It’s summertime now, which presents lots of opportunities for family bonding! When parents are truly present with their kids, kids are primed to connect and play in meaningful ways. Play not only helps your kids let off steam, burn up energy and sleep better, it has a number of positive impacts on learning and brain development. Letting children lead the process during play will enable you to get the most out of your time together. Here’s why.
- Child-led play can heal the relationship between caregivers and children. Play can mend a relationship that has been fractured after harsh words were spoken or another power struggle ended in tears. In play, there are opportunities for a caregiver to offer loving eye-contact and touch which improves the bond on many levels as well as model positive non-verbal communication. It provides opportunities to recognize a child’s strengths and praise them for behaviors the caregiver wants to see more of. A caregiver might say for example, “Wow, you are giving a lot of attention to that baby doll and making sure she has everything she needs just like you do with your sister,” or “You kept going until you got it even though there were some tricky parts!” Empowering children through child-led play can create a secure feeling with caregivers, which is foundational to psychological well being.
- Play builds a more confident child. When an adult follows a child’s lead in play, it empowers them with leadership skills and teaches them to trust in the merit and accuracy of their ideas. Kids are frequently corrected and taught things in the course of a given day. When we give them the time and space to explore and create without correction, they start to trust their inner voice and not question their worth.
- Play builds trust and buy-in. When caregivers want children to follow instructions or be flexible with plans, they need the child to buy in to the process. In a given day, consider the ratio of times adults ask children to follow their instructions vs. the times they are allowed to choose and lead. When we tip the scales in their favor for a period of time, they are more likely to reciprocate when it comes time for caregivers to ask children to respect their limits. It might help to think of this time together as a downpayment on the trust you will need to draw upon when conflicts inevitably arise. The bond that child-led play affords will enable you to appeal to your child’s higher thinking/rational part of the brain rather than getting their instinctual response (tantrum/fight or flight/lower brain) when they can’t have what they want right away.
- Play can be a mindful experience for children and caregivers. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor Emeritus of Medicine and the creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” We have a lot to learn from children about being fully open to the present moment and being less judgmental. They are usually far better at this than adults. Consider that children usually don’t have a head full of swirling thoughts about all the things they need to do. When they are coloring, it is fully about the coloring. When you join with a child and get lost in play, you are teaching a great coping skill – living in the here and now. When you play, you can recognize the mountain of responsibilities on your plate and the nagging thoughts that come with them. You can consciously put them on the shelf for a period of time and accept they will be there when you are finished playing. You will be modeling self-care.
Tips for Child-Led Play:
Take on the role of a sportscaster (minus the funny voice). Describe out loud what you see your child doing. Not only will this improve your child’s vocabulary, it will also communicate that you find your child and their play interesting! Your tone of voice, facial expressions and body language should communicate excitement and focus on the actions you see playing out. For example, “The red one is being stacked on the blue one and… Oh, it came tumbling down!”
- Praise the process rather than the outcomes. There is nothing inherently wrong with telling children they have done a good job, but evaluation can be an extrinsic motivator rather than an intrinsic one. Intrinsic motivation is preferable, because it is more sustainable and will carry the learning process further and to greater depths. Tapping into a child’s intrinsic motivations avoids the need for evaluation and approval from caregivers. We use gold stars and sticker charts with children for so many things. Play can be a welcome escape from adult’s agendas and opinions and an opportunity to explore new territories for their own reasons. For example when your child says “Do you like the picture I painted?” You might say, “Wow! You took a great deal of care getting it just the way you wanted. You put a lot of detail in that corner there and added blue and red after you finished with the green crayon.” These statements praise the effort the child made to go after her own goals for the sake of pure enjoyment and creativity.
- Let children struggle when they encounter obstacles. Ask questions to facilitate problem-solving rather than jumping in with answers or doing the task for the child. For example, “Yeah, that thing is kind of hard! I wonder if there is another way to turn the piece to get it to fit.” The satisfaction a child gets from figuring something out and resolving the problem themselves bolsters their confidence in trying new things. This is a huge thing you can do to encourage a love of learning and a sense of independence.
- Beat the boredom. Worried you will feel tempted to check your phone or bail to get started on the mountain of laundry accumulating downstairs? Think of child-led play like starting a new exercise regimen. It will require some effort and determination at first, but soon it will become second nature. Set a timer so you and your child know when the play time will end, and limit distractions by putting your phone and smart-watch somewhere away from the play space. Don’t get discouraged. It’s normal for your mind to wander, just catch yourself and get back in the game.
- Relax and be yourself. When you are present, at ease, and flexible, you are modeling those behaviors for your child. Try not to overanalyze your every move or beat yourself up for jumping in to lead the process. It takes time to learn how to facilitate child-led play. The most important part is that you are showing up and being genuine!
Try To Avoid:
- Giving instructions or criticizing. Rather than focusing on teaching your child something he or she doesn’t know, offer descriptions of what you see them doing.
- Asking questions. Questions can indirectly evaluate and/or direct children’s play. Rather try to go with their lead as much as possible.
- Being excessively flattering. Let your praise be genuine. Children can tell if you are faking it better than anyone.
- Minimize the number of limits set during play. Too many limits make a child uneasy about doing something wrong or messy. Limits should be reserved for safety of people, house/furniture, and toys. If you dislike messes, put away the messy art supplies and give other options such as watercolor or markers.
- Competitive games. I usually recommend putting them away during this type of play time, especially if this is a frequent sore subject in your household. There is a great deal of evaluation and winning/losing in children’s lives. Play can be a place to explore other narratives.
Recommended Toys for Child-Led Play:
Specific toys are not required to engage in child-led play. However, if you are starting from scratch and not sure where to start, I prefer certain types of toys because they lend themselves well to this kind of play. The following toys are particularly good for allowing children to lead and create open-ended narratives rather than following a prescribed process or having to ask for an adult’s help.
- House, furniture and figurines
- Art supplies
- Doctor’s kit
- Blocks/Legos (minus instructions)
- Kitchen and food
- Toy phone
- Cash register and play money
- Dress up clothes: doctor, animals, construction worker, etc.
- Bean bag
- Magic wand
- Musical instruments
- Hand puppets