Play at Home

Ten Ways to Encourage Child Centered Play at Home

How do you respond when your child approaches you with that all important question, “Wanna play?” Some parents have trouble remembering what it was like to play as a child, with limitless energy to make up fantastic imaginary stories. Other parents have so many demands in a busy work week or a family schedule chock full of activities, it’s hard to switch off all the distractions and make time for free play.

Many parents want to know if there is a way to get more out of playing with their children at home. In my practice as a Child Centered Play Therapist, parents consult with me on a variety of children’s issues that may be affecting the quality of the parent-child relationship. Sometimes getting parents and their children to play together is the best way to lay the foundation for mutual caring, bonding, and attachment. Parents and children who regularly find time to play together may develop a closer rapport that makes children healthier, happier, and better adjusted at home and beyond.

Play that is “child centered” means that the child takes the lead, choosing the toys, making up the story and the characters, inviting others to join in, and directing the activity. When children are allowed to set the agenda for special playtime with parents, it gives them an opportunity to develop creativity, confidence, and character.

Let’s take a look at some of the principles of Child Centered Play Therapy to learn ten ways of encouraging child-centered play at home.

1)      A playful attitude is everything. When invited into your child’s play, use non-verbal skills (smiling, nodding, making eye contact) to communicate that you are interested in what’s going on. Even if you can’t help feeling tired or bored, then do your best to match your child’s energy with your body language. For example, while your child is bouncing a ball, bob your head up and down with each bounce.

2)      When it comes to chatter, less is more. Keep the amount of talking in line with your child’s age and language ability. Verbal responses should be brief and to the point, so that your child can stay focused on the play. Usually speaking one or two sentences at a time is plenty. Examples include: (as your child picks up and puts down several toys) “You’re not sure what to play first” or (as your child finally picks up a stuffed toy) “You decided to play with that one”.

3)      When in doubt, say what you see. Your child may take time setting things up or deciding what to do. Commenting on some of what happens in-between activities shows that you are still accepting of your child, even when not much is happening. Let’s say that your child spends a long time opening a box and taking out blocks one by one. You might say, “You’re taking those out one at a time” or “Now that you’ve opened it, you decided to take out each block”.

4)      Highlight your child’s knowledge. Sometimes kids like to share detailed information about topics they are reading about or learning in school, and after a long explanation about ten different kinds of dinosaurs from your seven year old, parents aren’t sure what to say beyond “Wow” or “Uh huh”. Your child wants you to acknowledge her intelligence, so you might say, “You really know a lot about dinosaurs.”

5)      Tune in to your child’s feelings. Helping your child recognize the expression of emotion in play can have some important implications for children’s ability to develop this skill in real life situations. For example, (your child draws a rainbow unsuccessfully and then crumples up the paper) “You’re frustrated it didn’t turn out the way you wanted it”.

6)      Try not to rescue every time. Sometimes children give up too quickly and hand things over for parents to do. Let’s say your child asks you to open a jar of Play Doh but you think he is capable of doing it himself. You might respond, “Show me what you want me to do”. Your child may prove he can open it once he really tries, or this allows for collaborating to complete the task if it really is too difficult. Children develop a sense of mastery when they try and accomplish it for themselves.

7)      Accept freedom and creativity. When parents allow children to decide what to play, it provides room for kids to feel unique and special in their own way. For example: (your child picks up some markers and asks what to draw) “It’s up to you” or “Today, you can choose”.

8)      Encourage self esteem. Some parents find it hard to watch their children struggle with something, like having trouble reaching a toy off the top shelf or not being able to open a bottle of paint. Acknowledging your child’s motivation to try and try again is a valuable part of building self esteem. Accept some of the struggle by saying, “You are trying everything you can think of to reach that toy” or “You are determined to open that all by yourself”.

9)      Set limits as needed. We know that children need some rules and structure to feel safe and secure, and in child centered play, limits are mainly used when children really need them. Let’s say your child wants to draw a picture on the wall. Sandwich your limit setting: affirm the child’s need (“I know you would like to put a picture on the wall”), set the limit (“But in our house the walls are not for drawing on”), and suggest alternatives (“You can draw a picture on paper and we can tape it to the wall”).

10)  Embrace moments of imperfection. Sometimes the mistakes made during the special playtime are important opportunities to bond. Imagine your child just spilled a cup of water on the floor and quickly gives you a worried look. “You’re wondering what I think about that” followed by “Accidents happen” removes any value judgment about the spill and focuses on the child’s feelings and the parent’s response. Keeping a connection to your child makes her feel valuable to you even when she isn’t perfect.

To learn more about child centered play skills and attitudes, you may be interested in this book:

Landreth, G. (2002). Play Therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed.). New York: Brunner-Routledge

If you are interested in learning more about child centered play at home to form a closer bond with your child, you may consider talking to a Play Therapist who can help. For questions about child centered training sessions for parents and families, contact Georgie Wisen-Vincent, LMFT, RPT at