“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

Your children whine that they have NOTHING to do, and with the heaviest of sighs you glare at all of the toys, books, and games that lie in piles within arm’s reach and ask yourself, “Why do I even bother buying these things?”

For quite possibly the gazillionth time, you explain to your dear, sweet children that they have many choices available – they can read books, or draw pictures, or solve puzzles, or play with their favorite toys.

“Why do I have to explain this to you over and over and over again? Find something to do and – for the sake of Mommy’s sanity – JUST DO IT!!”

This phenomenon that parents are hoping and praying children will figure out is the wonder that is Self-Directed Play. The ability to keep oneself occupied is a skill much like many others – daily practice is required to become proficient.

Success in most endeavors requires a willingness to work diligently toward an outcome or to create something that needs to exist. This is a skill that can first be developed at a young age, through engaging in Self-Directed Play.

What is Self-Directed Play?

  • In this form of play, children are encouraged to engage in their own experiences, playing at their own pace, following their intrinsic motivation and interest. Self-organized, and often spontaneous in nature, this kind of play is an active, hands-on activity that the child controls.
  • Children practice the most basic form of Self-Directed Play in a pretend scenario, playing with building materials, and using art supplies. As children mature and their skills progress, they learn to self-direct in just about any activity.
  • This type of play can be practiced alone, in a mixed-age group, or with a parent who is engaged in following the child’s lead and enriching play.
  • It requires a flexible, safe space and minimal adult direction or supervision.
  • An optimized play environment needs to be maintained and organized to keep activities easily accessible.
  • Children require developmentally appropriate toys and materials, including space and equipment for safe, physically active indoor play.

Self-Directed Play is Not:

  • An activity in which adults are making all of the meaningful choices – Children need to have many opportunities to make thoughtful choices to develop confidence during play.
  • An adult led activity with instructions geared toward a specific outcome or version of success – This type of learning is a wonderful tool for teaching children skills and abilities they can later practice on their own in Self-Directed Play. The key is to provide a good balance between time spent in instruction and time spent in exploration, as this is where the deeper learning occurs.
  • Passive media entertainment, even the educational type – This form of entertainment and education is delightful when used in moderation as pretend play inspiration, but it should never compete with the essential time for hands-on, Self-Directed Play.
  • Instruction in any skill or hobby, including sports practice and music lessons – Practice of any skill at home can be turned into a form of Self-Directed Play. Your child can practice useful skills and have fun through the use of educational toys and games. Look for ways to make music and sports practice joyful and fun at home.

What does Self-Directed Play do for your Child?

  • Children experience the joy of self-discovery, the freedom to pursue their own ideas without being constrained by a predetermined outcome or a “right way” to do things.
  • When children are encouraged to play this way daily, they are provided with rich opportunities to rapidly grow their experience and capacity.
  • They naturally develop creative problem-solving skills and positive attitudes in the face of challenge – the beginnings of innovation.
  • Self-Directed Play encourages curiosity, allows for plenty of experimentation, and aids children in developing a keen sense of observation. Children learn to figure things out for themselves, take healthy risks, cope with failure and persevere in play, practicing necessary foundations of real-life skills.
  • Children learn to entertain themselves, nurture their creativity and develop their imagination.
  • Children develop the ability to stay engaged in a task or activity for longer periods of time, learn to keep themselves busy and find many ways to do so, are less likely to complain of boredom, and importantly, they are less likely to be over-dependent on their parents.

"Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed." 

 - Maria Montessori

In fact, children need regular time and space on their own to learn that they are indeed self-reliant, and capable of achieving many things. Occasionally, the loving efforts of an over-attentive parent may actually detract from their child’s ability to learn these important abilities. Children must spend time in self-directed play every day to develop confidence and independence.

While it is important for an adult to help establish boundaries and to be in the vicinity at all times in case further support is needed, children do need a healthy amount of space and freedom to make meaningful choices for themselves. Every parent needs to find the right balance between encouraging healthy risk taking behaviors and attending constantly to their child. Fostering independence through encouraging and expanding Self-Directed Play is an invaluable gift that will continue benefitting your children in all of their future endeavors. 

Parents often regard play as merely a way for children to pass the time. Today, however, research has proven that play is far more than silly whimsy – play is serious holistic learning business.

Remember Parents:

Set your child up to successfully direct their own zany experience, and watch them learn and grow exponentially as they play.

When your children direct their own play, what surprising scenarios do they come up with? We want to hear from you in the comments section below!

Image Credit: Mle Jayne Photography