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The Miraculous Value of Child-Directed Play Time

If you are struggling with understanding or managing your child's mis-behavior, I am going to offer the suggestion to incorporate 30 minutes of child directed play time into your family routine, at a regularly scheduled time, three times per week.

You ask: "Are you C-R-A-Z-Y? Why would I add even one more thing to a schedule that already feels over-busy and overwhelmed? And why would I reward my child's bad behavior with more of my time and attention? Won’t they understand better if I just talk to them and tell them my expectations loud and clear?”

The reasons behind my counter-intuitive suggestion lie in looking closely at child development and how children come into increasing levels of self-management, cooperation, and kindness. A child develops through a complex integration of brain, body, emotions, and relationships carried out through regular and repeated interactions with other humans in a safe and enriched environment. Through innumerable episodes of exploration, a child’s brain uses feedback from their body, feelings, and the world to form neural pathways that become the basis for cognitive, emotional, and relational learning. With this learning, comes the increased ability to navigate in life with a balanced emotional response, to take action that meets one’s needs while respecting the rights of others, and to develop a self-confidence about being able to handle what comes along to a relatively positive outcome.

The learning is incremental and requires much trial and error. And what best supports effective trial and error? Positive attachment with key adult figures in which, according to neuroscientist, clinician, and author, Dan Siegel, a child feels the Four S’s: Safe, Soothed, Seen, and Secure. Safe refers to physically safe and comfortable in their environment. Soothed is the experience of being with another who can tolerate the child’s upset without getting upset themselves. Seen shows the child that another important person understands them or is willing to try through curiosity, good listening, and being willing to follow rather than lead. Secure is the feeling that you are loved and valued regardless of performance, behavior, intelligence, appearance, or any other appraisal beyond one’s core worth.

Child directed play is a time in which parents set aside busy schedules, expectations for achievement, and task-dependent outcomes to focus with the child, on the child’s experience, as the child experiences it. It simultaneously meets all of the Four S’s.

Following the child’s lead for what activity is engaging at the moment, the parent facilitates learning through letting the child explore his or her world in creative and imaginative ways. The fun of doing this together increases bonding and attachment, lets the child feel respected and understood by the parent, and helps the parent relax into the child’s way of being.

Some suggestions for what to do to promote child directed play time:

  1. To the extent possible, have these times be regularly scheduled slots in the family schedule. Predictability and follow through mean a lot to the child’s sense of safety and security and go a long way toward making them feel valued for their own sake.

  2. Let the child choose as much of the activity as possible. As long as it is safe to people and the surroundings, the child’s leadership here promotes exploration, development of cause/effect learning, and confidence that their choices are meaningful.

  3. Let this 30 minutes be one-on-one time. This is a focused time between you and your child where your attention is fully available to what is happening between you. Siblings and other adults in the household can be occupied with other activities while you and your child share this “special time” together.

  4. Verbally comment, as if you were a narrator, on what your child is doing as s/he is doing it. Do this as a descriptive exercise and avoid either praise or criticism. For example, try saying something like, “Oh, you are putting that piece there right now” or “You have a smile on your face as you do that”. This communicates interest and non-judgmental engagement with your child’s conception of his/her world at this moment in time. Doing this may feel awkward to you at first, but with some practice you will refine your ability to narrate without feeling intrusive or fake.

  5. Cell phones and other screens are for other times and places; this is a hands-on time of learning and play.

  6. Remember the FUN in play time. Relaxing into non-structured and sometimes silly time together is a wonderful antidote to the time of necessary struggles about authority that happen through much of the rest of the day.

  7. Allow your child to struggle or fail in what they are attempting. It is fine for a child not to know what they want to do at first or to try something and not have it work. That is the feedback needed to learn how to move forward. Stay patient and redirect the child back to the here and now and the agreement that this is their time to lead.

Some suggestion for what not to do during child directed play time.

  1. Avoid changing the direction of play. Remember the purpose of this time and allow yourself both the joy and amazement of seeing what your child chooses to do.

  2. Save “teaching” for later. If the child wants your assistance with something, please accept their invitation to help. But taking over to “teach” them something changes this unique play time into another type of time altogether. Allow the sometimes non-linear, messy, or no-goal directed creativity to do it’s magic.

I am willing to bet that you will be pleasantly surprised by the pay-off for investing these 30 minutes, on a regular basis, in terms of increases in mutual understanding, cooperation, and joy. Please write to let me know how this goes for you:

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