Parent-Directed Play

Parent-directed play is different than child-directed play and consists of short activities or games that you and your child participate in together. It is based on a play therapy approach known as Theraplay. The goal is to provide structured, nurturing, challenging and/or engaging activities to your child in order to reduce behaviour problems and enhance healthy development in your child, as well as to strengthen your relationship with your child.

In parent-directed play, the parent will facilitate interactive engagement with their child through shared attention that is pleasant for the child. This allows you as a parent to get your child into a state of optimal arousal and development where the child is engaged and focused on you but does not disengage or withdraw from you or go into an over-excited, dysregulated or out of control state.

Parent-directed play will help your child learn to listen to you and follow your directions. You will be engaging your child in a playful way in some kind of a structured, fun activity. In addition, you will also be strengthening your relationship with your child by doing these activities. This will also help your child to become more cooperative and compliant.

How Do I Use Parent-Directed Play?

At various times throughout the day, initiate a Fun Activity (see examples below) with your child. These activities do not need to take a long time: shorter ones can last 3 – 5 minutes, medium ones could last 7 – 10 minutes. If you have time, activities can last for as long as you want, as long as your child is enjoying it.

You would initiate the activity by describing to your child how you will both be participating in this activity and what each of you will be doing (“Let’s play a game for 5 minutes; here’s how it works …”). You will be able to set up some structure to these activities so that your child will need to listen to you 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?”)

Examples of Fun Activities

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 you started are as follows:

  • Blow cotton balls back and forth between parent and child, or take turns blowing a cotton ball across a room.
  • Parent gives instructions to the child to do something, for example, “Take three giant steps towards me.” Child must say “Mother/Father may I?” before responding to the command. If the child forgets, she must return to the starting line. The goal is to have your child come to you and get a hug on arrival.
  • Face your child. Move your arms, face, or other body parts and ask child to move in the same way, as if he is a mirror.
  • Have your child lie on her back on the floor with feet up in the air. Place one pillow on your child’s feet and help your child to balance it. Add additional pillows one at a time as long as your child is successful.
  • Parent and child stand face to face. Place a pillow or balloon between you and hold in place just by staying close and without using your hands. Move back, forth and sideways.
  • Tell your child that you are each going to collect a bunch of little things such as small toys, paper clips, spoons, buttons, pens, spools. Keep your objects a secret from each other by putting them in a paper bag. Then take turns reaching into the other person’s bag without peeking at the things and guessing what the things are just by feeling them.
  • Trace a letter on your child’s back with your finger and let your child guess the letter.

Guidelines for Parents When Doing Parent-Directed Play

Stay in your role as the parent. Your role is to be the adult and to provide clear, understandable and age-appropriate structure, directions and limits for your child so that the activity remains fun and engaging for your child and does not become disorganized, chaotic, boring or uninteresting.

Although you are providing directions and structure on how to do the activity, avoid putting yourself strictly in the role of being a teacher. Do not become focused only on completing the task or activity. Children may resist or lose interest.

Do not put yourself in the role of a child such as being the child’s friend or peer. This means you should not be too competitive with your child as another child might be.

Do not let your child take on the role of being the adult by letting your child take over the activity completely. Also, you should not expect your child to make you feel good, to entertain you, or to take care of your needs.

Although the parent is ultimately in charge, remember not to be too rigid, critical, overly demanding or on doing things only your way. When this happens, children may resist or lose interest.

Remain playful while giving directions to your child and providing structure and completing the activities. Remember, the goal is to have fun together.

Although it is important to be playful with your child, be careful not to tease or mock your child and not to let the playfulness or joking around become overwhelming or too stimulating for your child.

Get your child’s attention and establish and maintain a connection by interacting with your child in a fun manner. Don’t be distant or aloof. Make eye contact and smile when appropriate.

If your child is too withdrawn, aloof, bored or is ignoring you, try to achieve a certain level of alertness, interest, and interactive engagement with your child by providing appropriate levels of stimulation, surprise and excitement.

If your child is resistant to doing the activity, it could be for many reasons: boredom, activity too easy, activity too hard. Here are some things to try:

  • See if your child will do the activity to you
  • Choose a different activity that doesn’t require a response from your child.
  • Choose a simpler activity if the activity seems too hard; acknowledge the resistance by saying, “I think this is too hard, let’s see what would make it easier, more fun”
  • Choose a more advanced activity if the activity seems too easy
  • Let your child make up some of the rules for the activity
  • Increase the element of surprise, playfulness or excitement

If your child is getting over-excited or over-stimulated, or is becoming increasingly tense, frustrated or anxious, try to soothe and calm your child to a level where he or she can interactively engage with you again. Ideas to calm and soothe your child:

  • Take some deep breaths and get yourself into a calm state
  • Slow your movements down
  • Use a softer, quieter voice
  • Slow your rate of speech
  • Show a gentle, soft facial expression
  • Sing/hum a soothing song
  • Touch your child in a calming/soothing or rhythmic manner that could include rocking, rubbing, hugging, holding, etc.
  • Redirect your child to a slower, calmer activity

Allow your child some independence with doing things. Don’t take over doing things your child can accomplish on his or her own. On the other hand, you don’t want to let your child struggle with something until he or she is overly frustrated or in despair. When things get too hard, give just enough assistance to your child so he or she can continue with the activity.

Recognize your child’s need for nurturing, physical touch such as holding, cuddling, patting, rubbing, rocking, kissing, etc. Provide this touch at anytime, even when your child is not demanding it, as long as your child accepts it and discontinue this touch when your child rejects it.

Make sure the fun activities are age-appropriate. Be aware of your child’s developmental level and do activities that are neither too hard nor too easy for your child to master. Don’t have unrealistic expectations for what your child can do by making the activities too hard, however, don’t be afraid to challenge your child as well with activities that are slightly beyond your child’s abilities, but at the same time could be successfully mastered by your child possibly with some assistance from you.

When your child accomplishes a task or tries to do what you ask, provide praise or some sort of positive response to the child’s efforts. Show pleasure in your child’s pleasure and achievements.

If your child is demonstrating unsafe or destructive behaviors, set limits with these behaviors.

Have an endpoint to the 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.”)

In summary, be aware of and responsive to your child’s feelings, likes, dislikes and needs. Learn to understand what your child needs: directions, instructions, stimulation, soothing, calming, independence, assistance, touch, no touch.

Parenting Tip:

You can use parent-directed play when your child is misbehaving in order to change his or her state from resistant/oppositional/dysregulated to engaged/cooperative/calm.

Example #1

If your child is kicking you when you are trying to get his pants on, you could say “Let’s play a game! I wonder if you can push me over with those legs when I count to three!” Hold your child’s feet gently and then when your child pushes you with his feet, fall back in an exaggerated way and say, “Wow, what strong legs!” Then stretch out your hands so that your child can pull you back up. You may want to repeat this several times before returning to the task of getting pants on.

Example #2

If your child is running around the room chaotically, hold your child’s hands and make a game of ring around the rosy, then say to your child, “I’ve got an idea for a game” and sit her in your lap in front of play-doh and say, “Let’s each make a snake and then make them play with each other.” Or you could sit in front of paper and crayons and say, “I’m going to draw a shape, and then you can draw a shape/make something out of the shape I drew.”

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