Child’s Play: How Child-Led Play Helps Development

child led play
Image courtesy of HighScope's Facebook.

Playing is learning in early childhood development

Play-time is a crucial component in the development of young children. But research shows that who initiates the play and how it is directed can have an impact on the outcome.

Child-led play has been shown to be more beneficial than organized teacher or caregiver-led play with instruction. When a child is in control of the play environment, it promotes:

  • self-confidence and independence
  • love of learning in an unpressured setting
  • development of problem-solving skills
  • language skills and social development

In a child-led play setting, adults can support an activity without directing it. This allows the child to feel a sense of control. 

HighScope in Ypsilanti has been one of the pioneers of child-led play and early education research for over fifty years. The Perry Preschool Project was initiated to design an early childhood program that would benefit children living in poverty. The goal at the time was to give them a foundation for future success in learning. Today, with the addition of the HighScope Education Research Foundation, the organization develops a curriculum that is in use in early childhood settings around the globe. At the HighScope Demonstration Preschool, educators from around the world can see firsthand the benefits of a child-centered learning model.

What Does Child-Led Play Look Like?

Child-led play has more to do with the experience than the outcome. For example, a child or group of children may stack blocks together to see how high a tower can reach before it topples over. They are learning to cooperate as a team and using their language and social skills, while at the same time learning scientific concepts. A teacher or adult-led similar activity may have children counting blocks as they stack, or stacking in sets, colors, and numbers. While this may be instructional, it does not offer the same degree of control and independent learning, and children may not be as actively engaged in the process.

Tips for Joining The Fun

Parents and caregivers can join in the play by following the child’s lead. Here are some tips:

  • Ask if you can join in the fun, and go along with what the child is doing.
  • Avoid distractions such as television.
  • Stay focused on the activity.
  • Pay attention to the child’s interests.
  • Imitate the child’s play.
  • Repeat with details.
  • Give praise for specific behaviors.
  • Let the child change the direction of play if they move on to something new.

Try to avoid:

  • Distracting or changing the way your child is directing the activity.
  • Giving commands.
  • Quizzing by asking too many questions.
  • Turning the activity into a competition with rules.

HighScope has found that it is important to educate parents and teachers on the difference between a “teaching to the test” model and an active learning model. Current educational models are often outcome-based and goal-driven. HighScope hopes to change this perspective, reminding parents and educators that children’s play is about curiosity and discovery.

For more information on child-led play and learning, visit the HighScope website.