Navigating Child Led Play

Categories: Communication | Play
The whole premise behind the coaching model in the Infants and Toddlers world is to provide services within the child’s natural environment using what the family has within the home.  If I always brought in toys to play with then took them with me after the session, the family would not benefit from the coaching model.  That being said, my teaching craft has become quite centralized around this idea of child led play.  I’ve also found out very quickly that if a toddler isn’t into something I think *may* be engaging, they’re not doing it.  Child led play involves using the child’s interest to guide a therapy session.  To a systematic planning type of teacher this can be very daunting!

Why Child Led Play?

Child led play leads to engagement, and we know that when we have an engaged kiddo…we are working on creating connections (both with families in the home setting and student/teacher/therapist at school) and promoting spontaneous language.  Child led play uses children’s interests to guide a session.  We also know that some students’ interests change daily and some return to the same activity in the same exact way every time.  Both scenarios are challenging which can deter a lot of providers and parents from trying this type of session.     

Child Led Play How To

You might be wondering if your student or child is a candidate for child led play and the answer is…OF COURSE!  All children engage in some type of play even though it may not *look* like the way we think it should.  You might be aching for your child to be playing with baby dolls and rolling cars down the ramp instead of collecting markers.  Be a detective and see what your child/student gravitates towards in the home and classroom.  While classrooms usually have a requirement of what should be present in early childhood classrooms, you can still take note of what children are truly playing with.  At home, if you find yourself constantly picking up tons of toys at the end of the day or it feels chaotic, it probably also feels that way to your child. Leave out a few things you know they love and one new toy (or maybe it’s a social activity with a person like tag) and pack the rest away for another time!   

You can ask parents what their child enjoys playing with at home and see if you have something similar your toy closets.  Some open-ended toys I have seen kiddos enjoy are magnetic building tiles, play doh (make your own with your child for added language fun), play kitchens/pretend food/kitchen supplies, and cardboard boxes.  Keep reading for a real example! 

 Promoting Language During Child Led Play

Child led play increases connections and spontaneous language when adults show interest and acknowledge any type of communication attempts.  This means that if a child is jargoning, you try and imitate the jargoning. You can repeat what the child says and/or narrate what the child is doing if they are not yet using words or jargoning in the moment.  Child led play also allows for free movement.  Movement and sensory regulation play a huge part in children being available for language opportunities. When children (and adults) feel organized sensory wise, you will notice an increase in communication attempts.   

Here’s a real-world example: 32-month-old child, enjoys peeling stickers off anything and crawling under furniture, mainly jargoning, not yet playing “appropriately” with toys.  Observing this child, I decided to have available a box from the home and two regular toys the child likes to carry around (a small plastic blocks wagon and a playground ball).  I decided the “new” object I would have around would be a sheet of stickers (since she enjoys peeling things).  I cut a small door in the box, and she led the session by putting the plastic wagon into the box and sitting in it!  While she did not say specific words, I narrated what she was doing: “sit in the wagon”, “let’s go”, “wheeee, ready set go!”.  I then introduced the sheet of stickers and showed her how we could peel them off and she spontaneous stuck the sticker onto the box. I modeled the word “sticker” as I helped her peel it off the sheet and she spontaneously word approximated the word “sticker” which was incredible! She would play with the stickers for a bit, jump on the trampoline, go back to sitting in the wagon in the box and then back to the trampoline.  This was the first time I had ever heard her try and imitate a word!

You can also make a preferred activity choice board like the one I created above for a family.  It doesn’t mean they can only play with those activities, but it may spur some activity ideas for a child and also helps pair language with visuals!

Having the Child Led Play Scaries?

Yup I said it. It can be scary to feel like you do not have a completely structured plan every minute of your day.  Child led play does not mean that there is absolutely no thought in the session or that moment that you get into centers with a student.  You have done some pre planning through playing detective and determining some child interests.  Or maybe it’s a new student and you have asked the parent what they like at home.  Building rapport and sharing that space to move about the room or center area can feel like you’re not being seen or heard.  The child may walk away from you, not engage in your added play, or go to another part of the room.  Or maybe you had some toys in mind that you thought would be interested in and suddenly you must abandon that idea and think on your feet to switch your play.  Just the other day I introduced a small graham cracker gingerbread house activity to a three-year-old. I thought that since he loved fruit snacks and using art type materials, he might enjoy putting icing and treats on. He did not. Not even eating a few fruit snacks was engaging in the moment. He needed to move and jump so that’s what we did.  Through that jumping he started saying, “green gummy” so I repeated him.  We played a little chase game, and he hugged my leg as the game ended.  I walked away thinking a bit defeated because the gingerbread house wasn’t made, and we didn’t to use the core board much.  The more I thought about it though, I realized I had built some rapport, trust, I let him know I heard him by repeating what he was saying and there was more communication once he was moving, which is exactly what he needed then.  Happy Playing!

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