A YES space is a gift to both children and their parents. It offers children ownership of a safe place that encourages play, learning, creativity, agency, and a strong sense of self. Parents get to enjoy one the great pleasures of parenting – observing their infant or toddler as they explore and master the world around them. Janet describes YES spaces in form and function, dispelling some common misconceptions and sharing tips about how children and parents can benefit the most.
Transcript of “YES Spaces – What They Really Are and Why They Matter”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to talk a little about YES spaces. YES space is the term that I coined for Magda Gerber’s concept for cultivating your child’s learning and creating through play by offering a 100% safe space.
First I want to give a little background. I first used the term YES space … Actually, I called it “yes place,” I think, in my post in 2010 called Baby Interrupted, which was about how we can encourage a long attention span and encourage play and encourage learning by being careful around interrupting children beginning as infants. It’s a normal thing that we all do, that I did before I learned about this approach. We don’t consider that babies or young children are doing something of great value. So when we want to show them something, tell them to look over here, or we just want to say hi, we tend to interrupt.
And one of the ways that we interrupt children playing is when they are getting into inappropriate things or doing something unsafe. What Magda Gerber said is give them a 100% safe space, which means enclosed. And a lot of people don’t realize this part. Maybe they’ve heard the term YES space, but they don’t realize that that actually must mean the space is enclosed, so that a child can’t wander out of it into an unsafe situation.
So with this kind of space, we set children up for success, for them to explore as extensively as they need to, within reason, of course. If it’s long after lunchtime or there’s another reason that we need to interrupt, then we do. But as much as possible, we want to give them free rein to do what children do best, which is explore, learn. They are the masters at this. So we trust them to develop their skills and follow their own interests in this safe space, where we’re not having to say no, don’t do this, don’t do that.
When I first came online to share about Magda Gerber’s approach to parenting, also known as the RIE approach, and I termed it “respectful parenting.”… When I first started doing this, it was late in 2009, and the climate online at that time was very much Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting. And it was really more mommy blogs than early childhood education websites. Mostly what was talked about was babywearing, breastfeeding, bed sharing. Everything was about physical connectedness, and there wasn’t any talk about babies possibly being able to initiate their own activities and have that agency. And so there wasn’t information out there about encouraging self-directed play or about parents taking a break from their child and having a safe place so they were able to do that. That just wasn’t part of the conversation. And in fact, if a child was placed down, a lot of the attitude was well, they should be able to be free inside the whole house.
I remember when I would bring up the enclosed place space with a gate, that was thought of as a jail, a prison, a cage that we would never do to a child. So when I was presenting it in Baby Interrupted, this idea, I wanted people to see the positive — that actually freedom is not having run of the house when your parent is needing to interrupt whatever you’re doing. You’re naturally as a young child going to get into those places to see if this thing is allowed and that thing is allowed. That’s just part of your job as a learner. What are the rules here? What gets my parent excited? What gets them upset? What brings them to me? So children are naturally going to be driven to do that. And it’s not as freeing for them, or as freeing for parents to be told, “no, no, no, stop. You can’t do this. You can’t do that.” And have your parent naturally getting impatient, getting frustrated, getting annoyed. That’s just going to happen in that dynamic.
So anyway, that’s why I framed it as a YES space, because I was wanting to communicate this idea that this is a freedom place for children and for parents to enjoy their children. Because we don’t have to say no. We don’t have to get up and stop them doing this or that.
We can also have a place where we can leave to go do something in the kitchen, to go to the bathroom. And we don’t have to bring our child with us so that we’re trying to do things with one hand, holding a child, sometimes unsafe things in the kitchen. We can step away with peace of mind because we know that our child is in a safe place.
And Magda Gerber’s requirement for a 100% safe place was: if for some reason the parent or the caregiver got locked out of the house for four hours, the child would be safe. The child would probably not be happy. The parent or caregiver would definitely not be happy about that, but they would be safe. That was her standard, because safety is always number one.
So that’s a little background.
I noticed that this term is used widely now and that’s very exciting, that people are understanding the importance of encouraging play by setting children up for success. I only wish that they would at least credit Magda Gerber for the concept, if not credit me for the term. But anyway, ultimately I’m happy that this is becoming widely understood and advised.
So another less known fact about YES spaces is that they need to be part of a daily routine for us to really be respecting our child in them. We can’t expect that we can just use it as a drop off place. Oh, now I’ve got to go do something. I’m going to put my child in this place. Children are not going to accept that happily, nor should they really.
YES spaces are places that children love to be in. This is their place. This is where they have their “me time.” This is where they get to be trusted and enjoyed by us when we are there present — fully present sometimes, just interested in what they’re doing, not trying to get them to do more or less or different, just being with our child and our child getting all those incredibly accepting, empowering messages as they get to be agents of their own learning and their own interests and their own life.
So these are very positive places. We are there in a comfortable seat. What we do in the parent-child classes at Resources for Infant Educarers is we use these things called backjacks that are kind of floor seats. Maybe you already know what those are. So we’re sitting on the floor. We’re available to our child. We’re not with our phones or distracted in those times. We’re just there. We’re present, no expectations. If our child chooses to spend that time on our lap, we let that be as well. We don’t try to engage them. We don’t try to set up special play and get them to do it. We just use it as time to be.
And children will play. They will seldom just sit with the parent unless they feel that the parent might get up and leave any moment or isn’t otherwise really paying attention to them. And then they kind of feel like they have to draw that parent in and keep them a part of it. They can’t let go of us until they trust that we’re going to be there for a bit.
We want to have this as part of our daily routine. Children will naturally prepare themselves when they know what’s going to happen next. And we can also communicate it verbally to them again. We can say, “Okay, after we had breakfast, then we’re going to change your diaper.” And I would do this with an infant for sure. “Then it’ll be time for play. And I will be with you for a while, and then I will get up to leave.” And so our child knows that after breakfast, after diaper changes, there’s playtime and my parent’s with me. And then after a certain amount of time, perhaps my parent gets up, my parent tells me they’re getting up. They don’t try to sneak away because then I’ve got to be sitting on them or totally focused on them because they could just disappear.
So we want to be honest. And if they say no, we don’t want you to go, or they have a feeling about that, we want to acknowledge it. “I hear you don’t want me to go to the bathroom right now. Yes, I get that. I’ll be right back.”
And we still go. We don’t go for a long time if our child seems distressed, but we still go for a minute and do at least some part of what we wanted to do, and then we come back back and say, “Oh yeah, that was really hard for you. You didn’t want me to go.”
Instead of saying “Hey, I just went to the bathroom, it’s okay. I’m back.” We want to remember to lean into the feelings and feel safe about them ourselves, because they are healthy. It’s wonderful for children to be able to say. “Hey, I don’t want you to go.” Why would they want us to leave?
We want to come back and say, “Yeah, that was not fun for you. You did not like me going to the bathroom. I hear you. Now I’m back.”
If we start this quite early, children will actually get used to and revel in this time. We will be able to leave without them being upset a lot of the time, unless they’re going through sensitive periods, separation anxiety, they’re tired that day, and then we do our best to adjust to that. But we still take care of ourselves when we need to, and we just don’t prolong it.
That’s how to cultivate these ideas working. We’re with our child, and then we are also allowing them to be in the space while we do other things.
And we want this to be in a place that’s very convenient to us, so it’s next to the kitchen, always within earshot. We always want to be able to hear our child, even if there are in a 100% safe place, we want to be able to hear the sound that they’re making if they need help and have it be, again, as convenient as possible.
For a very small baby, it can be a crib or a playpen. And then as babies become mobile and need more space, it can be a small part of a room or even a hallway people have used. We used to use … It wasn’t even quite half of our family room playroom area. We had a bookcase that was like a standing bookcase, not too tall, so it was safe. It couldn’t be knocked over. And we had that dividing the room. Then we also had a gate that was partly hooked into that and then hooked into the doorway.
So even when children don’t need the gate part anymore, they’re two years old or more than two years old, and we feel safe about having them be in and out, they still love the same space. Mine did. That was their play space, that was where all these magical things happened. That’s the way that we want to present this.
And then here’s another little known fact… When we are with our child in the safe place, in the YES space, we want to have the gate closed or the door closed, not having it open when we’re there and then closing it when we leave. We want to establish this as early as possible, ideally with our infant, who’s just starting to play and maybe they’re not even moving yet. We want to establish the space as an enclosed space, so that it’s not a surprise and a message saying now I’m leaving, so I’m going to close you in. Children will naturally object to that. And it makes sense because they’re very sharp and they’re taking in everything in the environment at all times. Alison Gopnik called this their lantern attention, as opposed to — as we get older, we have more of a spotlight type attention where we’re focusing on one thing and we’re not noticing the rest of it. Well, young children actually cannot do that. They will take in everything.
So establishing that enclosed area. That’s what a YES space is. And enjoying the yes factor as parents who can relax and be in the space and not have to get up and worry, and we can just stay in one place and enjoy whatever our children are doing. We’re not always silent. If our child is looking to us for a response or verbalizing something to us, then of course we respond, “Yes, I was watching you do that.”
So we take interest in, sometimes it looks like nothing, but if you really are looking, they’re doing something. A lot of people have said that they’ve noticed that their child was actually looking into a beam of light coming from a window that the parent didn’t even notice, but then finally did, or they took a picture and then they noticed. Children are always thinking and learning and doing interesting things. If we can bring ourselves down to that slower, more beginner’s mind pace that they have, it’s wonderful. We get to see through their eyes, the world and all the little miracles that we tend to miss.
So now the fun part, what is inside the YES space. There have been studies about less toys causing children to want to play longer. And what Magda said is “simple toys,” so that the child is busy learning and creating and exploring and understanding everything they can about that little stainless steel cup, rather than pushing a button, a song plays and then they can’t really understand how that works ever. They can’t really master that. They can’t use it in a variety of creative ways. They are more passive to those kinds of toys. And therefore, those kinds of toys are less encouraging for them. They don’t have that sense of confidence in their ability to understand something in their environment.
But if they can turn it every direction, put it on top of things, under things, around things, put it on their head, put it in their mouth, which they all do — in the first year at least they’re putting everything in their mouth to feel it. So we want to have the toys ideally be encouraging for learning, encouraging for mastery.
And what we’ve noticed in our parent infant classes and toddler classes, because they basically take place in a YES space, where the parents are sitting there on the floor, just paying attention. Sometimes we’re talking as well, but other times we’re just observing quietly what the children are doing. That’s the most fun part to me. What we notice is that what children will do is use those same items that they used as infants in different ways that are valuable to them as they get older.
So again, going to that stainless steel cup that I recommend, it’s like a condiment cup, they’re very inexpensive. I’ve linked to them on my website. That baby might hold it, feel that on their lips and their mouth, maybe drop it and see how it kind of spins.
Then as the child gets older, they’re pretending to drink from it and giving the parent a drink, saying “I’m making coffee” or stacking them in different ways, putting other toys inside them, making rows of things. There’s a never ending amount of things that children can do with simple toys.
And often a child will do something totally unique that I’ve never seen before, after teaching for 20 years. It’s pretty amazing.
So this is one of the differences in this approach… We don’t recommend switching out toys — that we take away the toys that were there and put out all new ones. Why? Because we don’t feel that’s as respectful to a child who loves to predict, loves to know their environment, feel that sense of confidence of knowing, and maybe wanting to use that item again and not able to tell us that. And then they just notice, oh, that’s not here.
So we believe that it’s more encouraging and respectful to not be moving toys in and out of the play space as a choice that the parent makes. And if we do want to take things out, it’s nice to say to your child, “You know, it seems like you don’t really use these. So I’m thinking that we’ll put these away for a while, or we’ll give these away,” to give your child that heads up.
Another thing is, as much as I love the aesthetic, personally, of all the beautiful wooden toys, those are fine for one child, but you don’t want to have big heavy things that a child could hit another child with accidentally or could be harmful. So sometimes the most beautiful toys are not as freeing for children or for us as the ones that are plastic. Be sure to get the non-toxic plastic. They are lighter.
I remember I used to go into Pier One Imports or one of these import stores and be picking up interesting objects. And I would sort of knock them on my head to see how hard they were if they were to hit a child on the head. That was to ensure safety with group play.
And also with group play, you want to be able to wash the toys easily. So that’s another reason to maybe choose more of the lighter, more plastic-y type things than the heavy wood.
Here’s another difference in this approach… We want to have, ideally, different types of objects or toys in the environment. And maybe if we’re trying to minimize, just one or two of each type of toy. So we want to have something for their gross motor skill development. We used to use these big square cubes made of wood that were hollow on the inside that a child could crawl through, they could pull up on. Later, they could climb up on and even stand on and jump off. There was something that they could grow with and use in a lot of different ways.
Also, you’ve seen me share, it’s called a rocking boat, but it’s actually better used, especially in the early months, as a step climber. It’s arc-shaped. And so it can turn over to be this rocking boat, but it’s made of wood and you can pad the floor around it if you’re worried. You want to be attentive maybe in the beginning to see how your child does with it. You don’t want to help them up or help them down. You just want a spot so that they don’t fall unsafely. But we don’t want to give them a false sense of balance by grabbing them off of it or putting them on it or helping them do it. It’s really important for children to find that balance in themselves. It makes them so much safer. So we like to trust them to use it however they’re ready to.
Also, you could just use a coffee table that’s safe, where children could pull up and use that to cruise on. And there are foam pieces, also, that you can use.
So anyway, something for gross motor, and then for fine motor, you can get manipulatives, which are basically like a bunch of one type of thing that are smallish. You don’t want to too small for choking, but we used to have these little nuts and bolts that were made of hard plastic that would all be in a bucket together or a colander, or they might even be Duplos or Legos as children get older. So having those types of manipulative toys, where there’s several of one of the same thing together in a bucket, and then children can use that different ways. They can shake the bucket and make the sound. Anyway, there’s endless variety of things they can do with those as well.
So that kind of toy for fine motor, then things that are firmer like stainless steel and the wood, and also soft toys, like maybe there’s a stuffed animal or a soft baby doll. And then there’s also maybe a harder material, baby doll, a more lifelike baby doll.
So hard, soft, maybe a soft area that has big pillows around it. And then maybe there’s a little basket of books there. Although books are kind of a separate category because you can’t do everything with a book. Well, you can, but it’s not great for babies to put books in their mouth and chew them and throw them around, so that we kind of want to keep separate. But in a home, it could be nice to have a little basket of board books there that we just keep more of an eye on children using those appropriately. Or we have the books up a little bit and we don’t have them in the free play area.
Balls, can’t get enough balls in a play area. Different kinds of balls are nice to have, different sizes, different materials, soft ones, harder ones, lighter ones, ones that are a tiny bit heavier, maybe, they’re still safe. So a whole basket of balls is wonderful to have. A lot of learning and play happens with balls.
I’m going to share at the end of this, a whole bunch of resources for the types of toys and videos, where you can see a play space set up and children playing in them. But yeah, it can be a lot of fun as parents, and this is our creative contribution to play, ideally, that we get to choose the items and set up the play area.
Then from there, we have a big challenge of letting go to what children are doing. If they’re turning the rug over to the wrong side, we let it be. And there’s just a fun kind of letting go and trusting everything they do is perfect as it is. It’s all about them and their choices and what they’re choosing to learn. It can be such an educational experience for us in knowing our child. And again, the messages they receive from this are just so empowering and loving and accepting and easy to give, really. We just have to set it up and let go and trust them.
The last thing I want to say is outdoors is also wonderful. It’s never entirely safe. We always have to keep somewhat of an eye on outdoor play because we can’t control some of the elements, even if we have a gated area set up, which I did with my young children when they were babies. But wow, if you can have a window where you look out and your child is there and then you can easily step out if you need to…! And then you can make your life outdoors as much as possible. Magda Gerber highly recommended that. She said to have a table outside where you have your coffee. In the old days we had newspapers, but you could have your laptop maybe out there. So having time where you’re just doing your work or having a snack and enjoying your child in their play space that’s near you, or you are sitting in there with them.
Children play usually much longer outdoors and they love it, helps them sleep better, eat better. It’s wonderful for us as well. Just really elevates the whole experience.
So anyway, that’s a little about yes spaces and I hope it’s helpful. Let me know if you want to hear more or on certain aspects, I will do another podcast on this. So thank you! and hope it helps.
Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. There are many of them and they’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.
And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com, and an audio at Audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.
(Large photo is of wonderful Isabel courtesy of her mother Yeni ♥)
More YES Space and play resources:
What is Play? by Lisa Sunbury Gerber
Setting up a Play Space by Kate Russell
Creating a Safe Play Space by Christina Vlinder
From me on this website:
7 Gifts That Encourage Child Directed Play
Infant Play – Great Minds at Work
How to Create a ‘Yes Space’ Outdoors When You Don’t Have a Yard
Play Space Inspiration and Outdoor Play Spaces (I can’t vouch for the safety of these parent-submitted spaces, but they’re great for ideas)
Baby-Led Adventures — 5 Reasons Babies Need to Lead
Better Toys for Busy Babies
Creative Toys Engage Babies
Shhh… Babies Playing (Scenes from a RIE Parenting Class)
Fearless Baby, Empowered by Risk
You may also wish to check out my recommended toy section and the many videos on my YouTube Channel