Contributed by local Mom, and Milford Kids Thrive Collaborative member, Kayla Calabro. Check out her new podcast! Mothering Together
Are you tired of feeling like you have to constantly entertain your child? What if I told you there’s a play skill that not only takes less work on your part but also has enormous benefits for your child’s development? It’s called child-led play, and today we’re going to dive into what it is and how you can start implementing it with your child.
The Importance of Child-Led Activities
Play is a useful tool for teaching many skills, including expressing thoughts and communicating with others. It may begin with a simple request for a toy that’s out of reach but can lead to more advanced abilities such as sharing knowledge in subjects like chemistry.
How Child-Led Activities Are Different
Child-led play gives your kid an opportunity to take the lead. It also gives you the opportunity to take more of a supportive role in the play.
For many moms and dads out there, that’s a huge relief. You don’t need to come up with a whole play idea when it comes to child-led play. You have to use a different set of skills: observational skills.
Let’s think of a scenario where you might engage in child-led play. Picture your child in a room with a few simple toys: blocks, a ball, and a blanket.
In a traditional style, you might begin playing with the ball and encourage your child to do the same. But in a child-led style, you would hang back and observe.
You would watch your child and see what they do. They might take the blanket and drag it to the window. They might hold the blanket up against the cold glass.
Your role in this play is to narrate, imitate, and expand. You might take a turn holding the blanket to the window. When you touch the cool glass you might say, “oooh! Cold!” and then you’d wait.
Can you feel how you’re reacting to your child instead of directing? This is the difference of child-led play.
How to Get Started with Child-Led Activities
If you want to set up an opportunity for child-led play, then you really don’t have to do a whole lot. It’s a very low bar to entry. You could probably do it right now without any prep.
However, preparation can make it easier to engage with your child in a more successful manner during child-led activities. One thing you could do is prepare the space so that it is a room where your child is allowed to interact naturally with anything in the environment. Look around the room and decide if there are opportunities for your child to do things that you’re not comfortable with and try to address as many of those potential “no” spaces as possible.
You ultimately want to engage in child-led play in a space where you don’t have to redirect your child a lot away from the environment. (think: more yeses, fewer nos)
Once you’ve created a space where everything is a yes, then you can add in different types of toys or play things that your child could interact with. the items don’t have to be all that complicated and for really little kids they can just be household items like the kitchen pots and pans and for older kids they might be real tools.
Once you’ve set the stage for this type of play the next step is adjusting your mindset.
As I mentioned before, you are not in the role of leader in this type of interaction. Having coached many parents through this, that role reversal can be hard.
One thing that has worked for many parents that I have worked with is to silently count to five before intervening.
These tips have been for children who are younger or who have less experience leading in play, in the next section we can talk about children who already lead in their play and give you some ideas for how to expand upon their play schemas without taking over.
Ideas for Child-Led Activities
Sometimes it can be hard for a child to initiate pretend-play, so it can be good for the adult to facilitate the creation of an imaginary space. a few ways you can do that include adding dress-up outfits and creating a pillow fort or something of that nature.
Once the scene has been set by the child or by the adult, it is the adult’s job to back off. If the play starts to get repetitive or boring or if the child starts to clearly lose interest, then the adult can add a problem that the child needs to solve.
The problem that you create doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes the problem is that the door is hard to open and you need help. Sometimes the problem is that your foot gets stuck and you need help pulling it out. These simple one-step problems that the child can help you solve expand on their play.
As your child gets more advanced at playing, you may have to create problems in the pretend play schema that are a little more complicated. They may take a few steps for the child to solve the problem. It’s important as you do this to cue into your child’s emotional reaction and to ensure that they are still feeling in control and in the lead.
You’re never going to regret taking the time to engage in a child-led activity with your little one. These activities are so great for developing empathy, social skills, problem-solving skills, emotional regulation, communication, and so many other skills. Play gives you the opportunity to create life-like scenarios in a safe, loving, warm environment.
However, you’re not alone if this type of play is intimidating for you. If this is something that you’re not used to, then consider spending five minutes a day getting comfortable with this type of interaction. Once it becomes part of your regular routine, both you and your child will hopefully grow to love this time together. Best of luck!