The Watch Me Play! Research approach
Watch Me Play! is an intervention for caregivers with their babies or young children that aims to enhance child development and caregiver-child relationships. Developed to support babies and young children in care, the intervention has also been found helpful in post-adoption and for children returning to live with family members.
The approach promotes child-led play, individual attention from caregivers, and talking with children about their play. Caregivers are encouraged to provide children with age-appropriate toys and their undivided attention in a quiet environment for regular short times two or more times a week. Caregivers are also encouraged to talk with the child about their play, and to reflect later on with another involved adult or professional on their observations of the child’s play and how it felt to be with the child as they played.
Receiving their caregiver’s undivided attention with toys and materials that promote imagination and creativity gives opportunities for children to express themselves. Letting the child take the lead, as long as what they choose to do is safe, means that adults can learn from the child’s play. Observing the child’s play and how it feels to be with the child while he or she plays can help to bring together the adults who are involved with the child to reflect on what is being communicated and how best to go on supporting the child.
For a professional offering support through Watch Me Play!, this framework for providing sensitive understanding can help to find words for feelings at a pace that both child and caregiver can manage. Stories, imaginative ideas, and the repetition inherent in play can help to allow new thoughts and feelings to be gradually assimilated. For children and caregivers who are struggling with experiences that may be felt to be too much to manage, Watch Me Play! can help to indicate the type of further intervention or assessment that may be needed.
The approach builds on previous studies indicating that observation-based therapeutic support was acceptable to a foster family and the social care network for a baby in care (Wakelyn 2011, 2019) and a study of infant mental health disorder that indicated that a majority of babies and young children in care suffered from one or more mental health or developmental difficulty (Hillen, Gafson et al., 2012).
Watch Me Play! was discussed and evaluated in a series of training workshops in the UK and in Kiev, Ukraine involving 114 participants. Ninety-five per cent of respondents rated WMP as useful for their current work and felt confident to try the approach.
Participants in focus groups commented that the pressures of the care system can lead to the psychological and emotional experiences of infants and young children being less recognized. Although child-led play is fundamental in early years education, and central to most developmental interventions, in the contexts of children in care, less attention may be given to the need for free play and to the emotional lives of babies and young children.
Feedback from social workers highlighted the value of sharing observations for a better understanding of the child and their needs.
Produced with funding from the Tavistock Clinic Foundation, the manual is available for downloading by parents, caregivers and professionals at:
Translations are underway into Estonian, Italian, Japanese and Russian.
For more information, please contact Jenifer Wakelyn.
Hillen, T., Gafson, L., Drage, L. and Conlan, L.M. (2012) ‘Assessing the prevalence of mental health disorders and needs among preschool children in care in England’, Infant Mental Health Journal, 33 (4): 411-420. DoI: 10.1002/imhj.21327.
Wakelyn, J. (2011) Therapeutic observation of an infant in foster care. Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 37, (3), 280-310.
Wakelyn, J. (2019) Observation and Attention in professional network meetings for children in care. Infant Observation. DOI: 10.1080/13698036.2019.1683465
Wakelyn, J. (2020) Therapeutic Approaches with Babies and Young Children in Care: Observation and Attention. Abingdon, Karnac/Routledge.
Dr Jenifer Wakelyn
Dr Thomas Hillen
Ms Martina Weilandt
Ms Cheontell Barnes