Self Directed Play

All children need to play. It’s through play that they learn about the world around them. Self directed play takes place when children are in charge. It is play freely chosen by the child who chooses how and why to do it. Sometimes called unstructured or free play, it can take place alone or with peers or carers. Given the freedom to come up with their own ideas at their own speed children develop their creativity and grow in self confidence.    

The following tips can help parents or play workers to encourage self directed play:  

• Support and encourage play, do not direct or control ~ It can be surprisingly difficult to stand back and let the child get on with it. You may feel a child is doing something ‘wrong’, such as painting a pink tree for example, but rather than being wrong, this could be the child’s way of experimenting, exploring imaginatively and having fun, so, rather than telling them trees are green you could praise their creativity by saying; “Wow, what a lovely pink tree!”.  

• Respond to children’s cues – Parents often barge in and take over with the best intentions in mind. A parent may think they are being helpful to their child when they join in or start talking about what a child is doing but the child may actually feel stifled or that they are being corrected. A good way to gauge whether you are wanted is to do something that parents often don’t think of – ask.  Simply saying “Can I play?” offers respect to the child and helps them feel they are in control. Children will let you know if you are wanted as an active play partner or just to watch.  

• Follow the child’s lead ~ This doesn’t necessarily mean watching or being passive. You can encourage children to explore their interests and still help them to learn, without being obtrusive. Children learn best when they are having fun. Saying things like; “Whee! There goes the green ball”, for example, is helping them with their colours without overtly ‘teaching’ them. Children often have very little real power so try to follow their instructions and let them enjoy the feeling of being in charge.    

• Basic is best ~ Expensive walking talking flashing toys can be of limited benefit as there is little room for imagination. The cliche of children discarding expensive toys to play with the wrapping is true because things like cardboard boxes can actually have more play value; they can be a boat, a house, a spaceship etc. A large selection of toys can also be overwhelming for a child, try leaving a smaller selection out and change it each week.  

• Let there be mess ~ What can look like a huge mess to an adult may actually be the child’s most immersed and creative moment. There are several ways in which messy play is beneficial to children. One thing it teaches is that a big mess can actually be sorted out and made okay again. This translates on an emotional level. Children who have been allowed to explore messy play can tolerate difficult feelings more easily as they grow up because they know things can be sorted out. So, if your child makes a mess there’s no need to be annoyed about it, just have fun helping them to clear it up afterwards.  

Positive self directed play experiences help children to learn that they can have a positive impact on their surroundings. They learn to trust other people as they learn that adults will not interfere with or try to control their imagination. Through independent play children learn problem solving skills and process thoughts and feelings, which leads to higher levels of self confidence. Happy children are more likely to grow into happy adults and it only takes a a few simple playthings for most children to begin imagining, pretending and having fun.   

(Sources: NHS Solihull Approach Training)