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Hands on or hands off: how far should adults get involved in children’s play? ZPD vs RIE

Updated: Feb 21, 2021


Recently, I sat on the floor with G as she rolled around, knocking over her little Grimms wooden figures, and had a thought. Should I be playing too? Am I doing her a disservice by sitting here not participating? This is something I ought to know, I thought, considering I lovingly display my PGCE and MEd certificates in our downstairs loo! However, here I am, bleary eyed and none the wiser. I shared some thoughts on the old ‘gram and got some really varied responses as to what other parents feel. Some felt very strongly that if we get overly involved with our children’s play, we can stunt their creative development. Child led turns into adult led. Others, however, felt that adult engagement, when appropriate, is key to children developing. Who is right? Is there such a thing? I blew the dust off my mortar board and looked into two prominent theories around child development to see which side the scales landed.


Hands on: Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

During our education studies, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development was referenced frequently, becoming a real benchmark for our work.



Image description: three concentric circles. The first smallest circle reads ‘learner can do unaided’. The second ‘zone of proximal development: learner can do with guidance’ and the third ‘learner cannot do’. Image courtesy of my clever fella.


The concept overall argues that children learn through a process of ‘cannot do’ to ‘can do with guidance’ and eventually ‘can do unaided’. The space in between ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ do is regarded as the ZPD: the space of possibility and proximal growth, where adult guidance and/or encouragement models or supports a new skill. If we’re following this theory (and it is a theory, after all), then we might summarise that intentional adult involvement in play is vital to scaffolding new concepts and skills, from new construction methods, to language development and personal/social development. I think some might say there’s a caveat here as the ZPD is specific to work/academic activity. For me this ignores the value of play and my knowledge that learning and play are not separate entities at all. In the right prepared environment it is ideally hard to differentiate between the two as self chosen activities naturally flow from one to another. Overall then, this argument would generally argue that yes, adult involvement in play directly supports development.

But is there a point to which being hands on is too much? Or should we be stepping back altogether? I’ve certainly seen adult involvement in deep play completely kill the deep flow of ideas a child might be working through. Here I had many friends draw my attention to another educational theory, the RIE parenting approach.


Hands off: Gerber’s RIE parenting

RIE, first hypothesised in 1978 by Magda Gerber, an early childhood educator, stands for Resources for Infant Educarers - a term she coined. This philosophy stresses the importance of seeing all children, whatever age, as being capable, with an innate ability to understand the world around them if given the freedom and opportunity to explore it independently. This theory has been popularised by well known parent educator Janet Lansbury.


There is a huge amount of detail that goes into this theory, but for me the key point is that a child is assumed capable of growth intrinsically; and that they require space and time to show us what they need. A couple of things are recommended to support this:


  • A safe environment that supports independent play

  • Plenty of opportunity for solo play

  • Narration of everyday activity, actions and child feelings/emotions

  • Observation for the child and recognising behaviour as communication

Where RIE differs from ZPD, and I would argue, effectively challenges it (especially for young children), is that it assumes a child can show us what they need, where they want to develop, and what their next steps are. It works on the idea that gentle observation of our child will make it clear if they want/require support if at all, as opposed to the ZPD framework, which generally assumes it is up to the adult to decide what a child should be moving towards (as adult intervention takes the child to what they cannot already do). In this context, our role as parent is not to decide the next step for our child (unless there is a specific concern or additional need) but to observe them, hold back, and see where they want to go. We assume they are capable of getting there independently and support if they request help; trying to separate their actual wants and needs from our personal projections of where we think they should be. In this case, then, we should be leaving our children to their own designs in their play and support only when it is abundantly necessary.

RIE or ZPD?

From looking over these two approaches what strikes me most is the difference in viewing the child. For me, RIE sees the best in the child, seeing them as an individual capable of expressing their own needs and interests regardless of age. It’s particularly suited to a gentle approach in parenting. This isn’t to say ZPD is a tyrannical regime, however. I still believe a child can’t learn everything and develop completely in a vacuum, gaining all they need to grow from osmosis - but there’s a huge amount to be said for not assuming all development must come from the guidance of someone else. The more I read into RIE, the more I see the omniscient presence of the well meaning adult in the ZPD as possibly restrictive, and a little assumptive. Where does this leave us then?

For me, it’s about observation. Parental instinct quickly shows when a child wants to be left alone, and when perhaps they might benefit from some gentle support to develop their understanding of the world around them, and what they can do in it. It’s about suggestions when relevant, not instruction. It’s about gently suggesting a few ideas for getting a wooden block tower taller when our child desperately wants to get their toy to reach the ceiling and feels frustrated. It’s about sharing some helpful ways to explore anger or disagreements between siblings. Above all it’s about working in cooperation with a child, not as a senior figure or as a completely silent observer. I like to think that instead of hands off or hands on, we should have our hands out, ready to help, but on the terms of our children.


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