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To intervene or not to intervene, that is the question

To intervene or not to intervene, that is the question

A few weeks ago on a beautiful afternoon, some of the children were playing outside in the garden. A small group were playing with Mobilo in the sandpit, four girls were lying  under a canopy enjoying the sun and chatting together and a group of boys were in the mud pit. All were engaged and focused on their endeavours. 

A colleague expressed her concern that we should be doing something, somehow get involved with the children and their play. I felt this was a very interesting point. To intervene or not to intervene, this to me, was the question. I looked at the play activities and thought about that question - the practitioner felt not getting involved was something to feel guilty about, that she should be doing something with the children, that she should intervene in their play. 

I observed that all of the children were deeply involved in what they were doing. The group in the sandpit were making various constructions, occasionally talking to each other but mostly fixated on their models. The girls seemed calm and content as they lay in the shade taking to each other often laughing, enjoying their time together. The boys in the mud pit were discussing the benefits to their play of adding more water to the mud. 

Was our input actually required or wanted? I gave my opinion that the children were all engaged in various activities and it seemed to me, that our presence was not at all necessary, quite the opposite in fact. I felt any intervention on our part would ruin the flow of all the play and what could we add? The children were very aware that we were present and interested in them and what they were doing. The children were relaxed in their play feeling safe and secure, any involvement from us, I felt, would be an interference. 


When children are playing it is sometimes tempting to join in thinking we are enhancing their play experience. This can be the case, but also, adults can spoil play for children because, we are adults and don't really know how to play anymore. There will, of course, be occasions when the children do want us to join in and fantastic play opportunity will be created, so observing the play, how the children are interacting with each other, deciding if the play is being enhanced or not is crucial. 

A few months ago, I was observing interaction between the children and practitioners. It was a cold, wet, chilly day and two children were playing with a muddy puddle. One child was four and the other child was two and a half. They started by adding more water to the puddle and the older child (child B) found a stick which became a spoon and the puddle became soil soup. After a few minutes of lovely imaginative play, child B wanted to move the play on to a campfire idea. The younger child left the play and it petered out. 

I wondered whether the younger child had any experience of a campfire, what it is, what it looks like? He had just turned two years old, had he seen a campfire in his short life? It is at this point in the play, that I feel adult intervention would have been helpful and could have extended the play. Whilst it is true that sometimes play comes to a natural end and adult involvement can destroy play, in this situation, the possibility is that it could enhance the play, allowing the play to be nurtured.

Through their research of adult intervention in play, Waters and Maynard (2010) explain that adults interacting alongside children as they experience activities and the environment can draw their attention to elements that interest them, (the campfire) and offer themselves as “partner (more knowledgeable or otherwise) in the experience” (p480) They continue, that if practitioners respond to the interests of the child (in this instance the making of the soil soup and the idea of creating a campfire) in a manner that supports and understands the child, “there is potential for rich, meaningful interaction to take place” (p480)

Joining in with children’s play, taking cues from the children in order to understand what they are playing and the purposes of the play, are the ways that the children can be supported in their play to extend their learning. children learn from others in play – their peers and a knowledgeable, skilled and sensitive adult who is interested and plays with them. 


Your role is to support and extend learning through skilful open-ended questioning, authentic conversational exchanges and referring children to one another to find solutions to problems. Recently, on a rather wet morning, Child H was playing in the very muddy mud pit. Rain had caused a large puddle in the pit and he was playing with a boat. Child A decided he wanted to jump into this spectacular puddle. “No!” Said Child H, “I'm playing with the boat and you'll get me all wet and muddy!” Child A “ but I want to splash”. This continued with no agreement. I explained to the children that Child A wanted to jump in the puddle but Child H didn't want him to as he was playing and would get wet, so I asked all of the children, what could be done. Child A said “jump in another puddle!” 

The timing of these interventions is crucial so that they neither intrude upon nor frustrate or terminate the play. Knowledge and understanding of theory is, I believe, a fantastic way to expand and develop your practice and here I think it may be useful to consider the work of Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner.  Your role is to enable children to move into new areas of understanding and development Vygotsky called this the Zone of proximal development -  the distance between a child's actual development and their potential. This potential, according to Vygotsky, can only be achieved if the child and the environment are guided by the adult. Play provides a zone where children are able to set their own challenges. Vygotsky felt learning was a very social activity and that learning and thinking could be progressed through interaction with supportive and interested others such as parents or teachers - that learning is most effective when adults support children's learning that they act as a scaffold. Bruner developed these ideas of scaffolding by suggesting that children start by being dependent on adult support for their learning but with this support they gain knowledge and skills and become more independent and less reliant on the adult. 

The play in my first example was undirected play - play without adult supervision or intervention. It is particularly important, because it allows children to learn how to work together, take turns, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and advocate for themselves. Child driven play allows children the opportunity to practice their own decision-making skills; they can also move at their own pace and pursue their own passions and interests. Play that is too controlled by adults can cause children to acquiesce to adult rules and interests - our ideas of what constitutes play which can mean children lose the sense of play, particularly the development of creativity, leadership, and group skills. We can stop the feel of the freedom of play, suddenly we are imposing rules which the children may fail. 

Understanding play, what is involved in play, I feel is crucial in deciding whether to intervene or not to intervene. The types of play described in my examples were categorised by Mildred Parten (1902 -1970) in the late 1920s at the Institute of Child Development in Minnesota - associative play and cooperative play; associative play - children play with each other, but there is no particular goal or organization to their play. Cooperative play -  the final, and most sophisticated, form of play, children cooperate with others to create play situations, with each child in the group playing an assigned role. 

Hopefully, these examples have illustrated that the extent to which you can interact with children during their free play will vary depending on the circumstances. Intervening too soon could prevent children from making mistakes and being able to learn from these. In some play situations the adult should be a presence but not a participant in the play, in other situations participation can enhance and extend play. Having knowledge of the individual children involved is fundamental so you can gauge the timing of any intervention - the key is not to intrude upon the play, frustrating the children, potentially ending the play. The skill is knowing when and how to become part of the action. This takes practice. You will make mistakes, get involved too soon or not get involved at all and so you will learn from these experiences. 

I think it's important to say, that the relationships you are able to develop with the children in the setting will give them the confidence to be autonomous in their play, be confident playing with peers, decide how to play, what will happen etc, and to follow their own interests. The children on that sunny afternoon in my first example demonstrated that the environment created in that setting enabled them to feel psychologically safe and secure. 

In some situations, it may be that you will be invited to join the play by the children - a few weeks ago, four boys were creating ‘holes’ in the outside area and trying to avoid them. I hadn't realised that I had walked into one of these ‘holes’’.  “You've fallen down the hole!!!” I was told. That was my invite into the play and I joined in the game pretending to be stuck down the hole and asking the boys for help. A ‘ladder’ was sent down for my rescue, I climbed up the ladder and the boys  helped by dragging me out of the hole’. On other occasions you might choose to play alongside children with the hope that you will be drawn into the conversation and play. In this way you are respecting the child’s right to be in control of the play. 


So, before you intervene, consider whether you actually need to enter the play and for what purposes. Will you be adding to that play, offering useful suggestions, developing skills and knowledge, introducing vocabulary and extending that play? If you can answer yes then your participation will be valuable, but it is important to remember, it is not always necessary or required. 

Walters J, Maynard T 2010

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