A “yes” space: an update one year later


(Photo courtesy of Donnie Ray Jones, Flickr Creative Commons)

Last winter, I wrote about how the creation and regular use of a “yes” space transformed both my parenting and E.’s independent play. In case you’re unfamiliar with the RIE concept of a “yes” space, you can read about it in depth here.

Today, almost a year later, I’d like to follow up that post with an update to give you an idea of what the “yes” space has meant for our family.

According to the RIE philosophy, a “yes” space is a 100% safe, gated play space where infants and toddlers regularly spend their time. A young child ideally would spend all of his indoor non-caregiving (diapering, bathing, meal times, naps) time in this space. Its nickname “yes” refers to the idea that a child, while in her play space, is free from the “no’s” of “Don’t touch that!” or “Stop doing X!” It is a place where a child can move, explore, and play freely. It is physically safe (furniture is bolted to the wall, outlets are covered, etc.) and safe from adult interference in the child’s play and safe from an adult’s frustration because a child dumped over the trashcan or knocked the dirt out of the plant in the living room.

And, although it may sound contradictory to many (it did to me at first!), the child’s play space is gated to ensure his physical and emotional freedom (Montessori’s concept of “freedom within limits”) and to invite deep and imaginative play.

I appreciate RIE associate and author Janet Lansbury’s explanation of this idea:

Play Myth #4: Gated play areas are restrictive “jails.” A safe space is essential for fostering independent play. Free roaming babies that follow parents around, even in the most baby-proofed home, don’t focus on play as well or feel as truly free as babies in secure areas. Independent play requires a place free of “no’s” and a relaxed, trusting parent who mostly stays put in order to be the “secure base” young explorers need.” (Source)

Since we created a safe, gated play space for E. a year ago, our family has reaped numerous benefits, particularly E. To be frank, incorporating a “yes” space has been the best parenting decision we have made in the past year.

A “yes” space for E. (and, now baby J.!) has resulted in:

  • Clearer and more authentic communication between E. and us
  • Consistent, empathetic, and non-punitive boundaries
  • A slow, peaceful, and predictable daily routine
  • A healthy ebb and flow of “time together, time apart” in our family
  • More mom and dad self-care
  • Deeper, more creative independent play that regularly lasts for hours
  • Smoother post partum transition to life with a toddler and infant
  • A screen-free home


(Photo via Christina Kessler, Flickr Creative Commons)

Specifically, I want to share the significance, or the personal meaning, that a “yes” space has had for each member of our family.

For D. and me:

D. can come home from work and take 20 minutes to decompress on the couch. He can watch tennis for a half hour on Saturday mornings. For me, I can shower, get dressed, put on my make up and do my hair alone in the mornings. I can eat breakfast while reading or checking my phone. I can take a nap on the sofa. I can cook dinner. I can clean and do my housework. I can nurse baby J. and attend to his specific needs. All of this knowing that E. is physically safe in her “yes” space doing what a toddler is designed to do: play!

For baby J.:

My older sister having her own “yes” space has meant that I can have intimate, one-on-one time with my mom during caregiving activities. When she nurses me, she is fully present. To hold me, to snuggle with me. When she changes my diaper, I get her full attention. She isn’t distracted by what my sister “might” be doing in the kitchen or the bathroom. She takes her time changing me and dressing me. We chat and sing and coo together. I know that she’s fully with me. When she bathes me, she can focus all of her attention on me, on the temperature of the bath water, on my reaction to my hair being washed. When I nap, I sleep in (relative!) peace and quiet in my own space. Because my parents recognize the importance of play for children, they have given me my own safe space where I can explore, and think, and move freely, at my own pace, in my own way.

Most importantly, what a “yes” space has meant to E.:

My parents understand that as a toddler I have an innate and insatiable desire to play, all the time, every day. I don’t need to be taught how to play or entertained by my parents; I just need a safe, age-appropriate place for me to do what I was designed to do.

My parents recognize that my brain is hardwired to learn about my world through touching, dumping, piling, pulling, jumping, swinging, singing, climbing, studying, and exploring everything and anything I can get my hands on. Because they also understand that my three-year old brain is still under construction and that my pre-frontal cortex, responsible for impulse control, won’t develop until years down the road, they have given me clear and consistent boundaries surrounding where and with what I can play (e.g., a gated play space and open-ended toys and objects).

They realize that if I see a shiny knick-knack on the coffee table, I might want to drop it and experiment with the laws of gravity. Or, that if I see my mom’s make-up bag I might want to paint the floor with her lipstick. So, since my parents recognize their own limits and frustrations, those adult-only items are out of my reach.

They know that deep down I don’t want to be a nuisance for them, and so they set me up for success. They have age-appropriate expectations for me and understand my physical and developmental needs. They provide me with blocks and play silks and dolls and toy cars and other objects for me to experiment with.

Lastly, my parents know that I need consistency to feel physically and emotionally safe, so they never use my “yes” space arbitrarily, when it suits them or when I’m “misbehaving.” Rather, my “yes” space is a regular, predictable part of my daily routine.

If you’re curious to know what a “day-in-the-life” of our family looks like, you can read about it here. And, while a “yes” space isn’t a choice for every family, it is one that I’m so glad we’ve made for ours.

Check out these other articles on play!

What is play?

Solo Engagement – Fostering your toddler’s independent play

Play space inspiration

The best toys for babies don’t do anything

Help, my toddler can’t play without me!

Scientists say child’s play helps build a better brain

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