6 Reasons Why I Don’t Direct My Child’s Play

“Play is the work of childhood.” This quote is attributed on the internet to Jean Piaget, Mr. Rogers, and Maria Montessori. Whoever said it, I believe it. Play is how our kids learn, grow and develop. It is vitally important, especially in the early years. And yet, I have a confession. I don’t direct my child’s play. 

I don’t make structured activities for them to do during downtime at home. I don’t do themed crafts for every holiday. I don’t plan field trips during the summer. I generally leave my kids on their own when it comes to play. Why, you ask? Because it works well for me, my family, and my values. To get even more specific:

It’s Less Work

small child holds a stuffed squirrel on the playgroundLetting kids lead their own play means I am not responsible for their entertainment. I don’t have to find the next activity or the STEM theme of the week or the latest thing on Pinterest. I can just give my kid a house or yard and say “have at it”. It’s up to them to find what they want to do and how they want to do it. Occasionally I’ll try an activity I’ve seen on Instagram if I think my kid will like it and I am feeling ambitious, but it’s rare.

They Learn to Work Things Out

siblings stand next to each other looking at an aquariumI can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at the park and seen a parent lifting their child up to go down the slide, or cajoling them to the swings, or to do a particular activity. At the park, I have two rules. 1. If you can’t do it yourself, you can’t do it. And 2. You do you. If my toddler wants to spend the entire time picking up mulch, then great. If they want to slide, also great. I’ll occasionally give support or a spot if they want to climb something, but for the most part they have to figure it out. I love this strategy because it is less work for me, and it gives my children confidence when they do finally climb that rock wall, go down the big slide, etc. 

It’s Good for Development

baby pretending to feed baby doll with a spoonMy child knows what their body can and can’t do. They know what feels right and what feels tricky. They know what they like and what they don’t. When I don’t direct my child’s play and let them lead tells them that I trust them to know these things about themselves. They will take risks as they feel ready. They will try new things when it feels like it is time. Will I occasionally give them a nudge? Yes. But all in all I want to teach them to trust themselves, and play is a great place to start that lesson. 

It Promotes Solo Play

baby playing with play kitchenIf I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen a parent in an online group ask “how do I get my kid to play by themselves???”. Answer “stop directing their play”. Both of my kids are great at playing alone and with each other, because they have been doing it since they were babies. Sure, at first it may last for five minutes, but eventually it will be 30, or even *gasp* an hour or two. Yes please.

It Encourages Their Own Interests

toddler climbing on play structure at park In my home, we don’t have “girl” or “boy” toys. We just have toys. I’ve intentionally curated a variety of things so that my children can explore their interests. We have a play kitchen and a tool set. We have cars and balls. We have dress up clothes that are princess and police officer. We have a lot of open ended toys like blocks, chalk, crayons, push toys, and figurines.I want my children to learn about themselves and follow their own interests and desires, and giving them the freedom to do that in their play is an easy way to encourage it. 

It Leads to Creativity

baby on slide at parkI’ve found that when I leave my children to their own devices, they show up in the most creative ways. They make up a game I never would have. They find new things to build. They create intricate pretend worlds. The brain of a child is a magical thing, often unhindered by the limits of our adult worlds with their rules and social conventions. Watching that brain at work is so cool. And giving it the space to try new things and work out problems is fascinating, and leads to growth and new skills. 

What about you? Do you direct your child’s play? Or are you hands off? Tell us what works for you and your family. 


 

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Lindsay G. was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, and she and her husband headed south to Spring in June of 2016. As a clinical social worker, she works full time with families growing their families through adoption. Lindsay met her husband John when they were both camp counselors. They welcomed their future little campers G in December 2017 and R in 2020. Lindsay is constantly reading, researching at least one new thing, and attempting to organize her life through bullet journaling. Her first book, Parent Goals: The Millennial’s Guide to New Parent Preparedness will be published in November 2021. In her free time, she enjoys binging Gilmore Girls on a loop, baking, and running in the Houston area’s beautiful parks. Check out her website www.lindsaygarrettlcsw.com for parenting prep, support, and more.

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