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child-led play

Child-led play: What it is and why you should try it | Ask the Pediatrician

Ask the Pediatrician: Also known as "special time," Child-led play has proven benefits.

We are all feeling the colder, shorter and darker days of December. The funny thing about Pacific Northwest kids is that they barely notice the chill and it doesn’t appear to slow them down. In fact, if your kids are like mine, it’s nearly impossible to get them to wear a jacket even when it’s 39 degrees outside.

Most caregivers feel like broken records every morning with litany of requests: wear a jacket, eat your breakfast, etc. Of course, we say these things because this is part of parenting, but in truth children’s lives are very directed by adult requests. Let’s take this month to explore the idea of child-led play, otherwise known as “special time.” (Who doesn’t want to do something called “special time”?)

Parents, we’re still seeing a lot of cases of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, in kids. So many that we are seeing limited bed space in area hospitals because of respiratory illnesses. Contact your pediatrician first if you have questions about RSV or you’re concerned about your child’s symptoms from a respiratory illness, unless it’s a life-threatening emergency or symptoms are severely affecting your baby or child’s ability to drink, eat and breathe. Read more about bronchiolitis here and about RSV here.

Child-led play or ‘special time’

The idea of “special time” was developed by psychologist Dr. Sheila Eyberg in the 1970s. Her recommendation was to spend 5 to 10 minutes a day with a single child in child-led play.

Calling it “special time” and letting children know that this is their time to lead the play without adult expectations or suggestions sends a powerful message.
As adults our challenge is to let them direct and avoid asking questions or using this as a teaching opportunity. If your child would like to scoot you around on a skateboard, go for it and resist the urge to teach them how to skateboard. This is a pure old-fashioned play.

What are the benefits of special time?

There are significant benefits to special time. Having some unstructured play time together helps children and caregivers with bonding and attachment. Joining your child in play and paying attention lets them know you’re interested in what they are doing and really listening. Studies have shown that there are benefits including improved listening, decreased disruptive behavior and building better social skills.

What makes it special time?

In a nutshell special time is a specific 5-10 minutes carved out with one child that you call “special time.” The essential focus is that the child leads the activities, not the parent. They are in charge, as long as it is safe. At its core it’s pure attention and play (no screen time). The goal is to do it for 5-10 minutes every day but even if you do it a few times a week there are benefits.

‘Special time’ = PRIDE

There’s a handy acronym to help you remember the tenets of “special time” or child-led play: PRIDE

  • P: Praise. This is an opportunity to give your child specific praise about behaviors. Give them a more specific compliment that shows you are paying attention. An example is, “I love the way you built that tower,” rather than a generic, “good job.”
  • R: Reflect. This is particularly useful for smaller children. Reflect what your child says back to them. This lets them know you’re really listening. If they say, “build tower” you can respond with “you are building a tower.”
  • I: Imitate. Join your child in play while letting them lead. This gives your child a sense of control which is pretty fun. Let’s face it—children live in adult-dominated world and 99.99% of the time they are responding to adult demands.
  • D: Describe. Narrate what your child is doing. Not by placing a judgment on it but simply describing their activity. An example is “you are building a big tower.”
  • E. Enthusiasm. Relax into the moment and let your child know verbally and nonverbally you are enjoying being with them and interested in what they are doing.

Child-led play: Give it a try!

Special time is good for children and adults. While some of this seems intuitive, it’s easy to have child-led play fall to the wayside during our busy lives. Just taking a few minutes every day to remind our children that they are important and have good ideas pays off dividends in terms of happiness and behavior. It is also a sweet moment to pause, relax and just enjoy the funny quirkiness of the children in our lives.


More from Dr. Block and Kaiser Permanente in Seattle’s Child:

Kids’ heavy backpacks are a big problem

Kids and sleep: new guidance on melatonin


About the Author

Susanna Block

Dr. Susanna Block, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and lives with her family in Queen Anne.