“Observing a child at play: mother and toddler interaction”

Published: 2019/12/09 Number of words: 3422


The field of human development and growth, beginning from the birth of a baby, has been vigorously researched by psychologists and psychiatrists; the former working from the standpoint of normality, the latter on abnormality. This has led to the formulation of

wide-ranging theories about human growth and, more specifically, about infant and child development. Some of these are known as “grand theories” because of their scope, e.g. the cognitive development of Piaget (1955), the behaviourism of Skinner (1938) and the psychoanalysis of Freud (1917). Other, more recently developed, theories focus on integrating knowledge drawn from different disciplines, e.g. the social constructionism of Vygotsky (1986) who was influenced by Wittgenstein (1981), existential approaches (Kitano and Levine 1987; Gendlin 1962) and feminist approaches to and critiques of the theory of development (Miller and Scholnik 2000). Psychiatry has given us the theory of attachment by Bowlby, (1969) Winnicott’s object relations theory (1989) and Stern’s theory of intersubjectivity. (1995). Stern, in particular, has provided a strong theoretical foundation in highlighting the importance of “attunement” in the interaction of mother and infant/child.

It is not within the purview of this essay to dwell on such theories and evaluate them. I merely intend to acknowledge the wealth of theories that can be drawn upon in attempting to integrate somatic practice with an understanding of how children develop into adults and how the childhood experience may impact adulthood. Thus, I shall refer to a number of these theoretical frameworks to make sense of my observational task. I will extract some underlying themes, drawing from my personal experience when observing and considering my position as an observer in terms of the social construct framework (Parker and Best 2005).

The context

The child I have been observing (R) is a two-year-old boy, the second child of a professional couple in their thirties. The family lives in an affluent suburb of London, close to parks and amenities.

Mother (S) has had professional dance training and is engaged in community dance work and academic teaching. Father (D) is a keen sportsman. The elder son (C), now five, shows an aptitude for dance and is undergoing semi-formal training. S leaves R with a child-minder when she goes to work. The minder also takes care of C after school hours.

My observation of R took place during March and April, at different times of the day. He interacted primarily with S but C was also present. D did not participate at any point. I endeavoured to focus specifically on R and how he interacted with S and, only occasionally, with C.

R is a friendly toddler who seems to be very self-assured and comfortably independent. He is not yet potty trained but, being a tall boy, R can seem older than he is. He is very mobile and there is the possibility that his parents and brother may be exerting some influence on him, the former by encouraging him to explore his physicality and the latter, as the older sibling, by being a model. Both children play rugby. The toddler has had three months practice in the tiny tots division of a local club.

Themes: play and language, movement and physicality

From my observations, two clearly identifiable core themes emerged for discussion: play and language. They interrelate with two other themes: movement and physicality.

1. Play and language

Vignette 1 (from observation notes of 6/3/11)

S is sitting on the sofa. R is sitting next to her and she is reading the story: “I took the moon for a walk”. Every time she reads a new page, R repeats what she says, pointing at the pictures. He knows the story, having already heard it. Half way through, R gets down and says “Rocket”. Moving confidently but with a typical toddler’s gait, (sustained and bound steps, body erect) he begins to climb the stairs in the passage. He holds onto the banister and takes alternate steps, but gives up. S goes to pick him up. “Where is the space rocket?” she asks. “Hiding in chair” says R. They both come back into the living room and S picks up a large toy plane. R sits cross legged on the sofa and says “astronaut flies”. He takes the plane, gets off the sofa with a sudden, quick movement and begins to roll on the carpet, making a noise to indicate he is flying. C and S join and they all roll on the carpet. R. keeps on rolling with a start-stop rhythm. He gets up quickly and, with good balance, stands still for a couple of seconds before beginning to roll on the carpet again. Suddenly he stops, shouts “crash” and climbs onto S who is still on the carpet with C.

Winnicott (1989) has discussed play at length. One can see clearly what he means by the preoccupation akin to concentration that we see in a young child at play. The area of play is outside the individual but not the external world. Playing implies trust, says Winnicott. It involves the body and is essentially satisfying (Winnicott 1989, 51-52). Winnicott goes on to discuss the search for the self: “It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (Winnicott 1989, p. 54).

Another interesting theme that emerged was the use of language in symbolic play. R’s imagination was verbally articulated; his play relied on meaningful symbolic actions. Stern has identified the formation of four different senses of self: the “emergent” which begins at birth to the “verbal”. The latter is what we see in toddlerhood (1985). As the toddler develops language s/he becomes able to engage in symbolic play but, always, the interaction with the mother or attachment figure is paramount. Stern names it “the motherhood constellation” in a book by the same name and defines it as: “a unique organization of mental life appropriate for and adapted to the reality of having an infant to care for” (1995, 3). While it is long-lasting, it subsides as the child becomes an adult.

Personal somatic response to the observation

As I watched R play with S, my response was one of almost mirroring S’s body posture at crucial moments in the play. I also found myself occasionally remembering my own play with my son when he was a toddler. I totally participated in the play even though I positioned myself physically at the periphery. R was conscious of my presence and often came towards me to involve me, especially when flying the rocket. When S picked him up, I almost expected her to carry him on her hip, which is what I used to do with my son – I learnt to do this when travelling in Southeast Asia when he was two. The play was so engaging that I felt I wanted to join in with the children and S.

2. Repetition and pretence

Vignette 2 (from observation notes of 9/ 4/2011)

S and the two children are in the garden. R is very interested in worms and spiders and bends down with his bottom up and his face close to the ground, to observe a long worm. He keeps on collecting soil and putting it into buckets, then stops, squats, and points at imagined worms and /or spiders. C goes in and out of the kitchen so S and R are often alone. Whatever S does, R duplicates through his actions. At some point he decides to fill the bucket with water. He fills it and then empties the bucket randomly, pretending to water plants. His actions are predictable: as he runs to the tap, he has quick steps but is still heavy and bound in his gait. He fills the bucket, gets wet, then turns around and brings the bucket to where S is. By then he has lost most of the water but still tries to empty the bucket. This happens again and again. From time to time he squats to look for worms, announcing their presence, even though there are none. He pretends to hand them to S who pretends to take them and puts them safely back in the soil. We can hear the sound of the next-door neighbour beginning to sweep. S. uses this opportunity to divert R’s attention. “What is he doing?” she asks. R immediately identifies the noise and wants to sweep the path. He grabs a large brush and drags it around, pretending to sweep. S let’s him play this way for a while and then gently diverts his attention again to planting a tree in a pot. C joins in.

Repetition and pretence in the symbolic play of toddlers are very important. In the above vignette we see how S encourages this by allowing R to pretend to find worms and sweep. Referring to Vigotsky, Newman and Newman (2006,200) explain that, “In pretend play, children address areas where they don’t yet feel competent in their lives and try to act as if they were competent”. Pretend games also allow toddlers to distinguish between reality and non-reality and it is the mother with her non-verbal cues that allows for this distinction (Lillard 2007).

Personal somatic response to the observation

As I watched, I felt a desire to respond to R’s movements by squatting and participating in the pretend sweeping. When he was carrying water, I felt like taking the bucket away from him and diverting his attention sooner than S did. I was also intrigued by the quality of R’s movements. He is quick, able to perform complex actions (see the next vignette) and seems to be well coordinated but, overall, he is quite bound. At times he demonstrates flexibility in his joints.

3. Movement and physicality

Vignette 3 (observation on 1/5/11, first hour spent at R’s home)

R and S in garden and C is with D. R wants to fetch a ball from the bottom of the garden, by the fence. It is a small garden, with a low tree and some plants, somewhat overgrown, near the wooden fence. S is watching R. The ball is behind a low branch and not easy to reach. R is trying to negotiate the narrow opening and slips behind the branch. Having picked up the small ball, he turns around to return to S but finds he can’t easily move. “Stuck” he says. “Are you stuck? Just crouch down, R, and slowly move forward. Bend your head so that you won’t hit the branch” says S. She waits for him to do it. R does exactly what she says. He crouches down very low, bends his head and tentatively puts his foot forward while dragging the other. He manages to extricate himself from that narrow space created by the obstruction of the low branch and runs to S with a big smile on his face. Throughout R’s efforts, S has refrained from picking him up but has been monitoring the situation. “Well done, R!” she says and hugs him. This is the first time he has ever done something as complex as this.

Vignette 4 (observation on 1/5/11, second hour spent in the children’s playground)

After playing briefly on a made up beach in the living room, with C joining in , S suggests we go to the local park. Both children get ready. On the way to the park, R runs after C but stops every time S calls him. He is aware of the Highway Code and knows the difference between the red and green lights. However, S holds his hand firmly at all crossings.

At the park we go to the children’s playground where R is interested in the slides. He repeatedly slides down and then walks up the slide with S’s help. He also attempts to walk on a unstable bridge made of wooden planks but is too scared to do it so unless S holds his hand. He then reaches the other slide and starts again – there are four connected by an unstable bridge on either side. Meanwhile C is displaying his balance and coordination by climbing a frame. Occasionally R wants to join him but then again becomes interested in the slides. He moves with determination and insists on climbing up the slide rather than just sliding down. He shows relatively good coordination and strength, moves quickly and, often, suddenly. He is able to climb on the frame with S’s vigilant help. From time to time, both children stop their exertions and come down to engage in pretend play – “this is my house”, “this is my school”. C leads and R participates. S is fully involved. The children pretend they own a shop and S is the customer. When another toddler approaches, R is not interested in playing with him and stakes his territory.

In both these vignettes the theme that emerges is that of motor skills, movement and physicality. Over a period of three weeks, I have observed R showing increasing mastery over his locomotion and his own physicality. He also has a very clear sense of self and his own independence. He does not always need S but is happy to return to her. He needs her support and encouragement. Typically, he is not too interested in other children of his age and, at best, engages in parallel play (Nisha 2006). According to Manning-Morton and Thorp, “ [when]Mobile babies and toddlers are beginning to experiment with physical and emotional independence, this is both exciting and frightening for the child who needs adults who will both support them in their explorations and comfort them in times of stress” (2003,13). In other words, toddlers’ overall development, including the achievement of physical milestones, needs to meet their need for secure attachment, as theorized by Bowlby (1969).

Personal somatic response to the observation

My responses on both occasions were embodied. When R was negotiating the difficulty task of crouching and lowering his head in order to come out of the spot where he was stuck, I felt nervous and feared he might hurt himself. I would have gone to his rescue. I felt my body tensing up and I was holding my breath. Finally, I experienced a sense of elation when he came out safely and unhurt. S was proud of him and lavished him with praise but without overdoing it.

At the park I also felt the enthusiastic physicality of R and walked around with him while taking notes. Occasionally I held my breath when he attempted something more daring, such as climbing (with help) the frame, like C was doing. By then we had established a different relationship. He would often look at me, expecting direct involvement and I smiled in response. S had to tell him that I needed to write and could not play.


I found the whole experience of observing and reflecting on the task very illuminating. I began by observing. Then, I felt my position shifting from observer to the observed by the child who would at times, especially during the last session, interrupt his play to come to me. In terms of the social construct proposed by Parker and Best (2005), I recorded my own experience, paying attention to my somatic reactions. I then shifted to a second position by identifying with the mother. I occasionally projected recollection of my own son’s childhood onto R. I tried to observe both mother and child from a neutral position and reflected on my overall observation from the third position. This was extremely helpful at a personal level as it allowed me to revisit my own mothering experience. The third position happened when I linked the observational data with the theory. Although I had been aware of different theoretical frameworks prior to beginning the observation, I waited until I completed the task to interweave the theory with the data. My own embodied responses played a crucial role in making overall sense of the experience.

This approach may be deemed to be eclectic. However, at this stage in my training, and with only four hours of observation, it is mandatory that I refer to the theories that can best help me to understand and reflect on the given task. As I progress in my course, I will be more able to review my own position. Overall, the observational process has given me insight into human development and growth and I have found the experience useful.


Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss: Volume 1: Attachment. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis

Freud, S. (1917) Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. Basingstoke: Penguin [Penguin Freud Library] (1991 edn)

Kitano, M. K. and LeVine, E. S. “Existential Theory. Guidelines for practice in child therapy” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol 24(3), Fall 1987, 404-413.

Gendlin, E.T. (1962). Experiencing and the creation of meaning. A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. New York: Free Press of Glencoe. Reprinted by Macmillan, 1970. (Also available at The Focusing Institute, 34 East Lane, Spring Valley, New York 10977; http://www.focusing.org).

Lillard,A. (2004) “Pretend Play in Toddlers” in C. Brownell and C. Kopp. eds Socioemotional development in the toddler’s year New York: The Guilford Press

Manning-Morton, J and Thorp, M. (2003) Key Times for Play. The first three years. Maidenhead: OUP

Miller, P. H. and Scholmick,E.K. (2000). Toward A Feminist Developmental Psychology. New York: Routledge

Newman, B. and Newman, P. (2006) Development through Life: A psychosocial approach Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning

Nisha, M. (2006) Milestones of child development New Delhi: Kalpaz Publications

Parker, G. and Best, P. (2005) “Reflecting Processes & Shifting Positions

In Dance Movement Therapy” e-motion Vol. XIV No.11, ADMTUK

Piaget , J. (1955) The Construction of Reality in the Child London: Kegan Paul

Skinner, B.F. (1938) The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: B.F. Skinner Foundation.

Stern, D.N. (1985) The interpersonal world of the infant London:Basic Books

_____________(1995) The motherhood constellation London: Karnac

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). “The genetic roots of thought and speech”. In A. Kozulin (Trans. & Ed.), Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Winnicott, D. (1989) Playing and reality London: Routledge [1971]

Wittgenstein, L. (1981) Philosophical Investigations G.E. M Anscombe trans. Oxford: Basil Blackwell (1958)

Cite this page

Choose cite format:
Online Chat Messenger Email
+44 800 520 0055