A “yes” space: fostering independent play


(Photo via Arielle Calderon, Flickr CC)

Let me introduce you to a concept that has been a GAME CHANGER for our family:

A “yes” space for E.

Although I learned about this RIE concept several months ago, I never actually implemented it (not sure why…) until almost three weeks ago. And, the results have been amazing!

RIE, or Resources for Infant Educarers, is a philosophy of childcare first developed by Hungarian childcare specialist Magda Gerber and pediatrician Dr. Emmi Pikler during the early to mid part of the twentieth century. RIE principles hold that children are born fully competent human beings, worthy of our respect. Trust is paramount: trust your child’s abilities to grow and develop at his own pace; we don’t need to push or prod them along. Rather, as parents we simply need to observe our children, listen to them tell us what they need (i.e., when they’re hungry or tired), give them our utmost love and attention during care activities (i.e., diaper changes and feeding), and lastly, allow them time and space to play and explore independently. 

Ever since we discovered RIE about a year ago, D. and I have slowly begun to implement the basic principles into our parenting, and as a result we have watched as our relationship with E. has become more intentional, peaceful, and gentle.

Yet, the one area that needed work, where we were finding ourselves frustrated, was regarding E.’s independent play at home.

I’d always been a firm believer in encouraging children to play independently. In fact, research in child development supports it (you can read more about it here, here, here, here, and here.)

So, to encourage E. to play independently, I would go about my days essentially ignoring E. while I cooked or cleaned. Of course I’d always invite her to help me unload the dishwasher or fold the clean laundry, and occasionally, she’d show interest, but generally after three to five minutes, she’d lose interest (which is fine since at her age I never want to force her to participate in housework).

And, although she has toys and activities throughout the house, both in her room and in our shared living space, she NEVER played by herself. No amount of my ignoring her motivated her. Instead, to get my attention, she would test limits, throwing her toys in the trash can or toilet, or ripping out pages from my books in the living room.

So, I asked myself one day, is she being defiant or disobedient? Or, is she trying to tell me, “Mom, you’re just so interesting that you distract me. Please help me learn how to play on my own.”?

I finally realized that not only was our strategy of general ignoring ineffective, but that we also needed a proactive, loving, and clear plan to help E. play. The last thing we wanted was to be trapped in a cycle of frustration and punitive reaction, which wasn’t fair to E. (or, to us!).

So, I sought the advice of several RIE authors and bloggers. The missing piece of the puzzle was a “yes” play space for E.


A “yes” space:

  • Operates from the assumption that children not only need time to play independently, but that they can, regardless of their age, and from the assumption that our job as parents is not to entertain them.
  • Is a designated space in the home that belongs entirely to the child. This could be their bedroom, or a playroom, or a gated area in the living room.
  • Is 100% safe. It’s completely safe from any and all safety hazards (i.e., outlets, cords, nails in picture frames), as well as totally safe from your (the parent) frustrations and “nos” (i.e., “Don’t touch that!” or “I told you not to throw that.”).
  • Is a place with a limited number of open-ended toys that foster creativity and imaginative play. Open-ended toys are 10% toy and 90% child, and they include objects like wood blocks, play silks, dolls, toy trucks, books, musical instruments (fine motor activities), as well as a rocking horse, mini-trampoline, balance beam, or yoga ball (gross motor).
  • Is part of a regular and predictable routine, not to be used as a reaction to your child failing to comply with your requests or authority (i.e., “If you don’t want to help set them table, then you will play in your “yes” space.”).
  • A place where your child, because she’s so engrossed in her play, forgets you’re even around and that subsequently results in you, too, forgetting about your child (“What if she…?” “Or, did I just hear something fall down…?”). Note: I do use a baby monitor to watch her while she plays; it’s actually pretty fun!
  • Works only if you provide parental scaffolds, like ensuring that prior to independent play your child is fed, rested, and feels emotionally connected to you.


So, how did D. and I introduce this to E.? 

Until we purchased a gate for her bedroom door, E. played in her crib. We would give her a few toys and (indestructible) books, explain the situation in a clear and loving way (“Now it’s time to play in your crib with your toys. Mamá is going to get dressed and Papá is going to brush his teeth. We will see you when we finish.”), and leave, allowing her to feel and experience any emotions she wanted, including anger, without judgment or guilt.

Once her gate arrived last week, E.’s bedroom has become her “yes” play space. She now has free reign of her room to play with a minimal amount of open-ended toys, which I rotate out every week or so (storing the other toys in a closet).

In order for her to understand that her “yes” space is not punitive, but rather a cozy and safe place to play, D. and I have established a consistent routine of when she spends time there playing: after the morning routine of breakfast, grooming, and one-on-one time with me and D., and once in the afternoons, after her nap and more one-on-one time with me. We also spend time with E. playing and reading in her room when it’s time to reconnect with her.


The results!

Sometimes, E. protests at the beginning of her play period, and sometimes she’s content to jump right into her work of playing. The times she cries or complains (she has every right to do so), D. and I acknowledge her emotions, remind her that we love her, explain what we’ll be doing and when we’ll return, and then leave.

It has warmed my heart to watch – and listen! – to E. play independently. While before, with free access to roam the apartment, she would whine and complain for attention or test limits and boundaries, now she becomes engrossed in play for sometimes an hour and a quarter at a time. The creativity, imagination, singing, talking, acting, risk-taking, and exploration I see in her play is mind-blowing! It’s as if she needed a gated space to help her focus on play. Ironically, the limits to her physical space have freed her to explore more.

(And, the bonus is that mamá has periodic time to herself throughout the day to clean, check e-mails, or write a blog post. Win win for everyone!)

How have you fostered independent play in your children? I would love to hear from you! And, if you’re interested in learning more about RIE or independent play, I encourage you to check out the resources page on the blog.

6 thoughts on “A “yes” space: fostering independent play

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  4. Hi! Thanks so much for sharing this. I am trying to implement this with my almost 18mo, Z. How old was E when you started? I am still torn between a gated part of the living room or her bedroom for her yes space. We are in a condo so space is at a premium. Her room isn’t very large and I am concerned that it wouldn’t give her enough space but it would certainly be the easier of the two to contain/gate off and give her a bit of physical distance since it’s at one end of the apartment. Do you have any thoughts about the size of the space and it’s position in relation to the rest of the house? Am I ruminating over minute details? TIA for any tips and advice.


    • Hi! Thanks for stopping by the blog. I’m sorry for the late response. We started late with a yes space (when E. was two); RIE recommends you start immediately at birth. It took some getting used to on E.’s part, lots of big emotions, working out details, and big-time consistency on our part, but it is now a daily part of our family’s routine. Some people have more than one yes space, so you could consider that! Magda Gerber didn’t write about the correct number of spaces, just that a child HAS one and that it’s yes and routinely used. You WILL want to include both gross and fine motor skills activities for your child, so keep that in mind. If you have the options/space, I’d go for the bigger space so as to allow for gross motor play. Finally, remember that daily outdoor time is crucial and recommended for RIE! Best of luck! Audrey

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