Stewardship of Play

Stewardship of Play

Early childhood educators offer and minister opportunities for children’s play. If they are sensitive to the sources of energy, play does more than appear: it flourishes. We can do that well when we work together to create the optimal conditions for growth, which we can do when we share the same understanding of what happens when people play. The Stewardship of Play is a way for leaders to rediscover play—a most fundamental source of human joy.

My long slow learning curve: 17 years of teaching young children before I was willing to teach an introductory curriculum planning course. I was familiar with the normal slew of ECE textbooks, I was leading a preschool, and I was teaching advanced students, but I never thought I understood it. When I don’t understand something, I can’t teach it, so here is what I learned to do.

Program Planning

When the course, called Program Planning, was mine to teach, I wanted to ensure that it was constructivist — the participants in the class needed to build their own understanding of the topic and not simply receive it. I never did learn how to do much from a book, so I avoided requiring a general text. I am uncomfortable lecturing, too; listeners are passive—not the way I would want to be treated. I did have good stuff to offer, especially the brazen joy of Bev Bos, whom I always loved, so I chose one of her books to give everyone a strong model of a healthy aesthetic. I left to the participants the responsibility for developing their own understandings built cooperatively.

I design a course in two steps. First, list goals and performances that are indicators of attaining those goals, then 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 sequence, with the caveat that the first concept must be something that builds from the participant’s incoming experience. 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 to build it, and we can’t communicate to parents why we are doing things this way. 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, seems easy to understand, but that may be a mistaken assumption. Play is an abstract concept, and it’s important to recognize that concepts can’t be given to others, especially abstract ones that you can’t see or touch. 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; it’s a 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 widely agreed upon concept of dog is an idea that does not actually exist in reality. You can hold a puppy, but you can’t hold the idea of a dog 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 have to 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. We can’t transfer a concept to someone else for the concept is brain connections and the word is only the handle we can talk about.

Play is a handle on another case, but the contents are bizarre. Our basic difficulty in early education is the lack of commonality of what we think is inside the case that has play for a handle.

We can declare we value play and want it for children, but if we are doing this with others, most likely we aren’t talking about the same thing. 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 have to do to use it as a guide for a school. Few child care spaces are creating optimized settings for play to grow, which, as I shall show you, falls into coordinated action when everyone has constructed the fundamental idea.

Play: The 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 was 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 a few minutes what happened in their play. What they did first, next, next, etc., which they then shared in small groups. After sharing I called everyone together, I led a discussion to compile on a whiteboard what we could describe about play. As we progressed through the general course of events, I played the segments of video recordings from the beginning to help them recall the beginning and to see what others had done at that time. After we got the beginning of play described, I showed them the middle. After that was up I showed them the last section which was full of animated, cooperative work, and chatting.

I present now a compilation of what generally resulted from those discussions, using the documents I have kept from an estimated 500 people.

Construction of Play

A. The general course of events:

  1. Action. Germination. 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 play that is observable to others.)
  2. Intention. Seedling. 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. Refinement. True leaves. 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 want to share their observations about what happens with their mates and talk about their own feelings as time progressed. As those comments arose, I placed them to the side of the whiteboard creating list B and list C.

B. Positive Social Forces

Conversations start up in a new way.
People comment on what others are doing.
People laugh.
We get to know others because people are doing something together that is more naturally spontaneous. People come out of their shells.
It’s fun and goofy at times.
This relaxed conviviality spreads to others.
It gets loud.
We are watching what others do. We copy ideas,
Seeing what others are doing is fun.
Other’s actions and comments generate new ideas.
It’s nice to hear positive comments about one’s own work.

Other’s reactions, their contributions, and their variations extend the play longer and make it more interesting and engaging. This positive energy feeds that final Refinement phase of play.

darkC. The Dark Side

I compare my own work with that of others.
I tend to judge what others do as better than what I do.
I really can’t do this very well.
I’m jealous. “I wish I could do that.”
I feel I am being judged.
Now everybody can see my lack of cleverness. I want to hide.


Negative judgments about oneself are easy for many people to make. I silently feel a heightening sensitivity to even implied criticism. . “I am really bad at…. “ “I don’t want to…”  “This is not for me.” “Others don’t seem to like my ideas.” 

Play puts us at the edge of our competence. We haven’t been here before. We are vulnerable. We bring a tendency to hold back and lessen our risk or exposure. We feel a pressure to produce something cool when people are watching us; we feel a pressure to justify self; we want to look good.

Putdowns hurt; so does having others not respond to us, which can quickly lead to passivity or disengagement.

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

Destruction of one’s work by another person is the ultimate horror.

I don’t like being stopped early, before I’m finished, when I’m really getting into it.

Reflective Discussion

  • Play comes alive through the positive social forces. Synergy fuels the fire and gives play the energy that sustains action through difficulties.
  • Play is fragile. Any number of things can dump water on it, and the heat diminishes.
  • Play can fall apart at any time, during phase two or even right at phase one, and never reach phase three. Seedlings are vulnerable to disturbance and can have a high mortality rate.
  • Play consists of being spontaneous, present, and doing new things. Repeating old ways, doing what I did before, isn’t play: it lacks joy.
  • Play may be delicate at first, but under the right conditions it resonates with a strong, determined dynamism, synergy, and creativity, like true leaves bringing energy for growth. Play may be 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 built from several minutes of play with other adults in a college classroom. It can be a limited perspective, an inside-the-player view, that may not apply to observing children.

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 assess the validity of these ideas is to watch a six-minute video recording of children playing. Two adults and four children are present. Three boys. One girl. The material are long tube carpet roll cores, arge coffee cans, yellow tennis balls, and a low sawhorse.

(BTW This was in the North Seattle Laboratory Preschool where I did all my taping and investigation. The adult child ratio was abnormal because this was a class. One of the ideas we were investigating at this time was whether a choice board helped or not. The children could voluntarily move their own clothespin to the symbol of the area they were choosing to play in. We decided this declaration routine made no difference at all.)

You can do this, too, if you want. The task here is to watch the children and compare what they do to the list above: the general sequence, the presence or absence of those positive social forces, and observable indicators of the presence of the dark side.

If you watch this with other people, does this idea apply here?


The same 500 or so people I mentioned above agreed at this point that their proposed, socially-constructed description of the concept of play-as-viewed-from-the-outside indeed has the sequence, becomes energized by the social world, and is subject to dark forces, such as the girl leaving unengaged, having possession of tennis balls. and walking through the center of other’s play. That agreement alters our shared reality. This group, the current group who has done this construction together, has a shared, socially-constructed agreement about the definition of play that has been validated, a bit, by seeing unfold and discussing it. Now we move it to the next level: we address the conditions in the environment that help or hinder the spark and sustainability of play.

Metaphor of the Gardener

Before proceeding it is worth considering agriculture as a metaphor. Most plants grow naturally in their environmental niche. Some plants are grown intentionally in a niche provided by human beings. In either case, the genetic makeup of the seed contains the information needed to flourish that the farmer, gardener, or nursery worker desires to foster in its full expression.

The gardener views the plant from the outside and knows what to provide at each stage of growth: germination, seedling, and true leaves. The gardener does not encourage the seed to germinate, grow roots, or sprout leaves. The gardener works on the outside by attending to the conditions for growth to optimize the chances that the inside genetics come into fruition. The gardener fosters that full expression by ensuring positive forces are optimized and toxins are absent.

Educators, like gardeners, are engaged in environmental management—stewardship—assuming the responsibilities for planning and resources to safeguard the needs of others in an ethic of care. What we have done to define the concept has its purpose in shepherding and safeguarding the conditions that foster play.

Conditions that Foster Play

The children are the players; we are trusted to conduct, supervise, and responsibly manage opportunities for children’s play, so it more than sustains, it flourishes. Stewards of Play have two jobs: (1) to select or provide a healthy environment, the “before the children come” side; (2) to keep things sympathetic and the dark forces at bay, the “during the children’s engagement” side.


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 subject of this discussion about the before/during environment in which they live.

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

Below is a composite of lists that resulted. As you can see, at this point the lingering question of emotional safety has not been adequately addressed. I kept that question on the board as we explored further. The physical safety guides, the physical conditions, became 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 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 pleasant and present; model positive energy; recognize events of cooperation and perseverance.
  4. Recognize initiative: narrate inventiveness, make intrinsically phrased remarks, such as tricky or clever.

First Challenge to Discover What is Missing

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 because it was so provocative.

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 ten minutes until they really get going. Then I walk up to each group in turn with a firm expression on my face and my arms crossed. I stand there, waiting for someone to be talking animatedly, 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 everyone.

“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. I ask them, “Why did that have such an effect?  All I did was ask a teacherly question.”

The answer gradually emerges: I changed the expectations. They were set up with the expectation that when I let groups talk together, 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 possible. All those Positive Social Forces were at work. Energy was going gangbusters. 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. Their play destroyed.

Hello! This happens to children all the time with adult interjections of rules and new don’t’s, immediately destroying the freedom to play. “Wait your turn.” “Be careful.” “Don’t put sand on the slide.” “You need to put the scissors back in the rack.” Thus we have Leadership and Facilitation #5:

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 agreements in a community meeting, immediately or at a scheduled time.

Second Challenge Opens

A missing piece in the emotional safety domain requires another activity. 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 rising in the oven and later finding a swollen mess of spongy dough completely filling it. That never happened again, of course. Thus we have Leadership and Facilitation #6:

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 address emotional safety, not in terms of how children feel (not predictable) but in terms of two guides for own intentions as leaders. We can ensure in our play environments we are purposeful in two ways: establish consistent expectations and value 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 are now agreed upon guides for the Stewardship of Play for all the participants in this experience. This is a socially-constructed shared reality. The guides are real to everyone who participated in building them. They are summarized in the linked PDF.

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

PDF file to reprint, use, adapt (with attribution) Stewardship of Play

A week later we reviewed people’s experiences, first in small groups and then in a large group discussion. Participants consistently reported how they became intentionally 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 the construction of the concept of play.

No blah blah lecture attempted to transfer something into their brain they could regurgitate on a test: they participated in building an understanding together. When they applied that understanding—the general sequence, the social forces feeding it, and adhering to their own clear guides—they became Stewards of Children’s Play.

They also agreed it was a pleasure to be able to have colleagues at work who had had this experience, too. They acted in concert in the same ways with confidence and joy.

In Memoriam

To bev bos and all Stewards of Childhood


Next Clean-up Time