Have a little FUN: Building relationships through child-led play

Updated: Sep 8

As a pre-K educator I always looked forward to center time, and I almost always chose the table toys area. Not only did I get to sit -- in an actual chair -- but I also used the table toys area as an opportunity to informally assess my students’ academic development. Getting out the magnet tiles (my personal favorite), I would ask pointed questions like, “Wow! How many tiles can you stack on top?” “Can I have the blue tile? Oops! Try again, that’s the green one.”

In the classroom, these sounds of adult-directed play were constant. And for good reason: play builds skills and mastery, and is an important part of learning and children’s academic development. As an educator, it’s in my DNA to monitor the play-to-learning connection. But as I continued to grow in my teaching career, I started hearing about something new: child-led play.

In child-led play, children lead and adults follow, and this special dynamic helps to build nurturing relationships between the adult and child. Research shows that joining a child for just five minutes of child-led play a day can strengthen relationships and make children feel valued. Child-led play can increase social behavior, boost language development, and build self-esteem.

At ParentCorps, we use the acronym FUN to communicate three easy tips for educators and families to engage in child-led play:

F - Follow the child’s lead

Let the child be in charge. They choose what to play with and how to play, so long as their choices are safe choices. The child is empowered to direct the adult and make silly, imaginative choices (e.g. the sky can be green and boats can fly). When children can play freely, without correction or the fear of embarrassment, they learn to take risks and manage feeling disappointed.

U - U do what they do

Sit (on the floor if you are able) and join in on the child’s play. Notice the choices the child is making (“I’m driving the train backwards!”) and follow their lead (“Me too! Driving backwards is fun!”). Joining in play is powerful, positive attention.