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

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

A teacher interacts with two Pre-K children as they play together in a classroom.
A teacher encourages young students to play to build skills and mastery.

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:

Graphic inviting educators to have "FUN" while playing with young students - follow the child's lead, do what they do, and narrate what the child says and does.
Following these steps can help young learners to develop during 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.

N - Narrate what you see and hear

Pay attention and comment on what you observe, like a sportscaster. Act like a parrot: if a child says, "I drew a house," you could say, "You drew a house!" or -- if you’d like to go deeper -- "You drew a big, brown house!” In narrating a child’s play, you show them that you are interested and engaged in their choices and process.

In kicking off a new school year, we are reminded again of the importance of adult-child relationships. Just a few minutes of child-led play a day can go a long way in strengthening these connections, which are foundational for young children’s early learning and development.

Cindy Gray is a ParentCorps Educator.

Head over to Tools to download the FUN Skills Poster, and other social-emotional learning tools you may put to use both at home and at school.

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