You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation – Plato


Spending one-on-one time with your child and allowing them to lead you in play is a great way to observe that they are a separate person – already devising their own plans and dreaming their own dreams. When we follow their lead, step back, and observe, we give them the space to show us who they really are, and what they really need.


Allowing a Child to Lead in Play can:


  • Build self-esteem and confidence
  • Foster development of language and social skills
  • Fulfill their need for positive, focused attention from you
  • Strengthen your parent-child bond


Play with your child this way one-on-one several times a week from infancy for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. This time should be set aside to give all of your focus to play. Choose a time that sets them up for a positive interaction, when they are well fed and rested. Play in a quiet place, with no electronic distraction. Communicate to your child that this is special time when you play only with them.


Tell your child ahead of time how long you will be playing together. When you’re ready to wrap it up, give them a one- or two-minute warning so they are prepared for you to move on. Another option is to set a timer, allowing a bit of time for wrap-up if necessary when the timer goes off.


Let children initiate their own play:

  • Observe what they are interested in
  • Wait for them to initiate or get involved on their own
  • Listen to what they are trying to tell you


Need a little extra help getting started?

  • Put something just out of reach
  • Introduce something hard to operate
  • Offer things bit by bit
  • Offer choices


How to join in:


  • Get down on the floor with your child and share the space they occupy. If you have a great playroom, play in there!
  • Channel your inner radio announcer and try describing your child’s play. You might say, “There goes the queen, she’s waving at the crowd.” No need for specifics or detail – just something quick to prompt your child to come up with new ideas.
  • Imitate what your child does when they play. If they love to play with blocks, you can ask to build a tower with them, telling them you need direction for where to put your pieces, or you can tell them you are building a tower of your own. Don’t be afraid to keep your child away from your tower and tell them to work on their own. This teaches them to respect other children’s towers, too.
  • Repeat what your kids say, but flesh it out with a few details. This teaches them new words and fuels new ideas for where to direct the play next. When your kid says, “There’s a big snake!” say, “I see a huge snake with great big fangs!”
  • Make a point of praising behaviors you would like to see repeated – “You are doing a good job paying attention and being careful when you jump from rock to rock!”
  • Keep an open mind about how kids play with their toys. There is no wrong way to play with a toy – even a static, realistic looking one – unless it is somehow harmful.


Try to Avoid:


  • Giving commands about play or toys. If you find yourself saying the words “no” or “don’t,” and it isn’t a matter of respect or physical safety, it’s time to reflect. Especially avoid “not like that” – instead, consider ways that you can adapt to how they are choosing to play with something.
  • Directing your child’s play. All play should originate from your child’s ideas. Your job is simply to take those ideas, expand on them, and help your child to run with them.
  • Quizzing your child. “What color is the sky?” or “Can you find a red car?” This is fine to do sometimes, but much more fun in the context of a game. Refrain from asking too many questions while your child is leading play – just learn to roll with it!
  • Using this time for competitive games. Child-led play is a time for connection and not a time for following rules, winning and losing, or getting into power struggles.


Playing this way helps develop deeply trusting, mutually respectful relationships between parent and child. It will also help to raise kids that you not only love but in whose company you love to be.


How has allowing your child to take the lead in play affected how you relate to each other? We want to hear from you in the comments below!