Child-Led Play: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

I’ve been teaching parents a lot about play, and the different types of play, and why they are important.

When we think of play, most folks don’t break it down into types but each kind of play serves a different purpose developmentally, socially, mentally, and emotionally. From Child-Led Play to Parent-Led, to Independent, Supervised, Unsupervised, Structured and Unstructured, there’s a lot of play to choose from. Right now I will discuss the type I use when I play with kids in therapy:

Child-led play is just that, when you actively play with your child letting them choose the course of play. This is when you might find a dad playing Barbies or getting his toenails painted. But it goes further than that, it’s allowing kids to tell you what to do, to tell you what to make the dolls say in your half of the doll conversation, and it’s the parent or adult, not saying much else except to name what the child is doing.

Let me say that again.

The parent names what the child is doing.  Without judgement, opinion, offering to help, fix or encourage. Just name it.

“Oh, you’re stacking that block on top of that block!”

“You’re putting that top on your Barbie.”

“I see you looking for another cup in the play kitchen.”

Doing this may seem strange but what it does for your child is let her know you are making yourself at home in her world. You are matching her tempo. You are helping her orient to herself, slowing everything down, not interrupting with your own thoughts and judgments.

Our lives are so big, and we’re such a distraction for children, that when we ask questions, set the agenda, give ideas for play, we take the power away from the child and insert ourselves. We are asking our child to come into OUR world, when the point of child-led play is to go into theirs.

Another important thing: Your child will need to get lids off, unpack things, put things back and they will get stuck, and want your help. Don’t offer to help unless you are directly asked to help! (This is so hard for most parents, but don’t do it!) Don’t even suggest your child can ask for help if they need it. Let your child struggle when they need to, this might be the exact thing they need to dive into their feelings of helplessness and frustration. And for you, sweet parent, it’s good for you to know that your child can get frustrated, feel helpless, get disappointed, and get through it either by asking for help when they need it and feel empowered to do so, or by figuring it out themselves.

Play like this regularly, and your child will show you more about her inner world. Her thoughts, her ideas, her struggles, her pains.

Your child will be more able to self-direct as he gets older, have more trust in himself, and understand how to self-reflect – that is, how to tune in and ask questions of himself, rather than looking for answers from others.

It sounds easy, but it may not be. As adults, we are not used to letting the little humans run things. This is precisely why it’s important for them – and for us – to do it.

Here’s some Do’s and Don’ts for Child-Led Play:

DO:

1. Do comment on the actions your child is doing as statements of fact, noticing.
2. Do comment when your child does something you are pleased about (“You are working hard.” “You aren’t giving up on that!” “You’re playing so calmly with that toy.”)
3. Do play when you are invited to do so.
4. Do let go of your agenda
5. Do set a timer for yourself (helpful so you can let go of your next grown-up task, like, getting dinner made.)
6. Do child-led play 4-7 times every week for at least 10-15 minutes.

DON’T

1. Don’t praise your child with a judgement: “It’s good that you’re playing so calmly” or “I like it when you work hard like that!” Let your comment be about noticing, but notice what you like.
2. Don’t suggest ideas. If your child is lost and doesn’t know what to do, sit calmly with him and notice that, “You’re having trouble figuring out what to do next.” But don’t offer.
3. Don’t offer to help unless asked.
4. Don’t look at the time constantly.
5. Don’t teach your child.  This is not the time for teaching moments, or showing how to do it better.
6. Keep questions to a minimum if you ask them at all.

Now for the doozy, if you have made it this far in this post, you’re in for a treat:

When this is hard for the parent, you can be sure there is some of your own stuff mixed up in there. Playing this way brings up our own unresolved emotional muck from our own childhoods. Guaranteed.

So if you find yourself stressed, irritable later, crying or wanting to shortly after….this very well could be why.

Allow yourself to comfort yourself. Notice your own emotional process. Take a breath.  Take a bath. Get a hug. Watch a sappy movie and cry it out. Get support. Get therapy.

You got this. You don’t have to be perfect.

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