Family Play and Light


“Families are like branches on a tree. We grow in different directions yet our roots remain as one.”

Family play is ever present in our room. At most points of the day you will hear children pretending to cry, rocking their babies to sleep, scolding their babies for being too loud, or creating intricate family roles. It isn’t always clear what type of family they are being, human or animal. Or other! But alas, family play is here to stay as the children seem to be figuring out what exactly makes a family a family. How does it feel to take on the role of a parent, or a sister, or the baby. And where do they fit into all of that? They are no longer babies, but not yet the big sister.

Families are a tricky business, and this is an exploration that takes place every year.


Since we have been exploring light, I set up a provocation using both light and family concepts. I covered up two rope lights with a blanket, creating a stage like area. I then put pairs of different types of animals as well as natural loose parts around the rope light. Before the children chose areas of the room to play in, I had let them know this provocation was only available for two people at a time.


Very quickly, plans were needed to be made to ensure everyone will get a chance to use this provocation. They chose to use a five minute timer to ensure turn taking.

What was interesting about this provocation is children reacted to the light on the table in the same manner as they did in the studio previously. Children walked past the provocation quietly, pointing or pausing to watch in silence. There was a lot of movement and action taking place, but most of it was quiet, as if they were amidst something magical or sacred.


A had taken the larger set of animals and placed them outside of the lit area. She then took all of the smaller animals and huddled them together in a loop of a light rope. She said,

“These are the mommas and those are the babies. The baby giraffe is tall but that’s okay, it’s still a baby.”


E came over and picked up a baby animal. A took it back and said, “No you can’t take a baby from their bed.” E became upset and I sat with him for a moment to help him calm down. He said to A, “I want an animal.” A filled her arms with every “momma” animal and put them in front of E. E said, “No! I don’t want the moms I want the babies.”

A put the moms back and handed E the baby bear and the momma bear. E said thank you.


I thought it was interesting that once the baby bear was going to be separated from the other baby animals, A chose to pair them together.

A and E each played with the animals, primarily on their own. E had the baby bear playing with the momma bear, pretending they were wrestling and then cuddling. Meanwhile A brought all of the momma animals onto the floor.


A said, “The mommas are going to a meeting. They are going to have conversations with each other.” She then brought over the babies and paired them with the corresponding parent, “The babies didn’t want to let them talk.”


The next morning I wanted to see how light would effect another area of family play. I took our baby cribs and cozy materials out of our play house and left a light table, a basket of cooking utensils, and a bowl of gems. I draped a fabric over the house, to mimic the blanket I had placed over the animals the previous day.


L and P were the first children to arrive and they immediately went to the house and dropped into family roles. L was the caregiver (she didn’t specify what type of caregiver), and P was the baby. P would pick up something from the light table and L would grab it from her for a variety of reasons: “It’s hot sauce, you won’t like it.” “No baby, that’s too hot for you.” “No babies can’t use glass, it could cut you.” P replied, “Okay mama.” To which L came out of character, and told P she has to speak like a baby. P repeated, this time in a whinier voice, but soon after chose to play somewhere else.


Other pairs of children came and went, seemingly to have a harder time settling into roles assigned to them, no one wanting to play the baby role since the role restricted what they could or could not do with the materials.


What I wonder

  • If I place animals, baby dolls, or other figurines in the full size play house – would they have an easier time playing family in that area? It seems like taking on the roles themselves didn’t allow them enough control to stick with the play. The figurines seemed to allow them to flow between exploring what caregiver and baby roles without having to make it personal by taking on those roles themselves.
  • What would this look like with a different light source? If we draped the rope light over the house and on the ground rather than using a light table, would that allow children to be a bit more separated? Having one light source in the center of the house may have forced them in interact more than they wanted to.
  • What other ways can we use light to explore the different facets of what makes a family, and what is it about light that adds so much to these materials and explorations?

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