Guest Post: Fostering Self-Discovery

3 Steps to Promote, Not Direct, Your Child's Play

“When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” ~ Jean Piaget

...Makes sense, right? Jean Piaget was one of the first to propose a connection between a child's play and cognitive development. Piaget focused on the how a child actively engages in the construction of her own reality through interactions with the world around her. Imagine a child deeply involved in a self-directed sink or float experiment in the bathtub; or an examination of the effects of gravity on various pieces of food from the tray of her high chair. Piaget saw children as little scientists, testing and re-testing theories, starting at birth.

But aren't we "teaching" our children any time we are interacting with them? Another famous developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, highlighted something that Piaget neglected to include in his theory: the social aspect of a child's cognitive growth. Vygotsky coined the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD for short). A child's ZPD includes what she is able to accomplish on her own, and extends to what she is able to realize with the guidance of an adult. According to Vygotsky, the child and the adult co-construct experience. Perhaps the caregiver of the child in the bathtub doing sink or float provides a new item to test: the towel (though maybe unintentionally!). The high chair gravity experiment takes on a new dimension as the child is given applicable, and perhaps novel, vocabulary: "I can't believe you threw your ENTIRE bowl of QUINOA on the floor!".

The nature play programs I have helped facilitate seem to be structured from a Piagetian perspective. Children have many opportunities to construct their own knowledge through play. There are few directions on how to perform a certain task, and children are encouraged to use materials in their own way. This allows for an abundance of exploration and discovery. (Piaget would be proud.) But when I look at what is happening in a play program, I do not see children sitting alone. I see attentive caregivers sitting nearby, or engaging in play with the child. Co-construction is occurring all the time. In fact, the adult is encouraged to interact with the child as she plays. (Vygotsky would have smiled approvingly.)

Both Piaget and Vygotsky would agree, however, that when an adult steps into the childs play, that play changes. Is the play still directed by the child? Can it still lead to her own original thoughts and discoveries? I think that depends a lot on how this interaction occurs. To most effectively engage with our children in play, we need to allow for maximum child autonomy and discovery while providing opportunities to add meaning to what the child is doing. Though this is by no means the only way to interact with a child during play, it is one of the best ways to support the childs own personal discovery.

3 steps to promote, not direct, play: (Adapted from Powerful Interactions by Amy Laura Dombro, Judy Jablon and Charlotte Stetson, 2011).

1. Stay in the moment. When you sit down to play with your child, let that be all you are doing. Though it feels almost impossible sometimes, put other obligations out of your mind for a short time, and really focus on what your child is doing. Take some time to get on your child's wavelength.

2. Relate to what your child is doing. Now that you are in the moment, allow yourself to return to your childhood mind. What might have made sand so fascinating? What is it about fall leaves that seems so special year after year? So much of a child's experience is based in the senses. Indulge your senses in what your child is engaged in.

3. Expand on the ideas your child is constructing. There are many ways to do this, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that you are thinking WITH your child. This can be as simple as making an observation about what she is doing: "Wow! You dumped that whole container of water into the bucket!". You can also provide new vocabulary: "The water makes that stone feel slippery!". You could even model curiosity: "I wonder why water makes things change color. . ."

One final note: this will take practice! As I have observed my own interactions with my daughter, I have found that directing her play is much more ingrained in me than I ever realized. I often am asking "how many?" or "what color?" or "What is that called?". Though well-intentioned, I am turning her play into a sort of quiz show that she didn't sign up to attend. Instead, I need to take the time to be in the moment with her and if I do get involved, it should be to simply acknowledge or give voice to her "work".  I also need to accept that not all moments need to be teaching moments in the traditional sense of the word. When we direct our children's play, we lose the opportunity to observe their creativity and ingenuity at work. I can still share in my daughter's wonder, but I must continue to practice allowing her to control it’s source.

For more information on the work of Amy Laura Dombro, Judy Jablon and Charlotte Stetson, visit

Jennifer Stubbs is a currently a graduate student in Child Development at the Erikson Institute and a full-time mom. Her time volunteering and working at the Lincoln Park Zoo, along with her graduate program and the birth of her daughter, honed her interest in early childhood informal education, specifically in the realm of nature play. She is currently doing her internship at the Hamill Family Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo. She has recently taken up blogging about her reflections on nature play, motherhood, and the science of child development at