How to encourage self-directed play
For many, it’s that stage in the school holidays when boredom strikes. Often the longer stretches at home, plus sweltering temperatures making everyone crabby, mean homes are echoing with refrains of “I’m bored!”
Boredom arises when we can’t create ways to occupy ourselves in a fulfilling way, or find a way to distract ourselves. So a key skill for overcoming boredom is the ability to direct your own work or play.
Self-directed play is simply play that occurs on children’s own terms, where they are active in its creation and purpose. Children play at their own pace, led by their own interests and motivations.
It is not play in which adults make the decisions about what’s happening, or when there’s a specific expected outcome for the activity. Neither is it self-directed play when children choose to watch a film or TV – while they are initially choosing the activity, they then become passive recipients of it rather than leading what happens next.
Self-directed play is important because it sets children up with creativity and problem solving skills, whether they play alone or with others. It’s also a helpful way for children to learn what sorts of activities excite them, the sort of play they gravitate towards when given a free choice (and often, when adults are considering a career-change and aren’t sure what they’d like to do, they are advised to look back on early childhood and remember how they liked to play, to remind them what their first interests and strengths were before life got in the way!).
So developing the art of self-direction is important for all of us (and can also help parents who are tearing their hair out with children asking for new activities all day long!) Here are our top tips for encouraging self-directed play:
- Get outside
The outdoors is perfect for self-directed play as nature doesn’t come with a manual! Allowing children to roam freely (as far as is possible to do safely) encourages them to be resourceful about the materials around them, calculate risks, and get imaginative.
You don’t need to be in the wilderness to encourage open-ended play either – just notice how long it can take a toddler or child to walk down the street to the shops! When you’re not pushed for time, allow them to get distracted and follow their imagination – this is all helpful for developing their decision-making skills and giving them a sense of agency and autonomy.
- Provide open-ended toys
Toys that can be used in a number of ways: building blocks, dressing up clothes, puppets etc. are all great allies in supporting self-directed play. Rather than having a single purpose, or a button telling children what to do, these toys all require the children to come up with a game plan, to set the terms of engagement. And that’s how self-direction starts.
- Ask questions
If children are finding it tricky to get creative, or get momentum going with a game, resist the urge to swoop in and set the agenda for them. Instead, ask questions to get their ideas rolling:
“How do you think that doll is feeling?”
“What do you think should happen next?”
“Who do you think lives in that tree?”
With self-directed play there is never a ‘correct’ answer, it’s all about encouraging children to feel free to explore their thoughts and see where they lead. Play with them if they’d like, but let them know you’re following their lead, not the other way around.
If children are frustrated, or getting into disagreements over the direction of play, see if you can pause before intervening. You’ll know what’s right for your own child and circumstances, but often children can negotiate their own solutions given the chance, whether that’s minor conflict with other children or persevering with a challenging activity.