Kathy Eugster, MA
Parents have many questions around playing with their children. One question is, “When should I jump in and structure an activity, stimulate engagement, regulate emotional arousal, suggest ideas, or guide my child during playtime, and when should I back off and let my child take the lead, accept my child’s choices and decisions, follow my child’s directions, or allow my child some independence during playtime?”
To help parents with this question, I would like to discuss a particular parental role that parents can take on during parent-child playtime which I define as the “Directive/Nondirective Role.”
I like to imagine the Directive/Nondirective Role existing as two sides of a coin, or at each end of a line. On one side of the coin, or end of the line, parents would put themselves in a Directive Role and on the other side of the coin, or at the other end of the line, they would put themselves in a Nondirective Role. To make things simple, I like to explain that parents will put themselves on either one or the other side of the coin, or one or the other end of the line, meaning a parent could be in a Directive Role or in a Nondirective Role but not both at the same time.
During parent-child play, when parents put themselves into a Directive Role, they will lead or direct certain aspects of the play, resulting in parent-directed play. In a Nondirective Role, parents will let their children direct the play activities and will follow their children’s directions (as long as play remains safe and non-destructive), resulting in child-directed play.
Which is better: parent-directed or child-directed play?
Neither play approach is better than the other! Sometimes parent-directed play is appropriate and at other times child-directed play is appropriate. A very useful skill is knowing when to switch between these two styles of parent-child play, or in other words, when to switch between being in a Directive Role and a Nondirective Role. I believe it is a matter of being able to distinguish between and understand exactly what is involved when you take on either of these roles to facilitate each of these two styles of parent-child play. Here is a brief summary of each of the two styles of parent-child play I have identified, Child-Directed Playtime and Parent-Directed Playtime:
With Child-Directed Playtime you put yourself in a Nondirective Role and you will:
- Let your child lead and take control of the playtime
- Refrain from directing, making suggestions to, or correcting your child
- Follow your child’s directions
- Give your child opportunities to make choices and decisions
- Encourage and allow time for your child to problem-solve
- Support your child, but not take over
- Encourage and empower your child
- Attune emotionally to your child
- Provide your child with an environment of acceptance
- Switch temporarily to a Directive Role to limit unsafe or destructive behaviors, then return to a Nondirective Role
With Parent-Directed Playtime you put yourself in a Directive Role and you will:
- Structure the playtime with a specific objective in mind to support your child’s needs
- Initiate some kind of fun activity with your child
- Encourage and stimulate your child to engage in and maintain interactive play with you, especially if your child is hesitant to engage in the play
- Regulate your child’s emotional arousal level, especially if your child becomes over-aroused or out of control
- Support your child in mastering challenges and learning new skills
- Guide your child by giving clear directions, providing support and encouragement as needed, and positively reinforcing mastery of new skills
- Attune emotionally to your child
- Limit unsafe or destructive behaviors
Now comes The Big Question! Should I “jump in” and structure the play or should I “back off” and let my child lead the play?
In other words, should I take on a Directive Role or a Nondirective Role?
To help you with this very important question, there are two main things to consider.
#1. What is your goal?
- Do you mainly want to connect with your child in a positive way, enjoying each others company and also reaping all the benefits of parent-child playtime? In this case, you may want to take on a Nondirective Role engaging in Child-Directed Playtime and providing your child with an environment of freedom and acceptance.
- Or, do you have a specific developmental or learning objective that you want to assist your child with through a play activity? For example, a parent may want to help their child master a task that requires fine motor skills, learn to listen and follow directions more easily, remain emotionally regulated and not get out of control during playtime, or interact and communicate more easily. In this case, you may want to take on a Directive Role engaging in Parent-Directed Playtime and structuring a specific play activity to meet your child’s needs.
#2. How does your child play?
Here are several scenarios you may encounter when playing with your child:
If your child is engaging well in the playtime. For example, your child:
- has initiated and maintained a play activity
- is expressing interest in the play activity
- may be expressing a wide variety of other feelings, but is not getting over-aroused or out of control
- may be directing you what to do in the play
- stays focused on a particular play scenario or activity for a reasonable period of time
- may be telling you things about the play (or even things not related to the play!)
- may be using her imagination and creative skills and may be coming up with new stories, ideas, or ways of doing things
- may be problem-solving and mastering tasks with little, or no, help from you
In this case, getting into a Nondirective Role to facilitate Child-Directed Playtime may be the most appropriate to allow your child freedom to explore and feel accepted by you. However, getting into a Directive Role to facilitate Parent-Directed Playtime could also be appropriate in many of these situations as well.
If your child seems hesitant, withdrawn, unsure. For example, your child:
- may not respond at all to your directions or suggestions and may even turn away from you.
- does not initiate play or stops playing altogether
- is doing nothing and maybe just looking at things
In this case, jumping in to a Directive Role to facilitate Parent-Directed Playtime may be appropriate in order to engage your child in interactive and enjoyable play. When your child becomes engaged in the play, you can continue with Parent-Directed Playtime or you may want to back off to a Nondirective Role and switch to Child-Directed Playtime.
If your child is getting over-aroused and over-stimulated. For example, your child:
- is becoming wild and out of control physically and emotionally
- is not able to focus on something for a reasonable period of time
- is expressing increasing frustration, anger, or anxiety
In this case, jumping into a Directive Role to facilitate Parent-Directed Playtime may be appropriate in order to regulate your child’s nervous system. When your child becomes emotionally regulated, you can either continue with Parent-Directed Playtime or you may want to switch to a Nondirective Role and facilitate Child-Directed Playtime.
If your child is resistant to your directions. For example, your child:
- rejects your directions, suggestions or ideas and may suggest or do something different
- does not listen to or follow your directions
In this case, putting yourself into a Directive Role to facilitate Parent-Directed Playtime may be appropriate in order to re-engage your child in play or to switch to a different play activity. Or, you may want to switch to a Nondirective Role, accept your child’s resistance, and engage in Child-Directed Playtime to allow you child opportunities to decide what to do and how to play.
If your child is engaging or about to engage in unsafe or destructive behavior
In this case, you would always jump in to a Directive Role to limit the unsafe or destructive behaviors, no matter if you are engaged in Child-Directed or Parent-Directed Playtime.
Something to consider:
Switching between Parent-Directed Playtime and Child-Directed Playtime requires a solid knowledge of each of these two styles of parent-child play. I call this advanced 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.
In summary and in very simplistic terms:
- In a Nondirective Role, your goal is not to teach or guide your child; instead you are letting your child know that you value and respect his or her choices and decisions.
- In a Directive Role, you are supporting your child in learning or mastering something new through a positive play environment.
Things to do:
Try taking on a Nondirective Role during playtime. For the next playtime, try taking on a Directive Role. Afterwards, reflect on the following:
- How did your child respond when you were in a Nondirective Role? A Directive Role?
- Which role did you feel most comfortable with? Why?
- What was difficult about each of the roles?
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2021.
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