Play is a vital piece of child development and learning. Play increases problem-solving skills, self-confidence, and the child’s relationships with others. The benefits of children’s play are undisputed, and the type of play that an adult engages in with a child can have an impact on interactions and outcomes.


Most young children are told what to do by adults all day, every day. They are told when they should sleep, where they are going, when to eat, when to go to the bathroom, and even what to play. When children are told to play, we often control their playtime by asking questions to test their knowledge such as, “How many blocks are in this tower?” or “What does the monkey say?” Sometimes during play, we tell kids how they should play with toys by saying things like, “Legos are not supposed to be used like that!” or “It is not the time for dolls right now, it is time for blocks.” For some kids, this instruction during play can initiate difficult child behavior or hinder the child’s relationship with the adult.


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What is Child Directed Play?

Child Directed Play (CDP) is a style of play in which the adult is playing one-on-one with the child, and the child is put in the leadership position. Essentially, this play allows children to play by their own rules and to engage an adult in their play activities in a way that feels special and meaningful for them. This type of play is usually best suited for kids between the ages of 2 and 10 years old. While CDP is often used in early childhood education, older children can benefit if it is used in a developmentally appropriate way.  In CDP, the child chooses what to play and how to play, and the adult is a passenger in the journey. 

Why is Child Directed Play Important?

Research shows that CDP helps to better develop children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and motor skills. It also can help children to build a better relationship with the adult who they are engaging in CDP with.


Tips During Child Directed Play Activities

As a parent, you can use CDP with your child using toys and supplies you probably have at home. Here are a few key things to keep in mind when engaging in CDP:

  • Remind yourself that you are immersing yourself in your child’s play and that there is no “right way to play.” Allow yourself to pause before starting CDP with your child and remember to not change the direction of play or the storyline. Remember that you should ask no questions or very few questions in order to prevent changing the story or engaging in a power struggle. If it feels hard to do this- feel free to narrate the play by saying things like, “I can see that the man is going into the store.” You can also ask more open-ended questions like, “What is going to happen next?


  • Set aside 10 to 15 minutes a few times a week for this special time. Practicing CDP regularly will make it more natural. It might be helpful to tell your child that this is a “special time” just for the two of you. This can help this time feel important and separate from a normal day to day experience for you both.


  • Allow for this space to be safe and welcoming. When playing, allow your child access to toys and games that they have experience with. Allow the child to engage freely and play with a variety of toys in many ways with you.  Play usually involves free play with blocks, figurines, and art. It is recommended to not engage in competitive games as they can result in power struggles and setting rules.


  • Lean into big feelings. It is hard to see your child struggle with frustration, anxiety, or sadness. However, these feelings can serve as a learning experience. If your child feels frustrated or upset during play, allow for some independent problem solving at first and do not jump to fix the problem. If the big feeling results in unsafe behaviors, feel free to stop playing or intervene.


  • Remember that every play session is a learning experience. Your child may surprise you with what they pick when they have a chance to take the reins. Take time to notice what your child is doing and allow it to inform you of their likes and dislikes, their interests, and their talents. Let your child know that this is a time where having fun is important. Most importantly- remind them that they are able to make the rules, share their play ideas, and try something new during this play. Follow their lead and enjoy your uninterrupted time together.