The Benefits of Creating a 'Yes' Space for Your Young Child

The Benefits of Creating a 'Yes' Space for Your Young Child

How to create a 'yes' space for your infant, crawler, or toddler to have a safe play environment

Stemming from the RIE® Educaring® approach to parenting from Magda Gerber, which is responding to your child respectfully, some parents are creating safe-play environments in their homes for children. Creating a “yes” space for your infant, crawler, or toddler to play in is beneficial to your child’s development (and overall parental life), and creating a “yes” space is easier than you think. 

“No, don’t touch that.”

“That’s not a toy.”

“Don’t do that. It’s not safe.”

Sometimes it feels like we are constantly telling our kids not to do something when it comes to play time at home, whether it’s because we’re afraid of them getting hurt, are anxious they’ll misplace our keys or iPhone, or nervous they’ll break our favorite lamp (à la Brother in The Berenstain Bears and the Truth).

One way some parents are combating all the ‘no’s said to young children? They’re creating a safe play environment in the home, which stems from Magda Gerber’s Educaring® approach to parenting—responding to a young child respectfully. Gerber studied under Emmi Pikler, M.D., in Hungary, learning about the Pikler approach to parenting, and brought the concept to the United States. A safe play environment is an area in the home in which a child can play without interruption and is 100-percent safe from harm. 

“Magda Gerber’s definition is the best way to describe it: If you got locked out of your apartment for a day, you would come back to find that your baby is physically unharmed,” says Deborah Carlisle Solomon, author of Baby Knows Best: Raising a Confident and Resourceful Child the RIE® Way. “The baby is obviously going to be upset, or hungry, or in need of a diaper change, but physically will have come to no harm. So there’s nothing in the environment that can cause danger.”

A safe play environment is also commonly referred to as a “yes” space in an effort to counteract all of the times a child hears ‘no’ in her life. “You have a space that just says ‘yes’ to the child,” says Anna Ruth Myers, founder of The Nurtured Child, a Brooklyn-based educational facility offering RIE®-certified classes that teach parents about Educaring®, as well as how to care for children in a respectful way. “The child is able to touch everything and move freely and not be restricted by the environment. The environment doesn’t say ‘no,’ and you don’t have to say ‘no’ while the child is there.”

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Benefits of Children Playing in a  “Yes” Space

Having a safe play environment in the home gives children unfettered playtime, which has numerous developmental benefits.

It gives a child time to explore the world on her own, says Johanna Herwitz, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, RIE® Mentor, Pikler-trained specialist, and founder of Mindful Parenting New York City. “The child gets to have a physical [and] a mental space to do her own thing, and she can play with whatever she wants to,” Dr. Herwitz says. “She gets to make choices, she gets to follow her own interests.”

Infants learn through their senses, Myers adds. So having the space to explore freely—to touch things with their hands, move their bodies, and mouth toys that are safe—allows their development to naturally progress as fully as possible.

A child will start to develop the ability to focus. Playing without interruption “supports the child to develop a long attention span,” Solomon says. “If a baby or toddler is frequently being interrupted, they don’t have opportunities to focus in on something for long periods of time.”

It helps the child build self-confidence. By having a “yes” space, the parent begins to develop basic trust in the child’s abilities to solve problems, be interested, and learn, which gives the child space to do those things. And that’s how the child develops self-confidence, according to Dr. Herwitz.

“Playing really helps a child learn how to solve problems, how to be tenacious, how to overcome challenges,” Solomon adds. “When things are difficult, they keep on going and see if they can figure it out. And all of those skills are going to be useful to them when they go to school.”

A child is more likely to cooperate outside of the “yes” space. When a child is given room to do the things he wants to within reason and make his own decisions, his autonomy is satisfied. “I think that when that autonomy is satisfied, then the child is more likely to cooperate and to go along with things that may or may not be his first choice,” Dr. Herwitz says.

A “yes” space also benefits parents: It allows them to relax knowing they can use the bathroom, answer the door, or make a meal without worrying about the safety of their child. “I find that when I’m with children and we’re in a safe space and I’m observing them or just being with them, it feels so much more comfortable for me than if a child is in a space where the outlet isn’t covered or if there’s something on the table [they shouldn’t play with]…my attention is [on] thinking about those things, [so] that I can’t fully enjoy being with a baby like I can in a safe space,” Myers says.
    

How to Create a “Yes” Space

Setting up the Area for a Safe-Play Environment

The most important aspect of a safe play environment is it needs to be gated off in some way, according to Myers. “In order to make a space one hundred-percent safe, [it needs] to have a way that you can close it off from the rest of the environment, but know that your child can be safely in that space and not risk coming out of it when you aren’t expecting,” she says. A pack and play is enough space for an infant until she begins rolling over and needing more space for movement, while a “fenced in” area of a family room or a separate room with baby gates will work for crawlers and toddlers.

“Over the years, I’ve found that parents are sometimes resistant to this because they don’t like the look of gates or they feel like it’s imprisoning their child,” Solomon says. She recalls a time a friend called for advice. “Her son was always at her feet crawling after her, and she said, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to step on him. I give him the run of the whole house, why does he always have to be with me?’,” Solomon says. She replied that the whole house was overwhelming to the child and he didn’t feel secure. She advised her friend put up a gate or corral, put a few toys in the enclosed area, and spend some time with the child in the enclosure to endear him to the space. “And so she did, and it made a big difference for both of them. Some parents don’t understand that what looks like a prison to us, to the child provides a sense of security,” Solomon says.

Dr. Herwitz adds that ideally the enclosed space should be in an area where the child can hear and see what’s going on around her so she doesn’t feel isolated from the rest of the house, and where the parent can easily hear and see what’s going on with the child.

The enclosed area should also be clean, there shouldn’t be furniture the child can climb or standing lamps that could fall over, and if there are low shelves in the area that they are bolted to the wall. Solomon also suggests parents crawl around on the ground to look at the space from the child’s point of view to see if there is any potential danger.

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Toys Recommended for a Safe-Play Environment

In terms of play objects to have in the space, Gerber taught that passive toys make for active babies. When a toy lights up and makes sounds, the child doesn’t have to do much to play with it, but when a play object is open-ended (aka passive), the child uses his imagination to activate it. Keep in mind that some play objects might not be obvious to adults. Solomon, for example, had a basket of caps from glass milk bottles in a class. “One toddler picked up two of them, put one on each ear, and was wandering around the room for twenty minutes pretending they were a headset and he was Buzz Lightyear,” she says. “When he was done with them, another child picked one up and she used it as a cup, pretending to drink. That’s what I mean about the toys being open-ended.”

For 2- to 3-month-olds, the first plaything is their hands. After they’ve discovered their hands, infants are ready for soft play objects, such as a soft cotton napkin, a little silicone bowl, a soft ball, and other soft objects that are easy to grasp and not too heavy, as the child is still integrating her reflexes and might accidentally hit herself with the object.

As the child gets older, more objects should be introduced into the environment. “Some of them might be soft, some might be a little more firm, but then there are also things in the child’s environment that don’t change shape or properties, if that makes sense,” Myers says. “So you might have little silicone bowls, but then you would also maybe have a little wooden pinch bowl, or maybe a little metal condiment bowl. You would have objects that repeat on the same concept but are different materials and have different properties so the child can see how their actions change or don’t change with materials.”

Myers suggests some materials stay the same as the child gets older because he’ll play with them in an increasingly sophisticated way, while also introducing new, more advanced objects.

Dr. Herwitz recommends play objects have a balance between dramatic play (dolls and items that can be used for dress up), fine motor skills (baskets and bags into which objects can be sorted), and gross motor skills (things that are safe for toddlers to climb on). 
   

Recommended Time for a Child to Spend in a Safe-Play Environment 

The best time to put a child in the safe play environment is when she is well-rested, fed, clean, has all her basic needs met, and has had some time with the parents. Time spent in the space should also increase with age, according to Dr. Herwitz, as an infant won’t be able to play on his own for as long as a toddler could.

While ideally your child would have a “yes” space from infancy through the time she has learned the limits and rules of the home environment as a whole, Myers says it’s never too late to create a “yes” space for a young child.

 

Main image: This example of a fenced off “yes” space for a mobile infant or young toddler includes a small cozy corner, a firm cushion for climbing, and a variety of easy-to-find play objects such as a colander, woven basket, silicone bowls, and metal cups.
Courtesy Anna Ruth Myers, RIE® Associate