5 Reasons why child-led play is so powerful + how you can achieve this at home!

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Sian Thomas
As a parent, it’s so easy to be under the impression that you need to act as an entertainer and organise HOW your children play. In fact, the opposite is true and you should be allowing your child plenty of opportunities to play independently. Child-led play has so many benefits to both your child and YOU – because you will start to find that you will have more time to yourself too.
As a first time mum over 12 years ago, I was under the impression that being a ‘good mum’ meant entertaining by child all day and enrolling him into organised clubs. From Baby Rhyme Time to Rugby Tots and soccer, his days as a toddler filled up. As he grew, those were swapped for swimming, mountain bike club, taekwondo and engineering club. He was exhausted. We were exhausted!
Fast-forward over the years and I came to realise through research and my own experiences that I did not need to repeat this model with my younger children. Instead, after school we play, draw and hang out as a family.
Do I still believe that activities like swimming are important? Yes absolutely, it’s a life-saving skill but we do not pack our days with after-school clubs anymore.
In fact, research shows that in the early years, child-led play and games have a much bigger impact that sports and games organised by an adult.

photograph of 4 year old girl in yellow dress playing in an IKEA play kitchen. There are yellow sunflowers in the background

5 Reasons why child-led play is so powerful

You might be wondering exactly what I mean by child-led play. Simply put, it is play entirely decided by the child and not you as the adult. There are so many adult-led activities on Instagram these days masquerading as play from elaborate small worlds designed by adults to crafts that children have inputted the bare minimum (if anything) to. Many of the ‘play-based’ learning activities on social media are not play at all – and ‘fun’ worksheets are definitely not play!

It can be really hard to let go of the idea that us adults know best. When it comes to play, our children know much more than us so we need to trust them to follow their instincts and PLAY. There are ideas on how you can achieve this further on down the article.

1.Child-Led play develops problem solving skills

Play is a child’s first exposure to making decisions. Play really allows children to experiment, make mistakes and learn from them. If we as parents are always controlling this process, then children don’t get a chance to make good decisions by themselves. Play ultimately is an essential tool for helping the next generation of creative thinkers and problem solvers to  get hands-on experience.
“The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.”

2. Child-led Play is the most productive use of a child’s time

Play is how children express their feelings and forms the basis of the adult personality.
“We don’t tend to think of play as having a biological imperative that has its own shape and form very different from sleep. But nonetheless, long term effects of play deprivation are really serious and they’re crucial for kids.”
Stuart Brown, MD – founder of the National Institute for Play

3. Child-led play is crucial for overall wellbeing

Play should be goalless – it brings joy into the day. Goalless play is only really possible when it is child-led. As adults, the play equivalent would be a hobby that we really love. It’s so important that we take time each day to just be – it’s crucial for wellbeing
“I see play as one of the core components for survival and development for a human being from birth till they die. Play, even in my adult life, is what keeps me going. It’s what keeps me happy, and motivated, and stimulated, and creative.”
Maniza Ntekim, Early Childhood Development @UNICEFAfrica.

4.Through child-led play, we can observe a child’s understanding of life.

We can identify what they are learning, what they are interested in and also any worries and concerns they may have. My 5 y/o daughter repeatedly plays ‘schools’ and through that game I learn about her perspective of the world. Whilst playing with her (when invited) or sitting down to observe her play, I really get an understanding of who she plays with, what she’s learnt and what her current understanding of the world is.
Children process life via the play that they do and it is much easier to understand their perspective when their play is entirely led by them.

5.Child-led play helps children understand their interests

“It is through recognizing patterns of play, that we can begin to identify innate talents and intrinsic motivators. So there you have it, understand your own play and you’ll understand your own talents much better.”
Stuart Brown, MD
Social media tends to show very limited examples of play – photographs are largely confined to indoor play where the child is playing with wooden blocks (and yes, I share plenty of these too – guilty as charged!).
In reality, play can be anything – it doesn’t have to fit into a neat little box. One child might enjoy playing with small worlds whereas another might love kicking a ball. Some children will create art all day whilst others are happy rolling around outdoors. Think of it as similar to the hobbies you pursue as an adult. We don’t all love the same things and there isn’t a right or wrong way to play.
4 ways to encourage independent child-led play

5 Ways to assist child-led play at home:

  1. You are the assistant to your child’s role as ‘director’ – you facilitate play by providing materials that your child will play with.
  2. Get outside MORE – outdoor play is an excellent way to help encourage more independent child-led play.
  3. Provide open-ended toys that will encourage different ways of playing
  4. Organise your play space so that it invites imaginative play
  5. DON’T plan your child’s play dates. Let them come up with their own activities!

Want More?

Find out about our favourite open-ended toys here.

Discover the importance of spending at least 2 hours outside everyday here.

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