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The adults role in open-ended play

It is important to understand that children’s lives today are filled with television, computers and toys that do a lot of thinking for the child and which others have designed for them. They are continually entertained and directed in ways which trivialise their inherent curiosity and quest for learning, rather than being challenged to pursue a love of learning. As a result of this, children may come to your setting that do not have experience of self-directed play or of their pursuits being respected, supported and enriched by the adults around them. They may need guidance to recognise the possibilities for independent use of the environment and resources you offer.

You are already working to improve children’s opportunities for play, simply by creating an enriched environment for them to explore. As an early years practitioner, you may wonder to what extent you should involve yourself in their play.

Maintaining an effective learning environment requires adults to be flexible and responsive. Sometimes you are needed right in the thick of things to model and coach communication skills, the collaborative process and problem solving. At other times your involvement might send the wrong message – that you don’t value or trust what children are doing. It is important to find that balance and to know when to get involved in a child’s play.


Here are some key tips you may wish to consider for effective adult interactions:

  • The adult should always go to the child, rather than calling the child to you. 

  • Scan the area and decide where you think your presence will be most beneficial.

  • Always get down to the child’s level.

  • Be interested, open, relaxed and SMILING!

  • LISTEN, WATCH and WAIT – Take a little time to observe, find out what the children are playing, and what are their roles and intentions.

  • Consider whether you need to enter the play, and for what purposes (such as offering suggestions, introducing new ideas or vocabulary, managing the noise or behaviour, extending the activity through additional resources or negotiating entry for another child).

  • Allow the child to lead the interaction - Try to play on the children’s terms by taking on a role that they suggest, and following children’s instructions.

  • Ask open-ended questions or make relevant comments during interactions. (see open ended questions downloadable.

  • Try not to direct the play to your own learning objectives or assessment agenda. Instead, be alert to the qualities of play, and to the knowledge and skills that children are using and applying.

  • Remember that the aim of the EYFS is to enable the development of the whole child. Interactions involving maths and English are not the only valuable moments – each area is of equal importance. 

  • It is important not try to turn every interaction into a teachable moment.

  • Try displaying prompt phrases around the room, such as “I wonder…”, “What if…”, “I think…” These can serve as a reminder to yourself and other practitioners. 

  • A sound knowledge of the EYFS and CofEL is essential as this will guide you in your interactions.

Here is a downloadable resource which highlights what effective interactions will involve:

Reflective tasks

Prior to meeting, video staff interacting with children.


  1. In 2 groups, on flipchart paper ask staff to describe the perfect practitioner. Compare and Discuss

  2. Still in groups, ask staff to write down all the ways they might communicate effectively with children. Compare and Discuss. Use downloadable poster to discuss further.

  3. Use video footage of staff interacting with children. As a group, use the key points and tips listed above to evaluate practice and discuss if these can be improved eg.

  • Did they watch and wait before interacting?

  • Did they ask open-ended questions?

  • Would learning still have taken place if they did not join in?

Reflective questions for individual staff

  • What went well today?

  • What could have gone better?

  • When did I involve myself in play? And how did I make that decision?

  • Was that intervention in the best interests of the children’s play?

  • What might I do differently next time?

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