by Kathy Eugster, MA
In this article, I would like to discuss what I call “advanced parent-child playtime.” In advanced parent-child playtime, parents may switch between facilitating either Parent-Directed Playtime (PDP) or Child-Directed Playtime (CDP). In other words, you have the choice to “jump in” to a Directive Role to facilitate PDP where you are structuring and directing the play, or to “back off” to a Nondirective Role to facilitate CDP where you are letting your child lead and direct the play.
Switching between PDP and CDP requires a solid knowledge of each of these two styles of parent-child play. I highly recommend that you become familiar with each style of parent-child play separately before trying to switch styles in the middle of a playtime! Please see my Blog and eBooks for more information on these two styles of parent-child play.
However, being able to switch between PDP and CDP is a very useful skill for parents. As I have said earlier, neither style of play is “better” than the other. At certain times, CDP can be useful to allow your child to feel a sense of control and independence in the playtime, and at other times, PDP can be useful to support and guide your child more directly in playtime.
Be Sensitive to Your Child’s Responses
During playtime, it’s helpful to observe how your child responds to you and to ask yourself the following questions:
Is my child:
- engaging well in the play?
- accepting my directions?
- becoming resistant or oppositional?
- disengaging from the play?
- becoming hesitant or unsure?
- appearing bored?
- getting out-of-control?
Being sensitive to your child during playtime is an important part of connecting with your child. Playtime is all about supporting your child to feel good about interacting with you. What sparks his interest and curiosity? What makes her laugh and look at you? By choosing a particular style of play, you can build and strengthen your connection with your child.
What Style of Play Should You Choose?
It’s helpful to ask yourself the following questions: What is my goal? What does my child need? Then consider the following very general guidelines:
Use CDP when you want to:
- Support your child by providing an environment of acceptance
- Give your child opportunities to make choices and decisions
- Allow your child to express herself
- Encourage your child’s imagination and creativity
Use PDP when you want to:
- Support your child by structuring the playtime
- Stimulate your child to engage in play
- Regulate your child’s emotions and nervous system
- Guide your child in mastering challenges and learning skills
Let’s look at some examples now of when you could switch from one style of play to another in order to maintain a healthy and happy playtime with your child.
Switching From PDP to CDP
You have started with PDP and have taken out the blocks and suggested that you and your child build a fort for the king and queen and that the knights will be guarding it. You are helping your child by setting up the fort with blocks, setting up the knights around the fort, and putting the king and queen in the fort. Your child is giving you many directions and wants you to set things up his way. He rejects any help you offer. He is constantly telling you what he wants you to do. Every time you add something interesting to the fort, he tells you to do it a different way!
You decide to switch to CDP and follow your child’s directions on setting up the fort and the characters. If you are not sure what to do, you ask your child for directions and clarification. You allow your child to set up the fort in his own way, even if it is not the way you would set it up. For example, he may be building an unstable tower that will likely fall down, but you allow the natural consequences that the tower may possibly fall down to happen. You refrain from telling your child what to do or not do. As long as things are safe and not destructive, you allow the play to unfold the way your child directs.
You have started with PDP and have chosen the board game Snakes and Ladders to play with your child. You are setting things up and reminding your child about the rules and how to play the game. You begin the game, but after a few turns you notice your child is appearing bored and disinterested. She may be starting to complain she never gets the right number when throwing the dice or may even be wanting to take an extra turn.
You decide to switch to CDP and forget about the “real” rules and play the game the way your child wants. Allow your child to take an extra turn if she wants. Ask your child how many spaces you should move or where you should go on the board. Let your child know that she can make up “new” rules for the game. Follow your child’s directions on how the game unfolds, remaining neutral and objective.
Switching From CDP to PDP
You started with CDP and your child has chosen to play with the small dinosaurs. She has set two teams of dinosaurs up on the floor and has told you they are going to have a contest and fight each other. She holds one dinosaur in each hand and begins to have them fight each other. One wins and the other loses. This is repeated several time, but you notice your child is getting more agitated and wild with her movements. You know from past experience that your child can easily get over-excited and out-of-control and may start throwing her toys wildly.
You decide to switch to PDP to structure the playtime in order to regulate your child’s increasing emotional arousal. You take some deep breaths to regulate your own nervous system and slow your speech and movements down. You then take on the role of a referee dinosaur in order to reduce the intensity of the fighting between your child’s dinosaurs. You take a dinosaur that is not being used and give your dinosaur a voice by saying something like, “I’m the referee. Each fight will last only 5 seconds, then the fighting stops and the winner is declared!” Monitor your child’s emotional arousal level. Ideally, your child will accept your referee dinosaur’s directions and remain self-regulated. She may still be expressing aggressive themes in the play, such as the dinosaurs fighting, and that is okay as long as she herself does not get emotionally or behaviorally out-of-control.
You started with CDP and your child has chosen to set up the furniture in the dollhouse. She has repeated this activity several times recently and you notice she puts the same furniture in the same places in each room. You get the feeling that your child may be hesitant to make any changes or add anything different to the play. Or, you may get the feeling she is bored.
You decide to switch to PDP to see how your child reacts to you becoming more directive and structuring the play. You decide to add an outdoor play area beside the dollhouse and start setting up this area by adding a fence, play items, and maybe even a dog or cat or person. You could stimulate your child’s engagement by taking on the role of a neighbor coming over to play and acting in a surprising way, for example by getting the dog to chase the cat and the neighbor chasing the dog in a comical manner. You monitor your child’s reaction to your structuring of the play. Does she accept your additions to the play? Does she incorporate any of your themes into her play? Does she come up with new ideas for how the play unfolds? If so, you are on the right track in supporting your child to a more elaborated playtime.
Switching From CDP to PDP and Back to CDP
You decide to start with CDP to give your child an opportunity to lead and direct the playtime. However, your child struggles with initiating and engaging in a play activity with you. He seems unsure of what to do and cannot decide on an activity. He may even want you to entertain him.
You decide that your child needs a more structured approach to playtime and you switch to PDP. You choose a play activity that you think would spark your child’s interest and you start setting up the necessary toys and materials needed. You invite your child to participate in the play by giving clear directions, supporting your child in mastering the activity, and positively reinforcing him for his efforts. For example, you suggest to your child that you set up a garage for his cars. You find an old box and get your child to collect his favorite cars. You cut holes in the box for the doors and windows and draw parking spaces inside the box. You ask your child where each car should be parked. You could add a gas pump out the front. You could also use the box lid for the roof and add some parking spots there as well.
You monitor your child’s responses to your ideas. Is he watching you? Following your directions? Starting to help you? Starting to do something himself? Starting to give you directions? Starting to provide ideas? Starting to tell you what is happening in the play? These are all indications that your child is engaging well with you in the play.
When your child is interested and engaging well in the playtime, this is a great time to let your child take over and lead the play. You can now switch to CDP and continue with this style of play and ideally your child will continue to engage well in playtime. Continue with CDP for as long as your child is engaging in playtime. You also have the choice to switch to PDP if your child needs added structure at some point.
What You Can Do Next
During playtime, try switching styles of play between CDP and PDP. Notice how your child responds.
- When does your child engage better with CDP? With PDP?
- How easy is it for you to switch styles of play?
- Can you easily distinguish between when you are facilitating CDP or PDP?
Please remember that switching between CDP and PDP is an advanced form of parent-child play and the important thing is that you are able to distinguish between the two styles of play.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2021.
Please feel free to pass on this article to anyone you think might find it useful.