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.
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 “Directive Role” during the playtime and will engage, regulate, and guide their children as necessary. They will also limit unsafe or destructive behaviors. Parents will be empathic and nurturing during Parent-Directed Playtime, again, striving to understand and acknowledge the experiences of their children, as in Child-Directed Playtime.
Key Concepts of Parent-Directed Playtime
- Parent is in a Directive Role in order to structure the playtime
- Parent uses empathy towards child
- Parent will not allow any unsafe or destructive behaviors
#1. Parent is in a Directive Role in order to structure the playtime
During Parent-Directed Playtime, parents put themselves in a Directive Role in order to:
- engage and stimulate their child in play
- regulate their child’s emotional intensity during play
- guide and support their child in mastering tasks during play
In Child-Directed Playtime, parents put themselves in a Nondirective Role and would not put themselves in a Directive Role other than to limit unsafe or destructive behaviors. In Parent-Directed Playtime, parents 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 uses empathy towards child
In both Child-Directed and Parent-Directed Playtime, 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 evaluative, judgemental or critical
- identifying and accepting their child’s feelings, perceptions, 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.
#3. 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.
- To start with, you could focus on putting yourself in a Directive Role during playtime 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 to master 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 out loud what your child is doing without any kind of judgement or evaluation
- identifying, accepting and acknowledging your child’s feelings and inner experiences during the playtime
- paraphrasing back what your child is telling you
- limiting all unsafe and destructive behaviors
- As you feel more comfortable with each concept, you can try to combine them in one playtime.
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?
If you would like further details on Parent-Directed Playtime, I am offering a comprehensive eBook entitled Play Skills for Parents that focuses on both Child-Directed and Parent-Directed Playtime.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2021.
Please feel free to pass on this article to anyone you think might find it useful.
Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org