Child Directive Play: It’s Not About You

Educators, childcare workers, and counselors all understand the importance of child-directed play. As a counselor in the child-welfare field for almost 20 years, I am here to educate you as a parent on the necessity of fostering creativity and child-directive play. 

Child-directed play can enhance problem-solving, self-regulation, educational learning, and decision-making. Child-directed play is a form of one-to-one play between a parent and their child in a way in which your child directs and leads. You might be telling yourself, but I already do this; why are you writing about it? Let’s break it down, have you ever given your child a coloring book of zoo animals and crayons? They flip open to the Zebra and begin to color the stripes a variety of rainbow colors, and you step in and say, “Zebra is black and white,” and remove all but the black and white crayons for them to color. They continue to color, and you continue to provide the correct colors for the animals. Everyone has fun, and you had an enjoyable 20 minutes teaching your child the right shade of zoo animals. This is instructional play, which can also benefit children but does not allow them the opportunity for creativity and self-exploration.

Child-directed play evolves when we allow our children to choose what to play and make up their own rules. They learn to solve problems, be creative in their thinking, and develop a sense of autonomy. Adults in the vicinity of children acting upon child-directed play should refrain from instructing and directing the child’s activities. Instead, they should utilize open-ended questions or observations about the play to encourage problem-solving, communication, learning, and expression of self.  The Incredible Years Parenting curriculum and evidenced-based parenting model promote every parent playing with their child in child-directed play with an “appreciative audience” for at least 10- 15 minutes every day. 

Incredible Years provides general guidelines for play sessions with your child: don’t play a competitive game; do play with unstructured toys such as blocks, trucks, dolls, etc.; play at a time that you can provide 100% of your attention (no electronics, remember spending time together is essential); and if there is more than one child in the home, take turns playing with each child separately to build skills and interactions.  It is essential to follow your child’s lead and interests, play at the pace the child sets, encourage your child’s curiosity to explore new activities and avoid competition. Do not focus on the “correct” way or specified rules for a game or an activity. 

Parents should be attentive and an appreciative audience. It is vital that parents model cooperation by doing what their child asks them to do while praising and encouraging their child’s self-discovery and creativity. When you engage in pretend play with your child, you should use descriptive comments instead of asking questions, all while curbing your desire to give too much help.  The goal is to encourage your children’s problem-solving. Laugh, have fun, and share your feelings of joy. Remember to give your child attention and focus on giving your attention to your child’s positive rather than negative play behaviors. Allowing child-directed play is not a concept to allow your child control but rather a way to build positive interactions, beautiful memories, foster creativity, and an opportunity to build the foundation of self-regulation and decision-making all through play.

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Anderson, G. T., Spainhower, A. R. & Sharp, A. C. (2014). “Where Do the Bears Go?” The Value of Child-Directed Play. Play in the Early Childhood Years.

Pidano, A. E., & Allen, A. R. (2014). The Incredible Years series: A review of the independent research base. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(7), 1898-1916.