The Power of Play: What You Need to Know about Child-Directed Play

By Alexis Davis

Do you struggle to better manage your child’s behavior? Do you dread meltdowns? 

Now that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, managing your child’s behavior is more important than ever. And, you’ll be happy to hear that child-directed play time is one of the most effective ways to reduce cranky behavior and help you stick to your existing routines.


About now you may be wondering: What is child-directed play? And, why is this type of play important? Is child-directed play the same as mindfulness?

Here’s the short answer: Child-directed play is one-on-one time when your child is calling the shots. They get to choose the activity, and within reason, decide the rules. Ideally, you set no limits during this time. This means you also don’t riddle them with questions about why they are playing with those blocks or ask them how many cars are in their pile. You are simply being there, observing and following their lead. There is immense power in that! And, yes, child-directed play requires mindfulness on your part.

To begin meaningful child-directed play with your kids, here are 3 things you should know:

1. Child-directed play time can help you build a more positive relationship with your kids

Because you are following their lead and “doing what they say,” you are also modeling compliance, which is of course what you want from children. 

Research shows that engaging with children in this way improves language skills as well as social and problem-solving skills. As you may know, children have an inherent need for attention. Yet, giving them your undivided attention through child-directed play time reduces their need to get your attention in negative ways. Letting them lead the way, in turn, ends up encouraging their creativity and problem solving abilities.

2. Child-directed play does not need to be all consuming

Most recommendations for child-directed play are for about 15-minutes per day. That’s it! Why? Well, because you aren’t supposed to be making rules and setting limits at all during this time. 

It’s very difficult to go longer than 15 minutes without kids exhibiting some behavior that needs reigning in; so, keep it short and have a clear end point. 

3. It’s tough but doable with multiple children and limited time

It requires creativity to enable child-directed play. And, we all know it’s hard after a long day (or when you’re home all day during COVID-19!) to find time for all the necessities like dinner and baths. 

Here are some ideas: Maybe you alternate which parent does the play and which does bath time. Or, if only one parent is available, you might alternate which child gets the play time each night. Perhaps a sibling can get special attention in the form of extra books, or snuggle time at bedtime. The most important thing is that children feel as though they have a chance to connect with a parent each day. It’s also helpful to teach your children the importance of one on one special time. This will lead to more independence. 

Implementing child-directed play

It’s best to formally introduce the concept to your kids as a conversation before you even begin.  

Let them give it a name, like “Jake-time” or “Mommy and Me time.” In an ideal world, each of your children would get this time every day, but having aimed for that and failed, I know that’s not always realistic.  

So, set a goal you can stick to over time. Plan for around 10 minutes a day, but no more than 15. Consider a ritual to signify the end of the time. Initially, it might be hard for kids to accept the end, but if you’re consistent with giving them their dedicated play time, they will be increasingly cooperative when it’s time to wrap it up. 

Ending play time looks different for everyone. For some, the end of play time simply means the child-directed time is over, and you can move onto something else while the child continues that same activity. Or, you may need to introduce another activity to follow special time in order to end it successfully.

Here’s an idea: End the directed play time with a kids yoga pose that your child can choose! 

You can do it right and still have flexibility

There is no one best time for this type of play to occur. And while it doesn’t have to be at the same time every day, it is helpful for children to know what to expect. Set a routine for “true” child directed play that you think will be reasonable to achieve and commit to that when you introduce this special time to your kids.

Mark it in your calendar and treat it like any other commitment. If you must move it, reschedule it immediately. And if you need to squeeze in some special time when your child doesn’t have a lot of choices about the activity (such as bath time or a grocery run), be sure to label the special moment, perhaps by saying “I really enjoyed getting to spend this time with just you today.”

Tips for containing kids’ pipe dreams

While you’re not supposed to set limits or direct the play, it’s totally reasonable to have some parameters. For instance, you might say “you get to choose any indoor activity for us to do together” if you know your child wants to go outside when it’s cold and dark. Perhaps your child will surprise you and choose to practice yoga, or do a mindfulness activity for kids. 

Or, you can suggest a board game if you want to avoid the kids’ taking out the paints right before bed. But then again, if they want to play a game with their own made up rules, anything goes. And even if they choose your most dreaded activity, you smile and play along! 

Another common occurrence is for kids to ask to go someplace for special time. In this case, I recommend cautioning them that you only have 15 minutes and you won’t make it there and back in time. If they insist, go anyway. When they don’t get the time to play, they’ll make a different choice next time and you’ve honored their time by following their lead.

It’s surprisingly hard to know what to say

I’m always amazed at how hard it is to zip my mouth when I’m trying not to set limits, so it can be helpful to know or think about what to say instead. 

“Descriptive commenting” is the term used to explain what you CAN say. It’s really just a matter of noticing. For example, you can say: “I see you’re putting the red block on the blue block.” As you can imagine, tone is important here. You may sound like the teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, as in: “Bueller….Bueller.” Or, you can keep your tone light and sound excited by watching them play.

It’s ok to ask questions about how much they want you to be involved. Asking “where would you like me to put my car?” feels very different than quizzing a child to see if they’ve learned all their colors or numbers.   

Give Child-Directed Play a Try! 

Whether you’re struggling to manage a particular behavior, or simply trying to repair or maintain a positive relationship with your kids, set aside time for child-directed play or special one-on-one time. At a minimum, you’ll start to feel more connection, patience and empathy for your child. At best you’ll notice they are more willing to communicate with you. Are you ready to play? 

About Alexis: Alexis’ mission is to provide judgement-free guidance to families in need of effective behavior management for children. On paper, she’s a licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW); in practice, she has worked in a wide range of settings including acute residential treatment centers, hospitals, schools, and correctional facilities.

On a personal level, Alexis is now challenged to “practice what I preach” in the evolution of her relationships with her  own two young boys. You can learn more about Alexis here.

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