Who’s driving here?

When you are sprawled across the floor playing trains or sitting at a too-small table sipping tea out of a plastic cup, have you ever stopped to think…  Wait a second, exactly who is in charge of the play right now?

Playtime is one of the few (if not only) times during their day when your child can be in charge.  And as we’ve mentioned in previous posts (here and here) this is critically important for their development, learning and creativity. Most likely, at some point earlier, your child provided specific directions as to how to set up the play scenario or what your role in the play would be, and this is great.    

Why does it matter who is leading?  Whoever is leading the play is coming up with the idea or story — they may not know right away how or when it is going to end or how it will unfold, but they know how it starts.  And this is a huge giveaway for their play partner, telling us about what they are interested in or curious about.  Instead of thinking of following their lead as indulging a child, we can think of it as wanting to explore and share their passion for trains, dolls, or rescue heroes.

When a child is leading the play, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the parent or professional playing with them is completely at their whim and unable to contribute to the play.  We just want to make sure we think carefully about how and when we offer our ideas in the play and  do this in a way that will support and expand the play.

Here are some strategies to consider when a child is leading the play:

  • Keep an open mind, even if it is your gazillionth time playing monsters.  There is a logical and rational reason why your child is so interested in playing out a similar scene over and over again.  You also never know, maybe this is the time where the story will change, just a little…  
  • Know that just because the child is leading, it is ok to offer a suggestion, in fact this will likely make the play even more fun! The suggestion could be about what happens next in the “story” or what your character does. We’re always watching out for the child’s reaction or interest, so they can decide how the “story” will progress.
  • Be excited to join in on the play.  There are many articles about the importance of play for adults (as well as for children).  Consider this as an opportunity to tap into that inner child in all of us.  When we express genuine interest and desire to play with them, this fuels the child to want to play even more.
  • Throw logic and convention out the window.  Sometimes in play, a plastic ball can be a chair and a dinosaur can drive a car.  Children think of the darndest things. That doesn’t mean that they don’t understand what is the difference between a ball and chair, or that dinosaurs can’t really drive — this is their creativity and imagination at work.  

When we are encouraging and supporting a child to lead and experiment during play, we are expecting and challenging them to rise to the occasion.  When children are leading the play, they are actually working harder than if they were following another person’s play idea. Being a leader is a more complex skill for children than following and responding to another person’s ideas.  All this being said, we obviously want the child to be flexible and be able to seamlessly transition from being a leader and a follower in play scenarios with their peers. Allowing a child to take the lead in play at home will enable them to contribute to play ideas with their peers.  

So when we’re playing with a child, sit back and let them drive!


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