early childhood professionals will see it!!🙂 But I must say my personal favorite line was your side note about telling little guys to “use their words.” I wish I had a buck for every time I’ve heard that come out of a caregiver’s or teacher’s mouth. I’ve often thought it was a rather cruel thing to say to a toddler who clearly didn’t HAVE the words. But I hadn’t thought about your point that communication is not all about words. I’ve seen adults say the phrase like it’s some kind of magic formula that will solve the conflict, but it doesn’t often work that way, and the child ends up as frustrated (or more) as before.
    All that to say, I love the way you think, Emily – please keep sharing those thoughts!!

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  23. This awesome! Play based learning is exactly what I am trying to do with my young son as well as my 1st grader daughter at home. So glad I discovered this site.

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  25. paulabuck

    This is fantastic. I am so glad to have stumbled upon your blog. I love the idea that if you can’t respect the “No,” don’t ask the yes/no question! (Along with its sister question-that-isn’t-a-question, “yadda, yadda, yadda, ok?”)
    Thank you do much for articulating these ideas of respect, nurturing, and getting out of kids’ way (when it is safe and appropriate to do so, of course… :0) ).

  26. Esther

    I love this so much! Thanks!!!!

  27. This is a simply wonderful post. I am bookmarking it!

  28. I just discovered your page and I LOVE, LOVE this article. It’s so exciting to me when I run across someone who can so clearly articulate my beliefs. (You do it way better than I ever have!) I work in the nanny industry and often am working to define quality childcare. This is going to be one of my go-to articles.

  29. I love these and think that your list is thorough and appropriate! As you note in #3 it is important to honor the “no.” To abide by rule #3 and rule #4, while recognizing the reality of a child who has not yet mastered verbal expressive language (see #6, side note) I find that multiple choice questions are often more successful than the example questions you’ve provided.

    Rather than “Would you like peas on your plate?” I might say, “Would you like to taste a pea from my plate, or shall I put some on your plate?” Rather than, “Would you help clean up?” I might ask, “Would you like to put the blocks in the bin or stack them on the shelf?”

    I agree that it is important to honor a response of “no”. However, I find that, when given 1 choice, the child’s response is very often, “no”. When given alternatives, children often respond by either choosing 1 of the options offered, or suggesting a 3rd appropriate compromise.

    • Hi Katie,

      Thank you so much for your thoughts! I think there is a difference between true choice and the illusion of choice. When I say, “Do you want to clean up now or later?” I’m giving the child autonomy over the when but not the whether of the activity. At times, that is a perfectly appropriate method for parents and care providers to use, but I think we need to be clear that we are not giving totally free choice, and thus, limiting a child’s voice over the situation.

      Thank you so much for your thoughts!

      • I definitely agree with you! However, I’m not sure I was completely clear above. I feel offering choices makes it clear that there is room for compromise, and encourages children to use their voice. As a parent, my child’s no is respected and she’s quite comfortable using it (although she’s pre-verbal, she’s figured it out!). As a teacher, I find that many students have not had the “no” respected and hear a question as a command. When given choices, they realize there is an opportunity for compromise and discussion and have a greater opportunity to express their will.
        Again, completely agree with your post and love it! It just really got me thinking about my experiences with “asking children”. Thanks for your thought-provoking list!

      • Anything that encourages compromising, negotiating, and otherwise not-black-and-white ways of helping children solve problems and disagreements is a fantastic plan in my way of thinking!! It sounds like you are encouraging all kinds of lifelong learning types of skills. Yeah…I don’t think kids need verbal skills before they find their “no” — which is a good thing!!🙂 I like your interpretation of questions being perceived as commands…I *do* think that many of our questions are not genuine questions…that when I ask, “Would you like peas on your plate?” I really only offer the space only making room for a yes answer…that a “no” would be followed up with a “well, we have to have peas…” and kids get used to that type of interaction from adults. Choice that leaves room for compromise is helpful in allowing children to find their voice. I agree 100%. Thank you for your thoughtful comments!!🙂

      • I think the difference is in whether both answers are aceptable to me (the adult), who is working hard to keep the “commandments” in mind– that is, the choice I am giving the child truly IS a choice-but either answer is acceptable. (It’s time to get ready to go outside.. do you want your shoes or your coat first?” rather than “do you want to get your coat on?”)

        I have often heard teachers try to impose their will by saying “THAT’s your choice right now..” as if the child has somehow lost the privilege of participating in the interaction any more. There is just aboiut always a way to include choice to save the child’s dignity.

    • Kathy Stockbridge

      I completely agree with your modifications to the list. I love the list, but would have suggested the same small changes.

    • JECE

      I completely agree with Katie on this one. While the rest of the list is AMAZING and I plan on sharing it with the ECEs in training that I work with, there are times when we all have to do something and can/should not say no. To use your example of “would you like to help me wipe your nose?”, I am not about to let a child walk away and not have his nose wiped if he chooses to say no. I will instead have to reply with a kind yet firm “well it needs to be done so that others don’t get your cold. If you don’t want to help than I will have to do it for you”.

      • Hi All, I’m on the same page. My biggest point with the idea of asking children is that we often ask when we aren’t actually offering a choice. Don’t ask if there’s not a choice, and give choice as often as possible. Clearly, there are some instances that allow for choice and others that don’t…depending on context, etc. Parenting and educating is a fine balance between allowing for choice and autonomy and providing firm and predicable limits. (Sometimes mutually exclusive, sometimes not.) Anyway, thanks, all, for your feedback! Warmly, Emily

  30. Nadia Duran

    This is wonderful, and such and inspiration. Especially no. 1. I have an 11 week old boy, and I recently started trying to eat better and exercise. I told my husband, I would like to be the person I would like our son to become. I think I want to print this out.🙂

    • So nice to hear from you, Nadia! The hard part comes when we expect too much out of ourselves…our children learn from our imperfections as well as our modeling. I can totally relate to the eating well and exercising!!🙂 Best to you!

  31. B

    Love this!

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