Child-Directed Play and Parent-Directed Play: Two Ways for Parents to Play with Their Children

Child experts agree that play allows children to develop in a healthy manner. When parents can be part of this play, it has a huge potential to increase children’s self-esteem, increase children’s ability to take responsibility for their choices, and allow children to see their parents in a different way, one that strengthens the parent-child relationship. The end result from a strong, positive parent-child relationship is that children will be more willing to cooperate with parents and to comply with parental requests and demands.

Many parents are curious about ways they can play with their children. Often, parents report that they don’t know how to play, they feel silly, their children do not engage with them, or they just find child’s play boring. This is understandable since adults tend to lose the ability to play like they did as children.

I like to help parents learn two different ways of engaging with their children in play. One way for parents to engage with their child in play is using child-directed play and the other way is using parent-directed play. Both approaches are helpful in strengthening the parent-child relationship and enhancing your child’s healthy development.

Child-Directed Play

There are a number of therapeutic approaches that involve parents in child-directed play. One of these approaches is called Filial Play Therapy. Parents are taught basic skills on how to engage with their child in play in a safe and structured manner that allows the child to lead the play. Research has shown that most parents can learn and apply these skills with thei children with very positive results. Additionally, by using the skills during this structured playtime, parents are training themselves to use these same skills at other times outside of playtime. The skills that parents use during child-directed play are foundation skills parents can use with their child throughout childhood and adolescence.

For this type of play, it is recommended that the parent set aside a specific amount of time, usually 30 minutes, where the parent can devote his or her undivided attention to one particular child without any distractions. This is a time when parent and child can enjoy one-on-one time together, where there are no competing agendas. The parent sets up the play space ahead of time in a specific area so that there are a variety of toys and activities that the child can choose from.

At the beginning of the play time, the parent invites the child to play, and identifies it as a “special” time by saying something like, “We have 30 minutes for our Special Playtime; you can decide to play in just about any way you want with the toys in this area.”

Then the parent sits down beside the child and, (a) describes out loud what the child is doing (“You have decided to dress the doll” “You are lining up all the cars now”), and, (b) identifies out loud any feelings that come up for the child or with the toys (“You are happy to play with the lego” “You are proud of the picture you just drew” “You are frustrated that the blocks fell over” “That tiger is really angry”).

Do not ask questions! This is very difficult for most parents, but it is an important concept in child-directed play. For example, you would NOT ask your child, “What is this for? What are you doing? Do you want to play with this? Why is the pirate going in the boat? Who are you supposed to be? What do dinosaurs eat? What does the doll say? How are you feeling? How many blocks are in there?”

The other important concept to remember is that you will not direct, suggest, teach or correct your child during this time. For example, you would NOT say, “Let’s play with this game. Here, let me show you how to do it. You should sit up straight. Put those blocks away before you get out something else. No, that’s not the right way. Give it to me and I’ll open it for you.” Remember, it is child-directed play, so you are following the lead of your child and not directing the play in any way.

If your child invites you to do something, such as do a specific task, or be a particular character (“Draw a house” “You be the bad guy”), then you can do the task or play that role in the way you think your child wants you to play it, but the important thing to remember is that you wait for your child’s invitation first. As soon as your child tires of this particular activity and moves on to something else, remember to go back to describing your child’s activities and identifying any feelings coming up in your child.

There are minimal limits, but the limits that are set are important. The limits are the time limit (parents state at the beginning the length of the playtime and will give 5 minute and 1 minute warnings before the end of the playtime), limits that nobody gets hurt and nothing gets broken (“The car is not for throwing. Felt pens have to be used on the paper only. No climbing on the shelves.”), limits that the play remains in the specific area designated (We need to stay in this room for our special playtime.”), and limits around no TV, computers, or other electronics.

At the end of this special playtime, the parent states that playtime is ending (“We’re done our Special Playtime now; we can do this again on …”). It is best if the parent tidies up the play area, allowing the child to help if he wants to, but not demanding that the child help you. Remember that this is a “special” time between parent and child, different from other times you spend together when you are asking your child to do something, or directing, correcting or teaching your child in some way.

Parent-Directed Play

Sometimes, children benefit from some direction from their parents to help them engage in a certain type of play or interaction. With parent-directed play, parents will choose a specific type of fun activity for parent and child to engage with together. Usually, these fun activities are fairly brief, often lasting between 3 to 10 minutes. Because the activities are brief, they can be done several times per day at different times that would fit in to a specific family’s lifestyle.

Parent-directed play is based on the therapeutic approach known as Theraplay, where games between child and parent focus on dimensions of nurturance, structure, challenge, and engagement. As in child-directed play, parent-directed play will strengthen parent-child relationships, enhance positive emotions in both child and parent, and go a long way towards making children more willing and cooperative. In addition, there is an added benefit of helping the child feel comfortable in following a parent’s directions.

The parent would initiate the activity by describing to the child how they will be participating in this activity and what each of them will be doing (“Let’s play a game for 5 minutes; here’s how it works …”). Parents will be able to set up some structure to these activities so that the child will need to listen to the parent and follow directions. (“We’re going to stand facing each other, then I’m going to put a pillow between us, but we have to keep it in place by just standing close to each other and not using our hands. Then I’m going to tell us which direction we are going to move, like left, right, forward, backward. We have to move together and keep the pillow from falling on the floor without using our hands. Ready?”)

Make sure, however, to keep things fun and playful; otherwise if parents are too rigid and structured with rules and doing it the parent’s way, children will lose interest. One idea to help engage children is to state that first you will do the activity following the parent’s rules, and then you will do the activity following the child’s rules (making sure that nobody would get hurt or nothing would get broken using the child’s rules). When you switch to following the child’s rules, you can use some of the skills outlined above in the section on child-directed play. This way you are incorporating both parent-directed and child-directed play in one activity.

At the end of the activity, the parent would let the child know they were done (“That was fun; our 5 minutes is up now; we can play this another time.”)

It is a good idea for parents to compile a list of fun activities that they can choose from. You probably have some favorite ones already. There are endless choices that parents and children can come up with for fun activities. Some examples to get your started are as follows:

I hope that this gives you some ideas on two different approaches to playing with your child. Have fun trying these approaches with your child.

Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2014. All Rights Reserved.


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Kathy Eugster, MA, RCC, CPT-S

MA, Counselling Psychology
Registered Clinical Counsellor
Certified Play Therapist – Supervisor
Child and Family Therapist

Kathy Eugster