Child-directed play: Helping your kids grow by letting them lead the way
My 3-year-old “surrogate granddaughter” Ava and I spent a few hours at the beach recently, and this is what she did:
Buried, dug up, “discovered” and cleaned off a yellow Frisbee 10 times, declaring it a hidden treasure;
Collected a variety of shells and large rocks into a pile to be part of a castle, and later threw them into the water and forgot about them;
Used a paper cup to fill with sand and water (since we’d forgotten the sand toys), watching the water overflow as more sand was added;
Buried and uncovered my feet;
Hauled armloads of seaweed out of the water onto the land;
Met a slightly older girl and took turns following her and bossing her around as they chased ducks;
Slogged through thick, gooey seaweed near the shore;
Did she learn anything?
Well, yes. Scientifically, she learned a bit about gravity and displacement and lake ecosystems and animal life – not necessarily verbalizing the concepts, but developing connections between neurons and building synapses at the incredible rate only a child under 5 can do. She learned a few social skills about taking turns and persuading another person to do what she’d like to do. She learned competence, asking, “Can I handle it?” as she got ready to step into the mess of deep seaweed, and finding that she could do it.
Mostly, as she threw water into the air and dug furiously in sand and ran as fast as she could, she felt unbridled joy, visible all over her face.
And what was my part in all this?
If I was asked to help search for shells and feathers or haul seaweed or turn over a cup of wet sand to make a “castle,” I did so. I might share a couple of discoveries or ideas, but she took the lead. I let her know I was having fun being with her. When I wasn’t asked for help, I watched, making sure only that she was safe. I did not prevent her from getting dirty or wet or trying something impossible – such as actually catching and petting a duck.
This is child-directed play, and it is absolutely the best way a child learns and grows. As adults, our job is to bring our child to different environments and provide activities and enrichment (i.e. art supplies, musical instruments) and let them go where they want with them. This is not to say that we won’t teach our children words and techniques and manners and character traits and safety tips, but we should not be directing all of their activities and structuring all of their experiences.
On the beach that day, there were plenty of parents and caregivers letting their children do their own things. But there were some intent on hemming them in with adult boundaries.
Two preschool boys were playing with water, sand and seaweed near Ava. The parents and one of the boys wanted to move to the playground in the park. Playgrounds are great, but they impose more adult parameters than nature does. The other boy was having too much fun mucking about on the beach. The parent kept asking, “Don’t you want to go play?”
I loved his answer: “I am playing!”
The case of a little girl, a bit younger than 2, and her mother or nanny made me really sad. They approached the shoreline cautiously, and the girl stood in the water barely to her ankles looking timidly out. The adult picked up some pebbles and gave them to the girl. “Throw them in the water,” she instructed. The girl dropped them down, and the adult began to clap and say “Yay!” in a loud affirming voice. The woman did this a few more times, and then found a stick.
“Wash it off in the water,” she told the little girl. The child did that, to the same unbridled praise.
The little girl learned a little bit about science and nature, just by watching and minimal interaction.
She learned that she will be praised for doing exactly what an adult asks her to do, and that she may not get that affirmation if she goes outside the boundaries. She learned that she is not competent to make her own decisions or step out of the shadow of her parent or caregiver – she might get dirty or hurt or in over her head. She learned that creativity and originality might be bad ideas.
Friends to whom I told this story thought I might be a bit harsh in my judgment. Perhaps the girl is naturally timid or has sensory issues that make it difficult to touch sand or water or have too much stimulation. If that is so, a parent would need sensitivity and would need to be extra close as a child takes small steps, but I’m still uncomfortable for all that praise for adult-directed actions.
If our goal is to raise confident, competent, creative individuals who trust their own judgment and are able to step out from the base of our loving arms to take risks, then we will get out of the way and encourage child-directed play.
Note: I used the term “child-directed play” in a general way to apply to a child doing her own thing. It can be applied more specifically to one-on-one play in which a child leads and the adult joins in and makes observations. This is a great idea described in a Community Education publication from Seattle Children’s here.