Respect The Play: Validating Play and Self Esteem

As parents we are aware of what we are “supposed” to do each day with our little ones: 15 minutes of reading, active and interactive play, no more than 15 minutes of screen time, healthy organic food in a variety of flavors and textures, sensory play, etc. But most days real life gets in the way of meeting these lofty goals as things like cleaning up the pee soaked changing pad takes precedence. Over the past few weeks in our neck of the woods E has watched more PBS Kids than I’d like to say and that sandbox I’ve been meaning to create on the porch has yet to materialize. And I’m OK with that.

I’ve learned over the past 9 months to prioritize the “supposed tos”. And for me, what’s landed on top as my main priority each day is to take the time to really engage with and play with E, whether it be 30 minutes or an hour. So often I have found myself sitting by E as she plays, partially engaged and multitasking, not really interacting meaningfully only to find her staring at me with a toy in hand, waiting for some sort of reaction. Taking the time to focus on E and her play, and validating her efforts and actions, allows me to take advantage of teachable moments and to build E’s sense of self worth. For me that takes precedence over all else. If I can get more done, i.e. more reading, gooey sensory, and getting outdoors, even better, but I’ll call a day with interactive play a victory.


E's New Favorite Game, Scarf Peek A Boo

E’s New Favorite Game, Scarf Peek A Boo


So why the focus on self worth? And why so young? Well for one, I too was once a little girl, a school aged kid, a middle schooler and a young woman, and it wasn’t algebra that got me through the hard times, (unless we’re talking the remedial math course I took three times to pass in high school) it was my positive self worth and self confidence, something that sadly so many girls and women are lacking. Although E is only 9 months old she is constantly learning, and I am constantly developing habits of how we interact. Starting good habits now will will yield high dividends in the future. Big stuff, I know. 15 minutes of reading may sound far more doable right about now.

How does one go about building their child’s self worth? One good way is by validating them, and with little ones like E, that means their play. Validating their efforts and successes, from learning to pull themselves up to figuring out a shape puzzle gives value to what they are doing and trying. It means going beyond a generic “good job” to letting E know I really do see what she is doing, and I acknowledge her efforts. For babies, toddlers and young children their play is their work, and it is very serious business. Just as we want our efforts and achievements to be acknowledged, so do babies, and validating their play by noting their specific actions does just that.

You may feel silly at first talking extensively to your baby about their play and questioning if they are they really getting anything out of this. Babies have a much firmer grasp on language before they can speak than we might presume, and remember it’s also about you practicing this kind of interaction. Children who feel validated rather than just complimented have higher self esteem and self worth than their complimented counterparts. Looking at it from our perspective, how much more would someone saying “I really liked how well you explained the issue and diffused the situation” mean than “nice work”.

So ideal world aside, how does this work in real life? Here are some examples:

  • “I see you’re tapping your two cups together. That makes a loud sound! 1, 2, 3 taps!”
  • “You put your shapes in the box, and now it’s full. That was a lot of work!”
  • “You’re rolling the ball, back and forth and back and forth. It’s loud on the floor but quiet on the carpet.”


Try really engaging in play with your little ones and see where it leads! I’d love to know how it goes!


5 thoughts on “Respect The Play: Validating Play and Self Esteem

  1. Yes, yes, yes…you are correct!

    Also, I think compassion is key to developing a sense of self worth. Positive talk, positive actions – even more so than the day to day learning. Just the positive ways that you interact with the kids – goes a long way to developing a good self esteem. Examples would be not raising your voice, not raising your hand in anger, being patient, being kind. These types of things.

    Thank you so much for your post! It is right on!

  2. Thanks so much for this comment! This was one of those “please don’t let this come off as preachy” posts that I had to just close my eyes and press Publish on!
    I totally agree on the positive and kind words, we’re dealing with 9 month temper tantrums when boredom ensues, and it can be wearing, but remembering that I am helping her develop her inner voice helps me keep my cool 🙂

  3. Well said! I love talking to my kids and engaging them, it’s amazing how well they respond to positive feedback. (Although, 15 minutes of screen time – ha, we’re usually close to an hour a day ;))

  4. Anna, oh yes, us too! We do have those glorious days when we can play outside a ton or the cards just all fall in the right place, but in reality, the jumparoo and some PBS Kids is the only way I get a shower in!

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