The Importance of Child Directed Play: Parent Guide

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

As a parent, you want to ensure your child is developing and growing to their fullest potential. That’s why it’s essential to understand the importance of child directed play and its impact on their development.

Child directed play is where children take the lead and play an active role in creating their own rules and play experiences.

In this parent guide we will explore the benefits of child directed play for children’s development and how to make playtime more enriching for your child.

We will delve into how child-directed play can support your child’s cognitive skills, emotional well-being, and social interaction skills.

little boy and his mother playing together

What is Child Directed Play? Let’s Define It

Before we dive into the benefits, let’s define child directed play. There isn’t really a formal definition but it’s widely accepted that child directed play refers to play where the child takes the lead. They play an active role in creating their own rules and play experiences.

Child directed play is all about following a child’s lead and letting them explore and learn at their own pace. It is usually one-on-one between an adult and a child.

When children engage in child directed play, they create their own games and experiences, without the guidance or restrictions of adults.

This type of play allows children to develop their creativity, problem-solving skills, and confidence, while also helping them to learn about their own interests and passions.

They decide what games to play, how to play them, and when to stop playing. They take ownership of their playtime and are free to explore and experiment in a safe, supportive environment.

For me, child directed play is vital to a child’s development, as it allows them to learn and grow freely.

By taking an active role in their playtime, children have a vital chance to be in control for a little while. Normally children have to follow rules and boundaries and have very little control over their lives.

Watch this fantastic video from G2:

YouTube video

Child directed play can come in many different forms, from imaginative play to physical play to creative play.

The important thing is that the child is in charge and is able to explore their own interests and desires. You can ask some questions to help develop their thinking, like: “What would you like me to do to help you?” But the questions mustn’t lead or direct them.

This type of play is especially important for young children, as it helps them to develop a strong sense of self and to learn about the world around them in a fun and engaging way.

a dad and little girl playing chase in their garden

The Benefits of Child Directed Play for Development

As a child development expert, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of play, especially child directed play, at a young age.

Play is not just for entertainment, but it plays a crucial role in a child’s development, helping children acquire cognitive skills and explore their emotions.

This autonomy encourages creativity, imagination, and spontaneous exploration, allowing children to delve into their own unique narratives and problem-solving approaches.

In a child-directed play environment, children have a chance to not merely passively follow instructions. They are actively engaged in a process of discovery, experimentation, and self-expression.

This hands-on approach to learning helps create a deep understanding of cause and effect, encouraging children to make connections between their actions and the consequences they produce.

Child-directed play also serves as a powerful tool for emotional exploration and development. Through imaginative scenarios and role-playing, children can safely express their emotions, navigate challenging situations, and develop empathy for others.

This helps children build resilience, self-confidence, and the ability to manage their feelings in a healthy and constructive manner.

The benefits of child-directed play extend far beyond the realm of emotional intelligence. Engaging in open-ended, child-led activities has been shown to enhance language development, fine motor skills, and even memory formation.

As children engage in imaginative play, they expand their vocabulary, practise complex language structures, and develop fine motor control as they manipulate toys and objects.

Research consistently demonstrates the positive impact of child-directed play on children’s social-emotional development. Children who engage in this type of play exhibit stronger social skills, better conflict resolution abilities, and a greater capacity for empathy. They also tend to be more cooperative, imaginative, and independent problem solvers.

Child-directed play also plays a crucial role in preparing children for academic success. It enhances creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills, laying the foundation for future academic achievement.

Children who engage in this type of play tend to be more engaged in their learning, demonstrate better self-regulation, and show increased persistence in the face of challenges.

Child-directed play also serves as an important tool for stress management and emotional regulation. As children immerse themselves in imaginative play, they can process and express their emotions in a safe, constructive way. This helps them develop healthy coping mechanisms for managing stress and anxiety.


Example: Child Led Play For Processing Emotions

Five year old Emma loved to play with her stuffed animals. She would often dress them up in different outfits and create elaborate stories for them. One day, Emma was very tearful. Her mum Ashley asked if her teddy bear, Teddy, could help.

Teddy, who was always very understanding and helpful, asked Emma what was wrong. Emma told Teddy that she was feeling scared because she had a nightmare the night before.

Teddy suggested that they play a game of pretend where Emma was a brave superhero who could defeat any monster. Emma asked Ashley to help her find some superhero clothes and Ashley helped her put them on.

Emma quickly transformed into her superhero persona and began to fight off imaginary monsters. She asked Ashley to pretend to be different types of monsters. Emma pretended to fly through the air, shoot lasers from her eyes, and rescue people from danger.

As she played, Emma felt her anxiety and fear melt away. She felt strong, confident, and capable.

Games like this helped Emma to develop coping mechanisms for managing her emotions and develop a sense of inner strength. She led the whole game, with only a little non-directive assistance from Ashley.

Play-Based Learning: Helping Children Discover Their Passions and Learn New Skills

Child directed play allows children to engage in play-based learning, where they can explore their interests and acquire new skills. By taking the lead in playtime, your child can choose activities that pique their curiosity and help them acquire new knowledge and abilities.

When children are encouraged to explore their interests freely through play, it can lead to a lifelong love of learning. Play-based learning allows children to find joy in acquiring new skills and knowledge.

Fine motor skills, which are essential for many activities, can also be developed through play. Activities like drawing, colouring, and building with blocks can help strengthen the muscles in a child’s hands and fingers, improving their dexterity and hand-eye coordination.

Language skills are also often enhanced through play-based learning. When children are encouraged to express themselves and communicate with others during play, they develop their vocabulary and language abilities.

Play ActivityDevelops
Drawing and coloringFine motor skills
Building with blocksHand-eye coordination
Pretend play with othersSocial skills and language abilities
a happy 5 year old girl playing with blocks

Child-Led Play vs Free Play: Understanding the Different Types of Play

As parents, we often hear the term “play” thrown around as a crucial aspect of our child’s development.

But what does it really mean?

Play can take so many different forms, and it’s important to understand the distinction between child-led play and free play.

Child-led play refers to play where the child takes the lead and plays an active role in creating their own rules and play experiences with an adult. This type of play allows children to explore their interests and encourages them to be creative and imaginative.

On the other hand, free play is unstructured and allows children to choose their own play activities without any specific outcome. This type of play is typically less directed by the child and more influenced by the environment and available toys.

It’s important to note that both child-led play and free play have their place in a child’s development. While child-led play helps children develop their cognitive and social skills, free play allows children to practice decision-making and develop an ability to play imaginatively by themselves or in a group.

The Importance of Self-Directed Play: Allowing Children to Learn at Their Own Pace

Self-directed play is just so vital in a child’s learning journey. Self-directed play refers to play where the child takes the lead and explores at their own pace. It is a type of play where the adult takes a backseat and only intervenes when necessary.

Children have their own unique learning styles, and self-directed play allows them to learn based on their individual pace and style.

Children develop differently, and self-directed allows children to learn skills and concepts that they are interested in at their own pace. This can greatly benefit their overall development.

Self-directed play is a unique opportunity for children to take ownership of their learning experiences. They get to explore their interests, pursue their passions, and acquire new skills in a safe, supportive environment.

Benefits of Self-Directed PlayExamples
Children can explore their interests and passions.A child who loves painting can spend hours creating their unique masterpieces.
It helps children develop at their own pace.A child who struggles with fine motor skills can take their time working on these skills without feeling rushed or pressured.
It promotes creativity and innovationA child who enjoys building structures can experiment with various materials and designs to create something unique.
It fosters independence and responsibility.A child learns to take responsibility for their play and actions while exploring their environment.
a mother and son building Lego together

The Benefits of Child Led Play for the Parent-Child Relationship

Child led play is a wonderful opportunity for happy, positive interactions between you and your child. This will strengthen the bond between you.

It’s a unique chance to actively listen to your child, follow their lead, and respond in a supportive and encouraging manner.

Through child led play you can also get to know your child better! You’ll gain a better understanding of their interests and learning style. By observing them play, you can also gain insights into their strengths and weaknesses.

How to “Do” Child Led Play With Your Child

  • Child-led play is simple to start.
  • Begin by choosing a time when your child is relaxed. Sit with them and allow them to pick the activity.
  • Whether they choose blocks, drawing, or dressing up, follow their lead. Provide a selection of toys or materials that spark their interest but don’t direct their actions.
  • If they ask for help, offer minimal assistance to keep them in charge.
  • Your role is to observe, be present, and enjoy their creativity.
  • Encourage them with open-ended questions like “Tell me about your drawing” instead of leading ones like “Are you drawing a house?”
  • This supports their decision-making and confidence.

Child led Play Example: Marta Age 6

Marta loves animals and often incorporates them into her play.

Today, she decides to create a zoo with her toys. She arranges various animals and assigns roles to each, narrating stories about their adventures.

Marta’s mother Nadia sits nearby, watching and listening, only engaging when Marta asks her to hold an animal or give it a ‘voice’. Nadia resists the urge to correct or suggest, instead appreciating Marta’s imagination.

When Marta finishes, Nadia asks, “What was your favorite part of the zoo adventure?” This validates Marta’s ideas and extends her engagement in her play world.

Child Led Play: Conclusions

Child directed play is an essential aspect of a child’s development. As a parent, it’s important to understand your child’s directions and wishes when it comes to playtime.

At times you should take a backseat and allow your child to take the lead.

Our role as adults is to provide a safe and supportive environment for child-led play, without expecting a specific outcome.

Child directed play has numerous benefits for your child, including the development of important skills such as cognitive, social, emotional, and language skills and independence.

It also helps to strengthen the parent-child relationship by creating positive interactions.

So let’s embrace child directed play and allow our children to learn and grow at their own pace, through play-based learning and exploration.

FAQ About Child Directed Play

What is child directed play?

Child directed play refers to play where the child takes the lead and plays an active role in creating their own rules and play experiences.

Why is child directed play important for development?

Child directed play at a young age plays a crucial role in a child’s development. It helps them gain valuable cognitive skills, explore their emotions, and develop social behaviors.

How does child directed play benefit a child’s learning?

Child directed play allows children to engage in play-based learning, where they can explore their interests and acquire new skills. It promotes the development of fine motor skills, language skills, and fosters a love for learning.

What is the difference between child-led play and free play?

Child-led play refers to play where the child takes the lead and creates their own play experiences, while free play refers to unstructured play where the child has the freedom to choose their activities. Both types of play contribute to a child’s development in different ways.

Why is self-directed play important?

Self-directed play allows children to learn and explore at their own pace, promoting independent thinking and problem-solving skills.

How does child led play benefit the parent-child relationship?

Child led play strengthens the parent-child relationship by fostering positive interactions, developing social-emotional skills, and providing an opportunity for parents to model appropriate behavior.

What is the role of adults in child directed play?

The role of adults is to provide a safe environment for child led play and to support the child’s natural inclination to explore and learn through play. It’s not about achieving a specific outcome, but rather about encouraging the child’s creativity and interests.

How can child directed play be encouraged within the family?

Child directed play can be encouraged within the family by allowing children to express their preferences, providing a variety of open-ended toys and materials, and dedicating regular playtime where the child can lead the play activities.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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