Play is a child’s way of making sense of the world around them, working through their emotions and experiences, and learning how relationships work. Play is vital to development.
The best way to support a child’s development through play is to allow them to lead the way. Child-led play is informed by attachment theory, encouraging the exploration of the world from within the safety of a secure base of an adult. Children develop a secure attachment when a caregiver is sensitive to their signals and responds appropriately to their needs.
- Follow the child’s interest
Watch what the child is doing and try to follow their lead by doing what interests them. Get stuck in with what they are looking at or investigating in that moment and comment only on that – they will let you know when they are ready to move on to something else and they will show you what they would like to do next.
You’ll notice how much a child enjoys working things out for themselves and how much more the achievement means to them when they have led the task and solved any problems using their own ideas. Showing that you are interested at the same time and giving them your full attention helps the child to focus and increase their own attention span.
Often children don’t play the way we would expect or think best but allowing them to explore in their own way is the best way for them to learn. For example, at a pretend tea party, they may suck the tea from the teapot spout or pour the sugar into the milk jug! That is ok! Let them experiment with new ways of playing, instead of correcting them. Maybe the child has another plan in mind, more imaginative than our own!
It is important not to be intrusive in a child’s play but to try to understand what they are communicating and why, staying aware of their needs throughout.
- Supporting child-led play
Match the child’s pace
When playing with a child, slow down your pace and let the child complete the task themselves, however long it takes. As adults, we often want to speed ahead as we already know how something works or the rules of a game. But it’s important to keep in mind and remember that a child is a slower thinker and is learning everything for the first time. It may be that they take 10 minutes just to investigate the teapot - it’s shape, colour, how it feels etc. But sitting back and letting the child set the pace will allow them to engage in deeper exploration. Children like to repeat things over and over as this helps them learn what will happen each time. It is helpful to allow children to this, even if we adults get bored with it!
Type of play vs how you play
Play comes in all shapes and sizes – imaginary, rule-bound, verbal or non-verbal, pretend, on your own or social, rough and tumble or quieter play – and all of these are beneficial for a child’s development. What’s important is how they are allowed to play. Allowing a child to make her own decisions, with an actively engaged adult following her interests, can boost her confidence and self-esteem and expand her imagination and creativity.
Create a fun, positive and playful atmosphere
Try to create a positive environment by being playful in your communications and interactions. Using a warm, soft, friendly tone of voice and facial expressions will encourage the sharing of feelings between you both, helping the child feel safe enough to fully immerse themselves in the play. Experiencing mutual enjoyment in the play can help to create a bonding and stimulating space and introducing humour and fun can create a positive atmosphere, which is a vital aspect of play.
As professionals, we can support children’s development by actively resisting gender stereotypes in play, for example by offering dolls to boys and toy vehicles to girls. Rigid gender roles or expectations can have a negative effect on all children, excluding them from valuable learning experiences. This can be particularly damaging for transgender and gender non-conforming children, who may be aware of their gender identity from a very young age.
- Impact of health crisis
The health crisis will impact on where children usually play (e.g. nursery or a local playground) and who they normally play with (e.g. friends or grandparents) but it may also impact on the type of play they participate in. Play is a safe way for children to act out things that are worrying them, so parents may notice children participating in more repetitive play (repeating over and over what they have heard, drawing the same pictures or taking special care of a particular toy). They may also act out more difficult emotions through their play e.g. in pretend play, they or their toys may show more frustration or anger for one another. Placing this anxiety or anger outside of themselves, helps them to gain control over it and avoid becoming overwhelmed. It can help if parents notice any themes or emotions running through the play and take the time put this into simple words for the child.
It is also helpful to reassure parents or carers who are trying to home school at the moment that allowing for unstructured play is much more important than ‘lessons’.
- Top tips to share with parents
- Encourage parents and carers to take the time to play with their children more – don’t be afraid to get down onto the floor with them and get stuck in! It does not have to be for hours - a few times a day for five or ten minutes is enough.
- Playing together can help a child to handle difficult moments more easily and can have a calming effect. If a child is very active, it can help to read a book or do a puzzle together.
- Reassure parents and carers that the type of play they do with their children does not matter.
- Help parents and carers to allow their child to lead the play, following their focus and allowing their child to explore in their own space and time. This helps their learning and promotes their self-esteem and decision-making!
- Discuss how they can create a fun, playful atmosphere when playing, where they can all feel at ease to explore and enjoy the play and each other!
- Encourage parents and carers to talk to their child about their play, using simple words about what they see the child doing, especially if they see particular themes or patterns coming up.