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Child-led play

Updated: Oct 16

Child-led play is a topic that I have discussed at various times in this blog, but let’s get a little bit more specific. Child led play means that we as adults relinquish control of choosing what, where or how the child plays, and instead facilitate play and learning given the choices they have made.

First, let’s talk about joint attention. Joint attention is established when you and your child are engaged within the same activity, with “engagement” meaning something different for each child. For some children, “engagement” means looking between you and the activity, checking to see if you’re also paying attention or wondering what you are thinking. For a child who is neurodivergent, joint attention may be playing with the same toys close to one another, or your child watching you play, and then running away, before coming back to watch again.

Next, let’s talk about what counts as “play”.

Many children will choose a toy and play with it just as it is “intended” to be played with. A child who is neurodivergent might play with something in a way that is unique and new to you, and maybe in a way that you didn’t expect! To some children, play does not involve toys at all. Some children play with movement (running and throwing themselves on the couch, climbing on furniture) or by engaging in repetitive tasks (dumping out a bucket of blocks and then replacing them, lining up the pieces to their puzzle and then starting again). No matter how a child chooses to engage with a toy or within an activity, they are still playing, and regardless of how they choose to play, there are opportunities for you as a parent to promote joint attention and learning. Here are some strategies that can be used to help your child play, learn and engage with you or others.

Using parallel / self-talk

Parallel talk means that you narrate what your child is doing, while self-talk is narrating what you are doing. These are great tools for children who prefer to play alone - all you need to do is talk about what is happening.

For example, if your child is lining up or stacking their puzzle pieces, you could say “Red on top” / “It’s getting so tall” / “Wow you’re adding so many”. If you are playing nearby doing the same thing, you could say “Mommy’s getting blue now” / “Mommy’s tower might fall!” / “Daddy needs a yellow one”.

Parallel and self-talk are effective for a few reasons.

1. If your child prefers to play alone, talking about what you or they are doing may grab their attention and let them know that you’re interested in what they’re interested in. Even if they don’t want you to join in directly, you are still engaging with them and modeling language. Sometimes, it may even encourage them to let you join them :)

2. You can pair their actions with words they may not have known before. If they’re pushing a car back and forth and you say “Fast car!”, “Push red”, or “Slow car”, they could learn fast, push, red, and slow, or at least gain exposure to these new words. It’s important to remember that when we are using the strategies of parallel and self-talk, the goal is not to force imitation or repetition from the child, but rather to expose them to language, pair words and actions together, and increase engagement between you and the child…if they imitate what you say, that is a bonus!

Create a cause-and-effect scenario

Cause-and-effect games/activities are exciting and silly, and can often engage a child in one activity for quite a long time. They’re great to incorporate into child-led play because you can create a cause/effect scenario with almost any toy! Some examples include: building a tower and then crashing into it with a car or ball, filling up a bucket and then dumping it out, placing a lego on your head and then pretending to sneeze so that it falls to the ground. Another benefit of cause/effect play is that while your child is choosing the activity, you can choose target words or actions to teach. Examples: oh no, crash, uh oh, fall down, all gone, boom.

Be flexible and creative

Children are unpredictable - we can’t always guess what they will find to be interesting or what will keep their attention for an extended amount of time. The most important part of child-led play is going with the flow, allowing the child to decide what, where and how they play, while we facilitate and support them along the way. Keep in mind that play can be silly and spontaneous…there are no rules, and you never know what will catch and keep your child’s attention until you give it a try.

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