Connecting with children through play

Many of us are having more time to play with our children than ever before. Whilst some children may be getting to the point where they are screaming out for their peers, Hannah Verass writes on the importance of child-centred play with parents and carers, and the wonderful impact it has on children’s development.

Play is the most important activity of childhood as it provides children with a language with which they can communicate their internal world.

The activity of play has many benefits, it allows children to gain confidence in their skills, make sense of their experiences, and to navigate their environment and their place in it.  Playing is an organic process that young children use to voice their feelings. When engaging in play children use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.

As important as it is for children to learn to play alone and with their peers, play time with parents is just as essential. Play is a tool that parents can use to build a strong attachment with their child and can be an enjoyable experience for all involved.

Meeting a child’s need for connection, choice and control allow children to feel secure and accepted in their relationships. Setting aside time to regularly engage in play with your child is an effective and fun way to meet these needs.

For parents or carers, it may feel like it is your role to provide constant guidance, direction or even instruction to your child, throughout their daily activities. This mentality often translates to adults’ approach to play. Parents or carers often have to make a lot of decisions for their children, forgetting that children too have the ability to make choices. This decision making is in fact a crucial part of emotional and social development. It is therefore important to remember that to support children to grow we have to give them the opportunity to make their own decisions.

So, let’s talk about a different approach to play where the direction of the play is lead entirely by the child!

Non-directive child-centred play provides a soothing approach to play where a child is given freedom of expression, to play however they want to.*

Instead of directing the play, parents use observation and curiosity to remain engaged with their child by learning to note and describe what their child is doing. It is important that these descriptions are free of judgement. Parents should refrain from giving any indication of approval or disapproval while they engage with their child through the play. Children need to feel that their parent is genuinely interested in their exploration and activities.

This can be very difficult for some parents, however through this approach we can learn a lot about our children and support them in their development of a positive sense of self. Child-centred play is extremely valuable as through the freedom they are given in a play setting, children experience a sense of control in their world as well as their parents uninterrupted availability. Through connection and acceptance comes an increased sense of emotional safety.

Next time you sit down to play with your child, let yourself enter their world, you will learn about their feelings of excitement, joy, anger and fear all while connecting with them.

If you are interested in developing a child-centred approach at home, we recommend having a read of The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.

Hannah Verass

Social Worker

Australian Childhood Trauma Group

*This is unless the activity becomes destructive, in which case the parent will need to set a limit.