For a young child, most of their activities are directed by adults: we tell them when they need to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, listen to stories and so on. Even when they play, sometimes we direct them – telling them how they should play with something, or else we interrogate them – “what color is that car? how many cars are there?”
Just take a moment to imagine what that would be like for you to be told what to do all day long. And then when you finally settle in to some “me time”, someone comes along and asks you question after question. It would drain your energy tanks, right? You might get cranky at that person. You might start to tune out their questions, or resist their suggestions.
Do you have a child who you feel is tuning you out – not listening to you? Do you have a child who is resisting doing what you tell them to do?
Try listening to them. Try letting them tell you what to do for a little while each day. I don’t mean put them in charge of discipline for you! What I mean is spend a little time each day that’s all about play, and even better, is all about your child deciding what to play, and you following along. Let them take the lead for a while and have fun discovering where they’ll lead you.
The Incredible Years program talks about “building up your child’s bank account” of energy, connection, and good will towards you as the parent. If they have a full bank, they’re much more willing to listen to you and do what you ask than if they’re feeling drained.
Many things fill their bank, including: praise, support, love, attention, and special time playing with them one-on-one.
To build a stronger, more positive relationship with your child, try dedicating at least ten minutes a day to a focused session of child-directed play. Here are some tips:
- Call it “special time” or some other words that cue them that this is the time when they get to decide what happens.
- Let them choose the activity.
- Follow their lead. Model cooperation by doing what your child asks you to do.
- Don’t focus on “the right way” to play, and don’t feel like this needs to be a time when you’re teaching them. This is just about building connections.
- Praise their initiative and encourage their creativity.
- Laugh and have fun.
- Don’t quiz them on academic questions that have a right answer – these questions drain the bank. Either they don’t know the answer, which is stressful, or they (and you) already know the answer, so nothing new is learned by asking the question. Instead, try:
- Silent observation.
- Narration – talk about what you see them doing. “You picked up the red car and ran it down the ramp. Now you have the blue car.” Try to use descriptive comments much more often than questions.
- Notice what they’re interested in and talk about that. That way, they’re setting the agenda, not you.
- Open-ended questions – questions that you don’t already know the answer to. “What are you planning to do next?” “What would happen if…?”
- Give just enough help to help them with frustration, but don’t take over the play, and don’t leap in to solve every problem for them.
You can use the Attention Principle while you play. Pay special attention to anything that you like about what they’re doing: “I appreciate that you shared that with me”, “you kept trying even though you were frustrated, and look, you did it!” If they do something annoying or something you don’t want to encourage, just ignore it. (Unless of course it is unsafe or breaks a family rule – you do still need to set reasonable limits.)
You’re modeling for your child what cooperative play looks like, and helping them develop social-emotional skills that will help them also play well with others.
Learn more tips for child-directed play using Greenspan’s Floortime method. https://gooddayswithkids.com/2019/01/15/floortime/
For parent educators and other professionals, here’s a handout on this topic you can share with parents: Child Directed Play handout.