26 Mar
The role of the teacher/adult in play
Posted by client_admin
By Jeni Wilson

Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth (Ginsburg, 2007). But the role of the teacher/adult in play, though important, is often misunderstood.

The temptation for teacher/adults is often to do things for kids or to tell them what to do to ‘save’ or control them. This can defeat fundamental purposes of play and reduce the benefits (hyperlink to benefits of play).

The purpose of play

Some of the purposes of play include: to build resilience, develop lifelong skills (including creativity), relieve stress, form bonds, use imaginations, self exploration and to have fun (Brown, 2014).  Even when teacher/adults cannot identify the purpose, play is not purposeless. For example, a child fascinated with learning to juggle might want to master that skill, have fun, impress mates, fill in time, or be better at basketball. 

We have to learn to live with the fact that our goals don’t always match children’s goals, and for them, their goals are going to be much more enticing.

“Teacher/adult interactions with children have an impact on the play space and children’s play” (Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group, 2005).

Teacher/adult Interaction or Interference?

The role of the teacher/adult will have an impact on student’s play. The way they set up the space, the things they say before, during and after play, the time given, the resources offered and not offered (such as loose parts).

The question teacher/adults always need to ask before deciding on their actions while children playing is ….

What is the purpose?
  • If we want children to develop resilience …why would we always protect them from the (safe) responses of others?
  • If we want then to be risk takers …why would we tell them what to do and how to do it?
  • If we want them to be persistent… why do we make them stop when they are focussed?
  • If we want them to be problem solvers…why would we give them all the materials they need?

What would you do if… 

Play scenarioOption AOption B
A child is struggling with trying a rope to their group constructed machineTie the knot for themSay ‘I’m impressed that you keep trying for yourself’
A child is playing by themselfAsk another child to work with themStart playing yourself nearby
A child is trying to join a group and change the original constructionTell them to find another groupRemind them that the group have already started and to remember to be respectful of everyone’s ideas
A child is sitting by themselves watching othersTell them to find a group to join inAsk them what they are thinking and planning to do

The role of the teacher/adult and their interactions with play can build or reduce a child’s confidence, reflection skills and independence. While the option A responses above may be quicker and feel more comfortable, option B responses are more likely to support children to make decisions for themselves, develop skills and improve their self esteem.

Playing with children not controlling the play

Ideally, some play involves teacher/adults, but when play is controlled by adults, the benefits of play can, at the very least, be watered down. 

Taking cues from children

Taking cues from children shows them that you believe in their ability as capable learners, thinkers and risk takers who can make their own decisions. This is motivating and leads to a stronger sense of wellbeing and confidence (Sewell, Wilson, Laing, and Veerman. (2020)). 

Scaffolding learning through play

Teacher/adults make a huge difference when scaffolding learning through play and extending children’s knowledge and skills. Children often like adults to join in to their play! It’s hard, but important not to take over. 

Knowing when to observe, pose questions, stand back, direct, interact, explain, give feedback and instruct is an art!

Roles of a Teacher/adultExamples
NoticingBeing keen observers of children skills and using this data for planning further learning/play. 
EncouragingProviding challenges, minimal constructive feedback and a safe environment.
NamingBeing explicit about skills and naming materials/resources.
WaitingBeing patient. Giving time and space for children to solve their own problems, make their own choices and mistakes. Not interfering, waiting for them to invite you to play.
Taking their leadShowing authentic interest in children’s play/ideas/interests. Not instigating play.
QuestioningAsking genuine questions about their thinking and decision making.

Adapted from Nudel Kart Teacher Manual (2020).

Teacher/adults can learn a lot from watching students at play, waiting for their invitations and their student leads. Prompting questions can be used to help guide students to challenge and modify their own play (if necessary). Observations and answers to questions can be used for teacher planning.

The Nüdel Kart, created by Playground Ideas, offers a great solution for teachers and adults to observe play. The kart comes with a teacher training manual with example teacher questions to stimulate student thinking and the example lesson plan.

Teacher observing chikdren play with the Nüdel Kart

The question we should always ask before intervening in play is – What is the purpose? 


Centre for Evidence and Implementation (2019). Nudel KART: encouraging play with children. (Developed for Playground Ideas). Melbourne, Australia.

Kenneth R. Ginsburg, ; and the Committee on Communications and ; and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health Paediatrics January 2007,  119 (1) 182-191; DOI:

Sewell, C. Wilson, J. Laing, B. and Veerman, M. (2020) Nudel Kart Teacher Manual.

Brown, K. (2014) What is the Purpose of Play?