Child led play - What I learned from a parenting workshop

12th Nov 15 | Family

Have you ever heard of child led play? When I first did, I thought to myself I am doing this with my child every time we play, but now I know I am not. This week I attended parenting classes, run by Linsey McNelis, an accredited Play Therapist (

It was an interesting evening, with a good bit of knowledge, completely non-judgmental atmosphere and 'gentle' exercises, which supported our reflection and practice of child lead play skills.

Some ideas really changed the way I think about my role in my children's play and I'd like to share it here.

It's going to be quite prescriptive, as we were explicitly told how parents should behave and what they should say - adopting child led play rules means following a particular scheme.

For a certain amount of time you are setting the scene for child led play and within this time limit you are consciously trying to follow your child and follow the rules.

I can't speak for other parents but for me it turned out that I am not doing child led play 'instinctively' that is, when I spontaneously play with my child, I am doing things which direct my child in a certain way and which are focused on learning rather than play itself. It comes naturally;

I don't feel it's dominating the room, but I know it's there.


Schedule it

So my first discovery of the workshop was that it is important for the child and for our relationship to make sure that in our interaction there is a space for child lead play. Instead of going to classes for toddlers, or some other structured (and paid) activity, you can do your own 'classes' at home and it will be the one which your child invented.


The child is in control

A second discovery is that once we are in this space, the child is behind the steering wheel and her imagination is the only limit (within safety limits of course).

So what I learnt is that in this particular moment my child doesn't learn anything from me. We are in the world where 'anything can be anything' and that includes 4+1 equals 13 and a toy figurine has all the colours of the world on her sweater mixed up and a cat pretends to be a cow.

It is alright for a child to make mistakes and its parent rule number one not to step in with corrections, lectures on animal classifications and classes from logic and morals.

It can be difficult to just leave the things out of order and sabotaging grandma's efforts to get the numbers right, but at this present moment it is more important that the child doesn't feel assessed and criticized in any way.

There will be time for practicing the colours later and there will be time to get the math right.


Praising children in new ways

A third discovery I made is praising children (in general, not only during child led play). I love praising my children and my language is full of positive adjectives like: good, beautiful, great, fantastic – they all apply to my wonderful child in general.

I think it is great that children hear a lot of praise from parents and I am sure it motivates them to 'do well'. But what I was missing was different ways to engage in positive feedback with the child.

The one thing I learnt this week is to use more descriptions and concrete comments about your child's actions and achievements. I have been practicing this for the past two days and it doesn't come naturally.

Sometimes it sounds unnatural and weird but a few times I did come up with a replacement for 'good girl' who was adequate to the situation and it went something like: 'you helped me with all the dishes, even the heaviest! The dishwasher is all empty and ready to use again'.

I was impressed with our co-operation in the kitchen and by describing my daughter's input; I supported her in learning about her achievements from actual outcomes of her actions.

This (as we hope) is going to influence her self-esteem and let her build on more internal rather than external motives which is believed to be more solid base for confidence and strong Ego.

I am a trainer of personal skills and before my break to become a stay at home mum I led many workshops during which I was presenting participants with some ideas of how to change the way they give feedback, set boundaries, and deal with the stress.

I am reminding myself, that the real learning starts 'at home', when people actually decide to try out and practice new ways. I am doing this now and waiting for feedback from the children involved.

Agata lives in Galway, she is a mum of two children and author of blog Balancing She promotes creative and confident parenting. She is a psychologist, with experience of working as a personal skills trainer and academic teacher. Find her on Twitter @agata4parents