By Kathy Eugster, MA
What is Child-Directed Play?
Before we look at child-directed play, let’s look at defining play itself. I like to look at play as a freely chosen activity that has no specific goal to be achieved, other than just enjoying the activity. For children, play is natural and is something most children engage in without having to be taught how to play. Over the years, child development experts have found that play in childhood is necessary for a child’s healthy intellectual, emotional, physical, and social development.
Now let’s look at child-directed play. This is play where your child decides how to play and what to play with. Another term for this type of play would be child-led play. Generally, when children play by themselves, they are engaging in child-directed play, which can also be called unstructured play. When you and your child play together, child-directed play happens when your child is in charge of the play activities and you follow your child’s directions. Although unsafe or destructive play is not allowed, your child can play in just about any way he or she chooses.
What are the benefits of playing with your child in a child-directed way?
Child-directed play between parent and child has been highly recommended by child development professionals as a type of play that parents and children can both benefit from. I like to organize these benefits as follows:
- Strengthens the Parent-Child Relationship. Numerous research studies have proven that child-directed play between you and your child is one of the best ways to strengthen your relationship with your child.
- Helps to Improve Your Child’s Behaviors. The closer the bond and the stronger the relationship between the two of you, the more your child will want to please you and comply with your requests. This means a better-behaved child!
- Encourages Healthy Emotional Development in Your Child. When you engage in child-directed play with your child, you are providing your child with a safe and accepting environment which is essential for the healthy emotional development of children, including the development of your child’s self-regulation abilities.
- Provides Your Child with Benefits of Play in General. Play has been found to be essential for the intellectual, emotional, physical, and social development in children. When you and your child engage together in child-directed play, you are providing your child with all the benefits of play.
- Allows You to Build Confidence in Your Playing and Parenting Skills. When you learn how to play with your child in a child-directed manner, you are developing skills that support positive interactions between you and your child. In addition, the skills you learn for child-directed play can be generalized to real-life situations outside of playtime, so that you can continue to strengthen your relationship with your child and to support your child’s healthy development.
Basics of playing with your 3-10 year-old child in a child-directed way
There are 6 key concepts or strategies for you, as a parent, to keep in mind when you decide to play in a child-directed way with your 3-10 year-old child:
- Parent is in a nondirective role
- Parent uses empathy towards child
- Parent grants autonomy and independence to child
- Parent uses descriptive encouragement rather than praising child excessively
- Parent follows child’s directions when joining in play
- Parent will not allow any unsafe or destructive behaviors
Concept #1: Parent is in a nondirective role
In child-directed play, your child is leading the play and is taking on a directive role, and you will be following your child’s lead and directions and taking on a nondirective role. You will refrain from telling your child what to do or not do. That means no suggestions, corrections, instructions, directions, etc. to your child. Also, refrain from asking questions to your child since questions can be directive and tend to distract your child from the play and put pressure on him or her to provide you with the right answer.
Basically, when you are in the nondirective role, you are allowing your child to make his or her own choices and decisions, remembering of course, not to allow any unsafe or destructive behaviors.
Engaging in child-directed play with your child should be distinct from other times in your child’s life. This is not a time to teach your child something or correct him or her. Teaching, correcting, and giving advice can be done at other times.
Examples of things NOT to say during child-directed play with your child:
- “No, that’s not the right way. Here, let me show you.”
- “I think it would be easier if you used this block.”
- “Let’s play with your dinosaurs today.”
- “That’s not how you’re supposed to play this game.”
- “Why don’t you try to put the doll in here.”
- “Are you having fun?”
- “What are you doing?”
- “What’s that supposed to be?”
Concept #2: Parent uses empathy towards child
In child-directed play, you will be striving to attune to your child and to understand your child’s inner experiences by using your empathy skills. You will be providing your full attention to your child and observing objectively what your child is doing. You will be identifying and accepting your child’s feelings and inner experiences during the playtime. You will be responding to your child in a way that shows empathy towards your child. You will refrain from being judgemental of your child’s feelings and choices.
Examples of showing empathy by observing and objectively describing what your child is doing:
- “You’re putting those cars into the garage.”
- “Now you are drawing a picture.”
- “I see that you’ve decided to play with those balls.”
- “That airplane just crashed right into the other one.”
- “You’re trying to fit that block in there.”
Examples of showing empathy by objectively identifying feelings coming up in the play:
- “You’re feeling really excited to find that bracelet.”
- “I can see you are feeling curious about how that car works,”
- “You’re feeling frustrated that the block won’t fit there.”
- “Looks like that dinosaur is feeling really angry.”
- “That puppet is feeling silly today.”
Concept #3: Parent grants autonomy and independence to child
In child-directed play, you will provide your child with opportunities to make choices and decisions and to problem-solve and figure things out by him or her self.
You will refrain from jumping in immediately and taking over for your child. This can be difficult for many parents! Parents are often encouraged to help and support their children. With child-directed play, you are supporting your child in making choices (as long as they are safe and non-destructive) and in learning from his or her choices.
Examples of what you can say to your child to encourage independence:
- “You can choose what to do.”
- “You can decide how you want to use it.”
- “You’re figuring that out yourself.”
- “You’ve decided to do it that way.”
However, if your child continues to struggle with something, and is getting frustrated, cannot decide what to do, or may be asking for help, you would then temporarily step into a directive role to provide a small amount of guidance or assistance to your child. You would only provide enough assistance that would allow your child to continue on independently with the playtime, and you would then return to being in a nondirective role.
Concept #4: Parent uses descriptive encouragement rather than praising child excessively
In child-directed play, you will provide encouragement your child by focusing on his or her feelings, efforts and strengths, and refrain from praising your child excessively for a specific outcome (eg. “Fantastic painting!” “Good work putting that together without any help!” “Your picture is very beautiful; I love that you filled the page!” “Great shot, just like I showed you!”). Praise can be interpreted by your child as being somewhat directive, so is not appropriate for child-directed play, whereas encouragement will empower your child.
Praise can be used outside of child-directed play when you are teaching your child something, since praise encourages the behavior that is being praised. However, in child-directed play, your goal is not to teach or encourage your child to do anything, but rather just to enjoy being together.
Examples of what you can say to encourage your child instead of praising your child:
- “It looks like you know how to put that together!”
- “You worked really hard on that.”
- “You’re feeling very happy with what you did.”
- “That looks difficult, but you’re determined to get that!”
Concept #5: Parent follows child’s directions when joining in play
In child-directed play, you will wait for your child to tell you what to do in the playtime and then follow your child’s directions. Your child may want you to do a specific task, ask you to engage together in imaginary play, or want to play a game or do an activity with you that has rules or instructions. In any of these situations, you will follow your child’s directions and do what your child is asking you to do or play the way he or she wants you to play.
Of course, if your child is asking you to do something unsafe or destructive, you would not do what your child has directed, but rather you would re-direct your child to an appropriate behavior.
Examples of what you would say and do after your child has asked you to do something:
- Your child asks you to put a sweater on the doll; you could say, “Okay, you want me to put this sweater on her now.” You then proceed to put the sweater on.
- Your child says, “You’re the teacher!” You will role-play being a teacher in the way you think your child likes. Your child will direct you on what to do if you do not act the way he or she wants, so just follow along with his or her directions.
- Your child says, “Dad, let’s play ‘Sorry’.” You will play however your child wants to play the game, even if it is not according to the real rules and favors your child winning.
Concept #6: Parent will not allow any unsafe or destructive behaviors
In child-directed play, although you are in a nondirective role, you are accepting your child’s feelings and inner experiences, you are allowing your child to make his or her own choices or decisions, and you are following your child’s directions, you are also not allowing any unsafe or destructive behaviors from your child. If you notice your child is engaging in, or is about to engage in, any unsafe or destructive behaviors during the playtime, you would put yourself into a directive role temporarily and set limits on these unsafe or destructive behaviors.
In child-directed play, unsafe and destructive behaviors by the child are not allowed and it is the parent’s responsibility to ensure that the playtime stays safe and fun.
Playing in a child-friendly area that is safe and has age-appropriate toys is very important in child-directed play in order to maximize acceptable choices your child could make in the play and minimize limits you would need to set for unsafe or destructive play.
Examples of how you can set limits on unsafe or destructive behaviors in play:
- “No hitting! Hitting hurts and it is not okay.”
- “Stop! It’s not okay to throw that hard car. Throw this soft ball instead.”
- “I can see you are really feeling excited, but it is not okay to pull on that toy so hard that it might break.”
- “Play-doh needs to stay on the table.”
- “It’s not okay to climb on that.”
Let me just summarize:
Child-directed play has been recommended by child development experts as a very beneficial way for children to play, especially with their parents. When children are able to direct the play by making their own choices and decisions, they get to experience a sense of control. Children generally have very limited opportunities to experience this sense of control, however they do need opportunities to make choices and decisions, because it is this feeling of being in control that is important for the development of children’s self-esteem and self-identity.
Child-directed play allows children the freedom to explore and to use and develop their imaginations and creative thinking skills. By doing so, children are learning to solve problems, develop new ideas, and understand their worlds better.
For a parent to spend time playing with his or her child is often seen as a luxury, especially these days when there are so many demands being put on parents. However, playing with your child in a child-directed manner, even for only 10 or 15 minutes, can be one of the most beneficial and valuable things you can provide for your child.
What You Can Do Next:
I encourage you to use the above 6 Key Concepts for Child-Directed Play and to try child-directed play with your 3-10 year-old child.
- It may be helpful to just focus on one concept at a time. For example, to start, you could focus only on the first concept of putting yourself in a nondirective role when you are playing with your child. The main things to keep in mind would be don’t tell your child what to do or not do, don’t give your child any suggestions or instructions, and don’t ask your child any questions.
- Then, during a different playtime with your child, you could focus on the second concept of using your empathy skills with your child. You would provide your full attention to your child and communicate objectively what you are noticing with your child, especially any feelings coming up in your child.
- As you feel more comfortable with each concept, you can try to combine them using several at once.
- Here are some questions you may find helpful to reflect afterwards on:
- How did my child respond to me using a particular concept? Did my child engage more or less in the playtime?
- How did I feel using a particular concept with my child? What was challenging?
- How did the playtime go in general? Was it more enjoyable? Easier? More difficult?
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2021.
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