Follow the leader: Child-led play

When children lead in play, they gain the most developmentally.

As adults, we often teach children how to play through our own influences and childhood memories. For instance, we may introduce children to play through the favorite activities we enjoyed so much while growing up. There will be many times and instances we get the chance to share our favorite activities, but making sure to focus on the child’s interests will always be the best place to start.

Child-led play is rather easy to describe and simply relies on the child to make the majority of decisions when engaging in play. Simply put, the child will choose the activity, toy or location for which to engage in play. It is all about giving the child choices instead of leading them in activities. For example, you may ask the child if they would like to play inside or outside, use craft supplies, color, get out some puzzles, choose a toy or play a game. When you offer children choices of activities or play, you are promoting child-led play.

Once the child has chosen an activity, it is the adult’s responsibility to play follow the leader. Continue to offer new choices throughout play to support a positive environment of independence and social skill building. However, avoid leading children into decisions or ideas that are not completely theirs. At times you can bring up and engage in play with some of your childhood favorites, but play should still be about the child’s choices and not specifically about you.

When children lead in play, they often gain a sense of purpose and can feel as though they have some direct control over their environment. Choosing activities and leading in play also promotes an important sense of leadership and positive feelings of self-worth for children. Play along with the child and ask them questions about activities they have chosen and why it is important to them. When children discuss their interests, it helps them feel part of a bigger world. It is equally important the questions are coming from the important adults in their lives so children feel important, understood and taken seriously.

When interacting in child-led play, children may receive a greater sense of purpose. Participating in child-led play is an excellent way to give children some direct control over their environment through the choices they make. Allowing children to make choices empowers them to feel a part of something much bigger and gives them feelings of value and self-worth as they guide others through their daily routines. Child-led play is all about making choices and we give children their sense of purpose through the choices we allow them to make.

Include everyone who would like to play, including other family members, neighbors or friends of the child. Play should be about the child and the choices they make. It is OK to let others know you are engaging in child-led play and explain the importance of allowing children to make the bulk of the decisions while playing. Make sure no one is leading the child to make specific decisions; however, it is OK for anyone engaging in play to ask children questions or give options when choosing an activity. Above all, just have fun and enjoy children while you follow their lead.

Michigan State University Extension recommends the following resources for child-led play and activities.

To learn about the positive impact children and families are experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children to success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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