This blog message was contributed by Liesl Veulemans (UCLL, Belgium).

It’s Emma’s first day of teacher training in a nursery school. She quickly observes the classroom. Where do they need me? Emma is everywhere and nowhere in the classroom; she walks – no, she runs – from one corner to another and back. She wants all toddlers to receive all the attention they need at all times… However, is that possible? And more: is it necessary?

Take a seat or leave them in peace

The research of Singer and Tajik (2014), concerning the influence of the behaviour of an educational assistant on toddlers’ engagement in play in day-care centres and nurseries, shows that a higher engagement in play is observed in two situations. Toddlers are more engaged when the educational assistant calmly joins the children for a longer period of time (1), and when a small group of children play together at a certain distance from the educational assistant without him or her intervening (2). Walking around too much makes the children’s behaviour more agitated. As a result, they are less engaged in their play and will more quickly look for something else to do. Short, quick interventions as well turned out to have a negative effect on children playing together, for these short, often well-intended messages led to a rather one-sided interaction. The educational assistant said something to a toddler, and immediately left. It was seldom a matter of real contact between the assistant and the child.

Yet, why are real contact and two-sided interaction so crucial in consideration of increasing children’s’ engagement in play?

The need for emotional safety

For young children, either in nursery schools or in preschool classes, emotional safety is an important precondition for getting fully absorbed in a game. If a child feels safe with the teacher, he or she will set out to discover something and play.

Regular eye contact with the teacher is shown to be very important: Is the teacher still here? Does the teacher still see me? After all, children want to be confirmed in what they are doing. If the teacher walks around too much, the chance of regular eye contact and confirmation is smaller. Therefore, real contact and two-sided interaction is imperative to stimulate young children’s play and increases engagement. In this way children feel safe. Moreover, there are more opportunities for true engagement in their play.

The ultimate practical tip?

Stand still in due course (or literally: sit!) to observe what the young children in your preschool class are doing and try not to run around too much: take a seat, find the time to have a conversation, and make sure the preschoolers know you are seeing, hearing and feeling them… That is how you take the first step towards an increased engagement in play. What if the children are engaged in play? That is great, just let them play along!

Try it out and let us know what your experiences are: how do the children react? What is the effect on the preschoolers’ engagement in your class?

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Increasing toddlers and preschoolers’ engagement in play: how does the teacher do that?

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