This is the part three in our  July series about cultivating connection between parents and their children. You can read part one on creating intentional quality time here.   You can read part two on parental modeling here. You can read part four on connecting before correcting here. 

While it’s common to perceive children as seeking attention, a positive perspective is viewing them as “connection-seeking.” Children express this need in various ways, notably through play—specifically child-led play.

So, what sets child-led play apart from adult-led play?

Child-led play follows the child’s lead in activities, topics, and pacing, rather than adults directing the play. It can be challenging to relinquish our role as guides during playtime, but allowing children to take the lead demonstrates investment in their interests.

How does child-led play work?

  1. Engage: Sit nearby while they play, waiting for their invitation to join. Respect their choice of when and with whom they play, showing that you value their decisions.
  2. Imitate: When possible, join in by copying their actions. Whether it’s playing with blocks or dancing, let them know you’re participating, like saying, “I’m putting my dinosaur in the river too!” This validates their ideas and shows their thoughts are valued.
  3. Avoid Quizzes and Suggestions: Avoid quiz-like questions (“What color is…”) and suggestions (“Should we build a castle next?”). Such questions can frustrate children and inhibit their creativity. Allowing them to lead gives them the freedom to create confidently.
  4. Praise: Offer plenty of praise, focusing on behaviors and ideas you want to encourage. For instance, “Putting the blocks in the cart was a great idea!” This reinforces that their actions and thoughts are valued, fostering a positive connection.
  5. Enthusiasm: Children respond well to enthusiasm. Be animated and playful; use exaggerated voices and expressions. This shows children they are loved and appreciated.
  6. Narrate Their Play: Sometimes, narrating their play-by-play is all that’s needed to build a connection. Imagine you’re a sports commentator, describing each moment: “The car zooms behind the couch, flips into the other car, and crashes!”

While these strategies may seem silly, they’re essential for play. It can take time to adjust if this approach is new, but consistency builds stronger connections with your children. Remember, these techniques aren’t just for young children; they can be adapted for teens too, using age-appropriate language.

Balancing work and household responsibilities can make child-led play challenging or draining. Give yourself space and time to get into the right mindset before engaging. Parenting is demanding, so be kind to yourself—building connections with your children is a rewarding journey.

By: Natasha White, therapist intern

Natasha White is a therapist intern at Mathews Counseling. She currently taking new clients but space is limited. Request your appointment today! Learn more about Natasha here

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