Stewardship of Play

Stewardship of Play

Early childhood educators are entrusted with conducting, supervising, and responsibly managing opportunities for children’s play and being sensitive to its sources of energy, so it more than sustains, it flourishes. Let’s help them actually do it.

My long slow learning curve. I taught children for 17 years before I was willing to take on the job of teaching the introductory curriculum planning course at our college, because I didn’t understand what I was doing. Of course, I was familiar with the normal slew of ECE textbooks, and I was leading a preschool and enabling advanced students to try their hand at planning, but I never thought I understood it. When I don’t understand something, I can’t teach it. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the traditional nursery school stuff that I saw our students taught.

Program Planning

When the course was mine to teach, I wanted to ensure that it was constructivist — the participants in the class ought to build their own understanding of the topic and not simply receive it. I never did learn anything from a text book, so no text. I really can’t lecture, so none of that either. I could offer Bev Bos, so I did. I wanted them to experience a model of a healthy aesthetic. The rest of the understandings about curriculum they would have to build.

I think I know how to design a college course. First, list goals, then list performances that are indicators of attaining those goals to generate assignments, and finally order them on Bloom’s Taxonomy with the highest one last. Second, list out the major concepts in the course and sequence them in a logical order for the session plan, with the caveat that the first concept must be something that builds from the participant’s incoming experience. Running that procedure on my new course, Program Planning, it became immediately clear that the first topic for the first session had to be the concept of play.

Beginning With Play

Everything builds from play. If we do not have a common understanding of what play is, we can’t work together well, and we can’t communicate with parents why we are doing what we do. The general common discourses we hear and read don’t seem to help people create optimal opportunities for play. Work is different than play. I want my child to learn not just play. I don’t see any learning going on here. They’re just playing. Lots and lots of talk about play, with pervasive misunderstanding and miscommunication.

For most people, the concept of play, the basic fundamental, is mush. Play is an abstract concept, and it’s important to recognize that concepts can’t be given to others. Concepts are mental constructs; one builds them from experience. One learns any concept by having experiences that seem similar and attaching a word to the cluster of the mental representations of those experiences. Take dog, for example. Dog is a pretty clear concept. If you look up the word dog,  you’ll find a reasonable definition one can operate from: “a highly variable domesticated canine.” If you look up the word play, you get a mess. My English dictionary fills a full page and a half of tiny print with variants on how that word is used.

The reasonably understood concept of dog doesn’t exist on a page of print. You can’t hold it or point to it. Dog is simply a word we give to the encounters we have had in our lives with those canines we call dogs. Because everyone’s experiences are different, one person’s mind representations must be different than another person’s mind representations. Imagine you are a child and an animal walks by on a leash, “That’s a dog, honey.” “Don’t pet that dog.” “I know it looks like a big rat, but it is a dog, dear.” A concept is a suitcase full of thousands of experiences of “dog-ness.” We hold the handle, the word we use to carry it. In this case the handle of the suitcase says “Dog.”

I hope you’re bearing with me, for this is the important part. We can’t transfer a concept to someone else for the experiences aren’t the concept; the word is a handle. “Play” is a handle for a different suitcase, but it’s crazy inside. Our trouble is the lack of commonality of experience for the suitcase that has play for a handle.

We can say we value play and want to promote opportunities for it, but most likely we aren’t talking about the same thing. I think that is one reason we stay confused in the structure of our programs and the way we act. I just picked up a curriculum book from my shelf here and looked through it. Nowhere does it even hint at what I know to be the essential deep and durable understandings about the stewardship of play and the guidance it gives us about what we educators do in a school. Few of the educators I see in child care spaces are creating optimized settings for play to grow, which, as I shall show you, is actually easy and simple to do.

Play: a Simple, Fundamental Idea

We have, in play, the foundation of human synergy and creativity. We know it from the inside when we are in it. Experiencing play is simultaneously fun and spiritual. Facilitating the existence of play in others is something entirely different. For someone on the outside, it is difficult to see and, unless we share a common concept to start with, difficult to comprehend how to help it grow.



Over the years of exploring the teaching of this subject I have discovered that just as children construct their play from their here-and-now, influenced by the social dynamics of their playmates, learning teachers learn best by constructing their understanding of play themselves. Once a construction of play is in place, we can discover the touch points of giving it means and opportunity.

Co-construction of the Concept of Play

clever1The first day of the Program Planning class I invited participants to begin an investigation of the concept of play by playing. I offered them tubs of my large set of Cleversticks (any open-ended material can work, but this is the best one I have found for adults) and invited them to play for about 12 minutes. That’s it. Simply play. Go.

As they played, I video taped as many people as I could right at the very beginning — the first two minutes of play. Some grabbed a bunch out of the basket, some grabbed two and stuck them together, some watched, etc. About 3 minutes later I again taped the same people. At about 8 minutes in I taped again, but this time focused on the social dynamics in various groups. When the timer rang, they cleaned up, and I prepared my video for playback.

I invited them to write for 2 or 3 minutes what happened in their play. What did they do first, next, next, etc.; which they then shared in small groups. Then together, on a huge whiteboard, I led a discussion of what we could describe about play. As we progressed through the general course of events, I played the segments of recording to them to recall the experience and see what others were doing. I present a compilation of what always resulted from that discussion.

Construction of Play

A. The general course of events:

  1. Action. First one gets into it. You pick up the materials. Observe. Grab a pile of pieces. Click pieces together until some idea forms. (After some discussion it becomes apparent that we had to make a distinction when play actually starts. Some people said that when they are thinking and watching they are playing. Others disagreed. Because we were working on a definition of play that we could apply to watching others, we agreed that play doesn’t start until an action starts. Thinking is not a part of observable play.)
  2. Intention. Then a plan, a thought, or intention emerges that focuses action: a decision to make something happen. Could be collecting the blue ones or attaching as many sticks as one can to a ring, make a pair of eyeglasses, necklace, or something large, etc.
  3. Adapt and Refine. Gradually a new phase emerges. In implementing an intention we run into problems. The reality of the materials at hand creates a series of difficulties — like how to make it not fall over, or how to get it to actually look like a horse, etc. What results in early tries doesn’t match the early vision. One can creatively problem-solve to make it better, adapt the intention to the constraints, or change the idea. If the problems are solved and conditions are right, the construction gradually involves more people and becomes embellished, elaborated upon, and refined.

Always people raise observations about what happens with others and what they are thinking others are thinking of their own work. When those arise, I place them on two other lists.

energyB. Positive Social Forces

Conversations commence. People comment on what others are doing. Laughter. Socializing gab establishes friendships. They share thoughts and experiences and get to know others because defenses are down and one is more naturally spontaneous. People come out of their shells in this new relaxed space. It’s fun and goofy at times. Joking. Spreads to others. Busy. Talkative. Interactive. It gets loud.

Watching what others do. Copying ideas, Looking at what others do is fun. Other’s actions and comments received from them generate ideas.

Hearing positive comments about one’s work.

Sharing. Combining. Cooperation. Other’s reactions, their contributions, and their variations extend the play longer and make it more interesting and engaging. This positive energy feeds that Adapt and Refine phase of play.

darkC. The Dark Side

People compare their own work with that of others and often judge what others do as better and their own negatively. Jealousy. One’s apparent ability to be clever is revealed for the world to see. “Her’s is better than mine.” “I wish I could do that.”

Negative judgments about oneself are easy for many people to make heightening sensitivity to even implied criticism. . “I am really bad at…. “ “I don’t want to…”  “This is not for me.” “She doesn’t like my idea.” 

One plays at the edge of one’s competence in a state of vulnerability. People bring a tendency to avoid risk or exposure. Pressure to produce. Pressure to justify self and try to look good.

Putdowns and ridicule hurt; so does having others not respond. Fear can lead to passivity or disengagement.

Certain resources become important to obtain in order to carry out one’s intention. Materials are hoarded, grabbed, competed for.

Destruction of one’s work by another person.

Being told what to do.

Being stopped too soon.

Reflective Discussion

  • The life of play is maintained by positive social forces. Synergy fuels the fire and gives play the energy that sustains it through difficulties.
  • Play is fragile: a dump of water and the heat is gone.
  • Play can fall apart at any time, during phase two, or even right at phase one and never reach phase three.
  • Play consists of being spontaneous, present, and doing new things. Repeating old ways, isn’t play, because it lacks joy.
  • Play may be delicate in the beginning, but under the right conditions it offers strong, determined dynamism, synergy, and creativity. It offers the best that humans can be.

Application Test

Our construction of play has three components: (A)  general course of events, (B) the positive social forces, and (C) the dark side. At this point it remains an adult-constructed view build from twelve or so minutes of play with other adults in a college classroom, and it is an inside-the-player view.

That is a step, an essential step, on the way to understanding the Stewardship of Play, as this page is titled. Stewardship necessitates an outside-the-player view.  Life happens; children do their childhood; sometimes they are engaged in play and sometimes not. Our construction of the concept of play has utility only if we can use it as we watch children and reflect on our ability to care for it.

Can our construction of play be used to define the existence of play when we are the observers and not the players?

A way to check is to watch together a six-minute video recording of children playing. Two adults present. Four children. Three boys. One girl. Long tube cores from carpet rolls. Large coffee cans. Tennis balls. A low sawhorse.

(This is the North Seattle Laboratory Preschool where I did all that taping and investigation. Always lots of students. One of the ideas we were investigating at this time was the importance of planning. We made a choice board where children voluntarily moved their own clothespin to the symbol of the area they wanted to move into. We decided marking a choice made no difference.)

The application task here is to watch the children do what they do and compare it to the list above: the general sequence, the positive social forces, and the dark side. I invite you to have a discussion with someone else about the construction of play list and decide if each item applies, items need changing or deletion, or items need to be added. It is kind of a validity test.


There you have it. A working, socially-constructed description of the concept of play as viewed from the outside. It has a general sequence that is energized by the social context and subject to destruction at any time. To take our next step we switch from this construction of play to the environment in which this construction of play takes place.

Conditions that Foster Play

The Stewardship of Play is our part in this matter. The children are the players; we are on the outside, as stewards, entrusted with conducting, supervising, and responsibly managing opportunities for children’s play and being sensitive of its sources of energy, so it more than sustains, it flourishes. Stewards do two things. (1) Stewards select or provide the environment in which our construction of play can flourish. (2) Stewards also provide some “somethings” as play happens — at this point an undefinable kind of facilitation, leadership or good vibe — to keep play flourishing and the dark forces at bay.



What are the environmental components that enhance the emergence and continuation of play?

RoxaboxenI can recall my most treasured play experiences as a child, and I have student’s do this, too. The provocation I use is reading them Roxaboxen, a book that Bev Bos introduced me to, and inviting them share their best childhood play memories. Then we list what those settings provided that enabled that play to be so memorable. Consistently and uniformly, each class creates the same set.

  1. long stretches of time,
  2. friends with different abilities and experiences,
  3. no cleanup at the end, instead, the play space continues day after day, with various additions,
  4. found materials, usually natural, few if any toys,
  5. no adults.

With that start, the participants began a lengthy discussion of those environmental components. One comment often occurred: participants need emotional safety, the idea that people need to feel comfortable to play or empowered to play. It’s an important problem, but it can’t be included on the list, because the players aren’t the environment.

We’ve erased the players, so where does emotional safety lie?

I kept those words as a question on the board as we worked further.

Below is the incomplete list that usually resulted. As you can see, at this point emotional safety has not been adequately addressed. The physical conditions are strong and clear.

Physical Conditions

Physical Safety: the environment is free from dangers

Space: sufficient space is available that is open and adaptable so it can be altered as play develops

Time: long enough periods of time each day, as well as opportunities to extend work across days

Materials: in quantity, offering hands on experience, made accessible and visible, in variety, open-ended to be used in many ways, and aesthetic

Physical Well-being: spaces are warm and lighted and furniture is of a comfortable size for children who are well fed and well rested

Leadership and Facilitation

  1. Offer freedom.
  2. Observe without impinging on what is happening, being present with little, if any, involvement, documenting by writing down what children say, taking photographs and video of significant developments to reshow at a group meeting time.
  3. Be enthusiastic; model positive energy; recognize events of cooperation and perseverance.
  4. Recognize initiative: narrate inventiveness, make intrinsically phrased remarks, such as tricky or clever.

Further Provocation 1

bevTo get the emotional safety missing pieces added, we shift to a different activity. I provide a handout of Quotations From Bev Bos, Before the Basics, the textbook I used.

Here is a page of quotations from Bev Bos for you to discuss in your groups. One person reads the quote aloud, and then the group talks about what comes to mind. When ready, you can do the same with the next.

1. This year we had much more rain than usual. Everyone, frankly, was very tired of it. In the middle of sharing one day, I said, “Come on! Let’s go out and enjoy the weather!” It was pouring. We ran on the bicycle trail, lifting our heads up and sticking out our tongues to catch the rain. We laughed; we touched each other’s wet arms and faces. We talked 5. the dark clouds, and then we ran back in. The joy, the sense of play and friendship as we talked was overwhelming. Months later, children would say, “Do you remember when we ran in the rain?” When we talk of the best things we have done, very often a child will say, “The best day was when we ran in the rain.”

2. Children were not born to sit still. When I visit schools and I don’t hear children asking questions, arguing, even interrupting, I suspect that there’s little learning going on.

3. Children were not born to stand in line. Since most adults I know don’t like to stand in line, we must understand if we think about it how awful standing in line is for young children—all that energy and curiosity simply brought to a halt. Of course, its not. Standing in line is simply an invitation to pinching, poking, shoving, stepping on toes. In the many years I’ve taught young children, I’ve rarely found it necessary to line them up for anything. We can sing songs, tell stories, have conversations in during the time wasted in lining up.

4. As adults, we must first remember that we are in charge of the settings in which are children develop and discover; we create and control those settings for better or for worse. Sometimes, unfortunately, it is for the worse. Why that should be is very mysterious. Our very desire to do the best for our children makes us nervous. Although we have all been children, we forget what being a child was like. We begin to see children as objects, forgetting that we need to communicate with them or mistrusting our ability to communicate with them. In so doing, we lead them into mistrusting their own sense of what is good for them.

5. There is yet another way in which our nervous concern for our children leads to less-than-effective learning. Learning is a human activity. It needs to be filled with laughter, sometimes with tears, with infinite, painstaking effort; but it must never be mechanical. Child-rearing and education are a serious business. That doesn’t mean the have to be grim businesses. Rather the contrary. We need to develop a sense of joy in working with young children exactly in proportion to our sense of how important their learning is to us.

I inserted this activity to get people relaxed and playful. As you can imagine, a wave of relief washed over them after all that hard thinking stuff. We get talk with our friends! They feel the freedom. Animated conversations start. I watch and listen for about five minutes. Then I stand by each group with a firm expression and my arms crossed waiting for someone to be talking, and I interrupt. I ask rather sternly, “Are you on #5 yet?” Without waiting for an answer, I walk off. Around the classroom I go doing the same to each group. Then I stop the class.

“I just did something to each of the groups. Would you share in your groups what went through your mind when I said, ‘Are you on #5 yet?'” We hear outrage in some, a feeling of being a bad student in others, and almost unanimous discomfort it caused. I ask them, “Why did that have that effect? I just asked a simple teacherly question.”

The answer: I changed the expectations. They were set up assuming that they had freedom to do whatever they wanted. In a sense, they were playing as in our construction of play above. They had the freedom to talk about whatever they wanted, even off task talk was accepted, so all those Positive Social Forces were at work. Energy was going gangbusters. Then abruptly I changed the rules. They were suddenly not free to follow their flow. They were forced, by my power and privilege, to change their behavior to conform to different expectations. Play destroyed.

Hello! People do this to children all the time with their interjections of new rules and new don’t’s, which immediately destroy play. “Wait your turn.” “Be careful.” “Don’t put sand on the slide.” “You need to put the scissors back in the rack.” Ugh.

Leadership and Facilitation (continued)

5. Maintain clear, consistent boundaries and expectations, established beforehand. If new problems arise that modify those expectations, honor the children’s input and negotiate new boundaries and expectations in a community meeting.

Further Provocation 2

One more missing piece requires another activity. In this one I ask people to list one or two things they do really well, difficult things that took time to learn. These are abilities that other’s recognize and value in you.

Once those are listed, I ask people to pick one and write for one minute what it was like in the very beginning of trying to learn that ability. Then they share with each other their stories, a blatant brag time.

After several minutes, I call the groups together and ask them to define self-confidence. The discussion varies, but usually we have on the board something like the dictionary definitions: (1.) Our self-assurance in trusting our abilities, capacities and judgements; (2.) The belief that we can meet the demands of an upcoming task. Then the main provocation.

Where does self-confidence come from? How does one become self-confident in some endeavor or some situation?

This discussion leads eventually to the conclusion, based upon people’s own experience in areas of action where they are self confident, that self-confidence comes from making mistakes and correcting them. The more mistakes you make and correct, the more confident you become. I am confident in my ability to bake bread, because I have made every possible mistake, including forgetting about it and finding a swollen mess completely filling my oven.

Leadership and Facilitation (continued)

6. Trust children to fix their own mistakes.

Either alone or with the help of others, children can find new solutions, rectify their problems, or right a wrong. When they get to do it themselves, without adult interference, they develop confidence in themselves, confidence in others, and confidence in the community.

With #5 and #6 we have addressed emotional safety, not in terms of the characteristics of the child but in terms of two guides for us. We can ensure in our play environments we are purposeful in establishing consistent expectations and intentional in valuing the self-correction of mistakes.

Guides for the Stewardship of Play

Taken together, the shared concept of play and the two parts of the conditions for play have become established guides for the Stewardship of Play for all the participants in this experience.

Construction of Play + Conditions that Foster Play = Stewardship of Play

Stewardship of Play PDF

When we reviewed these experiences in the subsequent class session, students consistently reported how they immediately became more proactive in setting an environment that allowed children to play. They made sure the materials they offered met the criteria they developed. They allowed more time, letting play periods go on longer. They found ways to safeguard important play items so they could continue from one day to the next. They hung back and watched how the children found their own solutions. Their stories were proof that young children were immediately playing better as a result of our co-constructions.

No concepts were transferred into their brain: they built it. By seeing the general sequence, the social forces feeding it, and adhering to their own clear guides, they became Stewards of Children’s Play.

They also reported what a pleasure it was to teach with others who had had this experience. They were confident that they were on the same page.

In Memoriam

To bev bos and all Stewards of Childhood


Next Clean-up Time