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The Importance of Child-Directed Play

Posted on 31 May 2021

Children learn through play. They learn to communicate, be friends, to think and change their mind. Play comes naturally to children. It’s instinctive and therapeutic.

While children experience a range of developmental benefits while playing, this is not the only reason they play. Play is a drive with deep biological roots and part of what makes play so enjoyable to children, why they will create opportunities to play wherever and whenever possible, is that it is theirs – children are experts in their play. Because children experience a sense of agency while playing, play elicits joy. This natural feedback loop is at the heart of a child’s world when the child is allowed the time and space necessary to create and overcome their own challenges, experiment with fantasies and story-telling, and explore a myriad of other activities by playing on their own terms.

“Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility—these three forces are the very nerve of education.” Rudolf Steiner

Child-directed play is play that evolves when children choose what to play and make up their own rules for how to play. A great example of child-directed play is loose parts play. Loose parts play is a type of play that supports invention, divergent thinking, problem solving and offers a sense of wonder to children. It is a label given to any collection of natural or man-made materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart and put back together in multiple ways to expand upon children’s play.

One of the key benefits of loose parts play is their open-endedness and the possibilities for child-led learning or student agency. With no specific function or goal, loose parts play provides endless opportunities for construction and reconstruction, invention and reinvention. A range of play types is possible, and the play they engage in can match the child’s level of development.

Loose parts play enables what our rushed modern world has often limited – student agency and child-initiated learning. Learning skills and dispositions such as thinking, cooperative learning, problem solving, negotiation, conflict resolution and resilience are inherent when using loose parts play in classrooms and beyond.

When child-directed play is brought out into the open, when we allow children to ‘speak’ through their self-directed play, we empower children to literally reach out. We afford them the opportunity to independently (yet safely) take action on their own terms. Children’s self-direction is framed as children’s participation and we witness children as social agents in their own communities – citizens at play.

Children should be given the time and repeated opportunities to explore the same materials during child-directed play. Adults in the space when children are playing should resist the urge to instruct and direct their activities but encourage them through open-ended questions or observations.

Play Action International champions child-directed play and does so via the amazing Nüdel Kart – a deconstructable, mobile play kart that can be reconfigured in endless ways to encourage self-directed learning. It contains researched backed specially selected materials to stimulate children’s development.