by Kathy Eugster, MA
Over my many years of working as a child and family therapist, I found it useful to support parents in strengthening their relationships with their children. Since parent-child play is one of the best ways to achieve this, I developed guidelines for parents on playing with their 3 -10 year-old children. Basically, I separated the guidelines into two different play approaches:
- Child-Directed Playtime
- Parent-Directed Playtime
Previously, I have focused on Child-Directed Playtime. I would now like to introduce Parent-Directed Playtime as way for parents to play with their children that is different, but just as important, as Child-Directed Playtime.
One of the main benefits of both of these play approaches is that they are very helpful in strengthening parent-child relationships. Another major benefit is that both these approaches will help and guide parents in supporting their children’s healthy physical, mental, and social development. And, because play has been found to be so very beneficial for all children, these approaches provide them with the benefits of play in general.
However, some children find it difficult, for whatever reason, to initiate or engage in interactive play with their parent, regulate their emotions during play, or engage in imaginary or creative play. These children are generally more suited to a type of play that is more structured or directive, such as Parent-Directed Playtime. In addition, parents may want to use Parent-Directed Playtime in order to guide and support their children in a variety of different areas.
What are the similarities and differences between Child-Directed Playtime and Parent-Directed Playtime?
What is Child-Directed Playtime?
Child-Directed Playtime is a play approach where your child will take the lead in the playtime and will decide on what to do and how to do it, as long as things stay safe and non-destructive. You will allow your child to make choices and decisions freely in the play activity and you will follow along in doing what your child directs you to do.
Parents will take on a “Nondirective Role” for the majority of the playtime, and will not guide or direct their children in any way except for when needing to limit unsafe or destructive behaviors. Parents will also be empathic and nurturing during Child-Directed Playtime, striving to understand and acknowledge the experiences of their children.
Please see my Blog page for posts on child-directed play. In addition, I also offer an eBook on my website focusing on child-directed play entitled, Child-Directed Playtime: Parents and Children Connecting Through Play.
What is Parent-Directed Playtime?
Parent-Directed Playtime is a play approach where you will decide on an appropriate play activity and you will initiate and maintain interactive play between you and your child. You will be providing some kind of structure in the playtime in order to keep your child engaged and regulated in the play.
Parents will take on a more “Directive Role” during the playtime and will engage, regulate, and guide their children as necessary. They will also limit unsafe or destructive behaviors. Parents are able to switch back and forth between Directive and Nondirective Roles during Parent-Directed Playtime as they see fit. Parents will also be empathic and nurturing during Parent-Directed Playtime, again, striving to understand and acknowledge the experiences of their children the same as in Child-Directed Playtime.
Key Concepts of Parent-Directed Playtime
- Parent can choose to be in a Directive Role
- Parent can also choose to be in a Nondirective Role
- Parent uses empathy towards child
- Parent will not allow any unsafe or destructive behaviors
#1. Parent can choose to be in a Directive Role
During Parent-Directed Playtime, parents can put themselves in a Directive Role in order to:
- stimulate and engage their child in play
- regulate their child’s emotional intensity during play
- facilitate their child’s imaginary and creative play
- guide and support their child to master tasks
In Child-Directed Playtime, parents do not put themselves in a Directive Role other than to limit unsafe or destructive behaviors. In Parent-Directed Playtime, parents are able to put themselves in a Directive Role to structure the playtime by choosing or suggesting activities, facilitating play, regulating emotional intensity so things don’t get out of control, and by guiding and supporting their child in mastering tasks.
#2. Parent can choose to be in a Nondirective Role
In Child-Directed Playtime, parents are in a Nondirective Role all the time, except for setting limits for unsafe or destructive behaviors. In Parent-Directed Playtime, parents can switch between being in a Directive Role or a Nondirective Role as needed. An important part of Parent-Directed Play is knowing when you should “jump in” to a Directive Role, and when you should “back off” to a Nondirective Role.
In a Nondirective Role, parents will “back off” and follow their child’s directions and accept the choices and decisions their child is making for the playtime, which encourages imaginary and creative play and supports the development of self-esteem and independence. Basically, parents will:
- refrain from telling their child what to do or not do, except for limiting unsafe and destructive behaviors
- refrain from “jumping in” immediately and taking over for their child
In the Nondirective Role, parents are supporting their child in making choices (as long as they are safe and non-destructive) and in learning from his or her choices.
However, if children disengage from the play, become over-aroused, or continue to struggle with something, parents would then “jump in” to a Directive Role to provide some structure in order to stimulate, regulate or guide their child.
#3. Parent uses empathy towards child
In both Child-Directed and Parent-Directed Playtimes, parents will use empathy by striving to attune to their child and to understand and acknowledge their child’s feelings and perspectives. To do this, parents will be:
- providing their full attention to their child
- observing objectively what their child is doing, and refraining from being judgemental or critical
- identifying and accepting their child’s feelings and inner experiences during the playtime
An important point to remember is that all feelings and perspectives can be accepted, even though not all behaviors will be. For example, all unsafe and destructive behaviors will be limited and not accepted.
#4. Parent will not allow any unsafe or destructive behaviors
In both Child-Directed Playtime and Parent-Directed Playtime, 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.
This means first of all, having the playtime in a child-friendly area that is safe and has age-appropriate toys.
Secondly, whenever you notice your child is engaging in, or is about to engage in, unsafe or destructive behavior, you would set a limit with this particular behavior. In my approaches, I like to use the following 3-Step Limit Setting procedure:
Step 1: Clearly identify and prohibit the unsafe or destructive behavior and identify an appropriate behavior. You can repeat Step 1 as many times as you want.
- “No hitting! Hitting hurts and it is not okay. Show me how mad you are a safer way.”
- “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. Here, you can pull on this (more durable) toy.
Step 2: After you have used Step 1 at least once (and possibly repeated it several times!), move on to provide a warning of a possible consequence. No repeating of Step 2 though!
- “No hitting! If you choose to hit me again, we will end our playtime.”
- “It’s not okay to throw that hard car. If you throw this car again, I will put it away for today.”
- “Remember I said it is not okay to pull on that toy so hard. If you keep pulling on it I will put it away for today.”
Step 3: After you have used Step 2, the next time the inappropriate behavior happens, you would immediately carry out the consequence identified in Step 2.
- “Remember I told you if you hit me again we would end our playtime. Since you hit me again, we need to stop playing now.” Then you would end the playtime.
- “Remember I told you if you threw that car again I would put it away. Since you threw it again, I am going to put it away for today.” You would then put the car out of your child’s reach.
- “Remember I said it is not okay to pull on that toy so hard. Since you keep doing it, I am going to put it away for today.” Then you would put the toy away for the day.
What You Can Do Next:
I encourage you to use the above Key Concepts for Parent-Directed Playtime and to try them with your 3-10 year-old child.
- It may be helpful to just play with your child by putting yourself in either a Directive Role or a Nondirective Role. For example, to start, you could focus only on putting yourself in a Nondirective Role by:
- Refraining from telling your child what to do or not do
- Following your child’s directions
- Accepting the choices and decisions your child is making for the playtime
- Limiting all unsafe and destructive behaviors
- Then, during a different playtime with your child, you could focus on putting yourself in a Directive Role by:
- Stimulating and engaging your child in play
- Regulating your child’s emotional intensity during play
- Facilitating your child’s imaginary and creative play
- Guiding and supporting your child in mastering tasks
- Limiting all unsafe and destructive behaviors
- Then, during another playtime, focus on using your empathy skills with your child by:
- Observing objectively what your child is doing and describing nonjudgmentally out loud what your child is doing
- Identifying, accepting, and acknowledging your child’s feelings and inner experiences during the playtime
- As you feel more comfortable with each concept, you can try to combine them in one playtime. Remember, you can switch between a Directive Role and a Nondirective Role, but you cannot use them both at the same time. Also, you can use your empathy skills at any time because they are complementary to both the Directive and Nondirective Roles.
Here are some questions you may find helpful to reflect on afterwards:
- 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?
Finally, you may be interested to know I am currently finishing off my next book, Parent-Directed Playtime: Parents Helping Children Develop and Learn Through Play, and I will be offering it on this website in the near future. I am very excited to make it available soon as an eBook with over 100 pages of information and specific guidelines on how you can engage in Parent-Directed Playtime with your 3 to 10 year old child.
If you haven’t already done so, please sign up below with your email and you will be notified when this eBook is available. When you sign up you will also receive my article on the importance of parent-child play as well as notification for any of my upcoming Blogs on parent-child play.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2021.
Please feel free to pass on this article to anyone you think might find it useful.