The playroom is a special place for children but on occasion, it can be helpful for grown ups too. Unsurprisingly, most adults don’t know how to play well. So when a grown up joins their child in the playroom we have a few rules. The first rule is that the child leads the play, because they are the experts. The second rule is that the adult should offer no judgments or criticisms about the child or the child’s play. This is because the playroom is a judgement free zone, and because there is no right or wrong way to play. The play therapist and author Garry Landreth calls this non-evaluative language.
Watching a video of Landreth in a session is like watching Mr. Roger’s incarnate. He is warm, compassionate, all accepting. The child in the session brings Landreth a newly finished piece of art. “You painted a picture” Landreth responds, all warmth and enthusiasm. He offers the viewers of the video an insight in a narrative overdub. Explaining that he didn’t evaluate the picture, with a “good job” or “beautiful” because he wanted the child to make her own judgments about the work. He wanted her time in the playroom to be about her internal drives, not about pleasing him.
“Good job” in a Montessori classroom is practically swearing. In fact, many child-led philosophes discourage the use of this too often hollow statement. We don’t discourage it because we’re mean or we don’t think children are doing good work. We discourage it because we don’t want them working for us. We want children to engage with materials because they offer meaning and enjoyment. Not because they think it will make us happy.
The playroom is a place without judgment, without evaluation. The place where the child is accepted 100% – exactly as they are. No need to share what they did at school today, they don’t have to tell us what they learned. Or affirm their existence with success in their honors courses. We offer them a place to freely express themselves without any attachments to outcomes.
We offer this to you, too. We invite you to drop the judgment, the expectation, the constant need to evaluate your child, and yourself. We offer you this because years of experience and research tell us that we don’t actually need to do those things. That too often praise hurts our efforts, our intrinsic drives, it restricts our creativity. It makes us feel like playing on it’s own isn’t enough. We aren’t enough. It steals our joy.
Simply noticing a child is a powerful builder of self esteem. And children need to feel treasured. But we encourage you to do that without perpetual praise and evaluation, without reward or consequence. To do it with your warm, attuned presence.
We don’t say good job because children don’t work for us. Our highest aim is that they’ll work with us.
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