By Kathy Eugster, MA
Why can’t I get my child interested in child-directed play with me?
When parents begin to play with their children in a child-directed way, they may encounter some initial difficulties and concerns with this way of playing. This is a very common and normal situation because you and your child are just getting used to interacting in a different way than you have been in past.
Please go to my Blog 6 Key Concepts for Child-Directed Play to see how beneficial child-directed play is for you and your child and to get some basic guidelines on how to play together in a child-directed way. For comprehensive guidelines on child-directed play, I am offering an eBook, Child-Directed Playtime: Parents and Children Connecting Through Play.
One of the most common questions that parents initially have when they begin to play with their children in a child-directed manner is, “Why can’t I get my child interested in child-directed play with me?”
Let’s have a look at this common situation and explore some ways to deal with it.
What should I do if my child can’t decide what to do, or does not seem interested in playing with me?
When you engage in child-directed play with your child, you put yourself in a nondirective role. Children are encouraged to choose what to do and how to do it. Parents are told to refrain from suggesting activities or providing ideas, or even asking their child directly, on what to do. With child-directed play, children are the ones freely making the choices and decisions and parents are the ones who support these choices and decisions (as long as they are safe and non-destructive).
For whatever reason, some children are more indecisive and find it very hard to initiate or maintain play activities, even if they are encouraged. When I was working as a play therapist, in addition to seeing a child for play therapy, I would generally work with the child’s parents and frequently teach them child-directed play skills so they and their child could engage in some enjoyable playtime at home together. Sometimes, however, parents would report to me that they were finding it hard to get their children interested and engaged with them in child-directed play. Their children seemed hesitant, undecided, and uninterested.
These situations are actually very common when you begin to play in a child-directed manner with your child, but can also be very frustrating and discouraging when you not only want to connect with your child, but also want to let your child freely choose what to play with!
Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to make it easier for your child to take the lead in the playtime with you so that you can engage in child-directed play together.
- Ensure the play area is interesting and stimulating for your child. Toys available should be those that your child really enjoys and wants to play with. You may even want to have some “special” toys that you bring out only for child-directed play together and then put away afterwards for next time.
- Even though the toys and activities should be interesting and stimulating and possibly somewhat challenging, they should also be age-appropriate so that your child can master them without getting overly frustrated and with only minimal help from you.
- Ensure the play area is child-friendly so that you don’t have to keep setting limits on unsafe or destructive behaviors. Children don’t like it when they are constantly told “no” when they want to explore their play area. You don’t want playtime to be a power-struggle between you and your child.
- Have your playtime in a quiet environment with no outside distractions so your child feels he or she is not missing out on something interesting.
- Unfortunately, these days, electronic devices and videos are very popular with most children and tend to draw them away from face-to-face play. With child-directed play, you want to engage in face-to-face interactions with your child, so playing on electronic devices is not recommended for child-directed play. This may be hard for many children, so to limit the electronics during child-directed play, one option would be to tell your child that you will play together without electronics for a specific period of time and then after your playtime, he or she can have some time with the electronics.
- Structure the playtime as one-to-one play so that you can devote your full attention to your child and not have distractions of other children taking your attention away.
- Ensure your child knows that he or she is free to choose or decide what to do and that this is okay with you. Some children hesitate to choose what to do, or even ask their parent what they should do, because they have not had a lot of experience making their own choices and decisions. Some children may also be hesitant to choose what to do because they are afraid their parent may make a judgement on, or even disapprove of, their choice of a toy or play activity. When your child is hesitant to decide on something, you can say something like,
- “Today you can decide what to play with”
- “You can choose what to play today”
- You may feel that your child is indecisive or uninterested, however, many children just need some time to think and decide what they really want to do. You can identify your child’s experience of taking some time to decide by saying something like,
- “I can see you’re just taking your time looking at all the toys”
- “It looks like you’re just deciding what to do today”
- “You’re not sure what you want to play with right now”
- “It seems like it is hard for you to choose something to play with”
- Put yourself into a calm and grounded state by taking some deep breaths and telling yourself that it is not your job to entertain your child or to interpret what your child is doing. For child-directed play, your job is to observe with interest and acknowledge your child’s experience in the playtime. Notice when your child makes eye contact with you and just enjoy that moment of connection.
- Don’t be afraid of just “being with” your child, just watching with interest and noticing what he or she is doing. Sometimes children really enjoy a quiet and relaxed environment with their parent just noticing and acknowledging what they are feeling and doing. Even though in child-directed play you are not telling or suggesting to your child what to do, you can still interact with your child by paying full attention to him or her and by noticing and describing out loud what your child is doing, feeling and experiencing. You do not have to sit silently watching your child and saying nothing!
You can say things like,
- “Now you’re lining your cars up in a row”
- “You’ve decided to put that block on the very top”
- “You’re feeling excited that you found your baby doll”
- “Oh, you didn’t want the tower to fall apart”
- When parents start to acknowledge out loud what their children are doing and feeling, children may tell their parents to “Stop talking!” This is common! Children notice when their parents begin to interact differently with them. It can seem awkward at first for both you and your child. If your child tells you to be quiet, you can explain to him or her that you are just interested and want to understand what he or she is doing. If your child still persists, you can reduce the frequency of your statements for a period of time.
What if I start to feel bored or uninterested?
This is also very common! With child-directed play, parents sometimes feel as if they are not doing anything. This is not true! Just remind yourself that by providing your full attention to your child, and by noticing and describing out loud what he or she is doing, feeling, perceiving, and experiencing, you are giving your child one of the most valuable gifts he or she could ever receive from you.
What if my child continues to struggle to play? Using Parent-Directed Play Strategies!
If your child is really having problems initiating a play activity, or continues to appear bored and uninterested, you may need to temporarily switch from child-directed play to parent-directed play. With child-directed play, you are taking on a nondirective role. In parent-directed play, you are taking on a more directive role yourself and structuring the play in order to spark your child’s interest in playing. Then, when your child starts to engage in play, switch to child-directed play by returning to a nondirective parent role.
Here are some examples of some parent-directed play approaches that you could use temporarily in order to get your child engaged in the play:
- Identify Options: You can prompt your child on possible toys or play activities by identifying several play options that you know your child enjoys. You could say something like,
- “Hmm, I can see it is hard for you to decide what to play today. Well, I remember yesterday you were making a Lego airplane that crashed into the castle. Oh, and I see those magnetic bricks that you made a very tall tower with. And there are the princesses all lined up looking like they want to do something. Hmm, I wonder what you are going to choose to do.”
- Initiate a Play Activity: You can become even more directive and set up some kind of a play activity you think your child would enjoy and that would spark his or her interest in playing. For example:
- If your child likes animals, you could provide a basket of animals and things that could be used for fences, beds, food, water, toys, trees, shelters, etc. for the animals. Start setting up the zoo together, then let your child take over.
- Take out a board or card game and tell your child that the two of you will be making up the rules today. Or make up your own entirely new game. Let your child take control of how to play the game.
- Initiate a fun activity or game with your child, such as balloon volleyball, indoor bowling, Simon Says, hide-and-seek toys, etc. When your child is engaged in the play, let your child take over and be the one in control of how the game gets played (as long as things stay safe and non-destructive).
- Do Something Yourself: You can do something yourself, either by copying what your child is doing or doing something else. There is no need to say anything, just start quietly stacking blocks, or lining up cars, or drawing some basic shapes, or building something with Lego and notice how your child responds. Ideally, your child will notice what you are doing and will either approve or disapprove of what you are doing. The important thing is for you to just follow your child’s directions and do what he or she is directing you to do (as long as it is safe and non-destructive). Then switch to child-directed play by taking on a nondirective role.
- Initiate Imaginary Play: You can initiate an imaginary or pretend play scenario. For example, you would choose a toy that your child generally enjoys, like a dinosaur, and you would put yourself into that role of the dinosaur by giving the dinosaur a voice and by saying something like, “Grrr, I’m feeling hungry and I want my dinner.” You could then start moving the dinosaur around and pretend he is looking for something to eat. You could make the dinosaur ask for help by saying something like, “Hmm, I wonder if my friend Bronto is around? He could help me find something to eat. He is really good at that.” Ideally, your child would then take on the role of Bronto and that would start an imaginary play scenario where you would switch to child-directed play and play the role of Bronto as directed by your child.
Here’s an important point to remember:
With child-directed play, when you use the above parent-directed play strategies to engage your child in playtime, it is important to remember to use these strategies only temporarily, and once your child is engaged in the play, switch to child-directed play strategies where you are refraining from structuring the play in any way and you are allowing your child to lead the direction of the play.
It can be difficult for many parents not to take over the play activity. Remember, with child-directed play, you are not trying to entertain your child! When I was working with families as a play therapist, some parents were finding playtime with their children to be very exhausting because they were trying to entertain their children for the entire playtime. I remember one mother felt she needed to make up interesting and exciting stories for her daughter every time they played. Unfortunately, her daughter came to expect being fully entertained by her mom whenever they played together.
Remember, in child-directed play, you are using these parent-directed play strategies to structure the play only if your child is struggling to engage in child-directed play and you are wanting to initially encourage your child’s engagement in play.
Even though your child may be indecisive, or seems to be uninterested in playing with you, child-directed play between you and your child is so very valuable and beneficial and is well worth the effort to try to make things easier for both you and your child so that you can both enjoy child-directed play together.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2021.
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