Child-directed play and praise: a perfect partnership

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Child-directed play and praise: a perfect partnership

June 8, 2012 By Lime Tree Kids Play comments
So much of society today suggests that children as young as 2 or 3 require structured teaching so they ‘adequately’ perform at school and so they can ‘excel’ in life.
If we choose not to have structured teaching and learning for our children at this age, the implications are that we are somehow doing them a disservice.
Ongoing research dating back to the 1970’s shows however, that play is in fact the best way for children to learn about themselves and the world around them.
Play is the best way for children to learn the skills they need to grow to be responsible, creative and self-confident individuals. 
I would take it one step further and suggest that child-directed play, or play that involves you spending time with your child leading the activity, is in fact the best way for your child to learn. 

Now I am not a qualified child psychologist or educational psychologist.  I have not formerly researched this topic and I am definitely not a parenting expert.
I do however, spend my days parenting, I do spend my days educating and I do spend my days trying to unravel the psychology of several young minds!
For the last 10 years, I have attempted to embrace the role of mother, which is actually a code word for nurturer, emotional coach, teacher, facilitator, spiritual director, counselor, negotiator, chef, hygienist, cleaner, seamstress, personal chauffeur, nurse, police officer, gardener, dog walker, financial planner, sleep psychologist… the list is endless.  Those are my qualifications and the reasons why this topic is so important to me.

Understanding Child-Directed Play
Most people would respond that in some way or another they play with their child or children on a daily basis. 
My challenge to you would be to document over the period of one week how much time you actually spend playing with your child.
 Physically getting down, stopping everything else, putting away your phone and embracing their chosen method of play be it imaginary pet shops, a board game, dressing up as fairies, a tea party in the garden, game of soccer, or Lego.
  How much time do you actually spend?  Once you have done this exercise, commit to spending a minimum of 10 minutes a day playing with your child.  Let them choose the activity, let them direct you in their play and see what happens!

Benefits of Child-Directed Play
Through playing with your child in this manner, a whole host of benefits follow. 
First up is quality time with your child.  You are showing them that they matter, that they are important.
 During such play times you also have the opportunity to teach your child on so many levels.  You can introduce them to social situations and how to behave, give names to their emotions so they can begin to learn self-regulation, model manners and appropriate responses, play act problem solving strategies to assist them at school or kindergarten, teach them about colours, numbers and letters.  The list of teachable moments in child-directed play goes on and on! 
Other benefits of conscientiously playing with your child can include a more harmonious home.  Why? You have shown your child that you care about them in the best way a child can understand.  You have interacted with them completely on their level.  They have watched you show delight in their discoveries, joy in their successes and sorrow at their heartaches. 
When they know that your special playtime is going to happen each day, they are far happier to play on their own or with other siblings.  They are equipped with more skills to be able to do this as you have shown them in a way they understand.  To enable you time to cook dinner, fold washing, run a business from home, make phone calls, pay bills and generally make the household run, you can indicate to your child your need to have some time.  “In 30 minutes I will come and play with you.” “Once you have finished building the block village/colouring in that picture/making a play dough dinner feast I will come and play with you.”  In following through with regular play times children begin to learn some independence and coping strategies without your intervention.
The great thing about play too is that you don’t need money to be able to do it.  Think about your favourite memories of childhood?  One particular memory I have involved a huge big cardboard box.  We would stuff it full of cushions, put someone inside it and tape up the end.  We would then roll the box around the back yard for hours!  Dad was great at this game as he had bigger muscles than us and could get a great roll going!  We also loved playing puppet shows.  We would find all the odd socks, decorate them and then use an old foam couch as the puppet theatre. My parents sat through countless concerts! 
Think about what games you played as a child.  What did you absolutely love to do?  Share your memories with your kids.  Play them with your kids.  They will love knowing that they are part of your childhood too. 
Spend some time thinking about what memories you are creating for your children.  What are they going to look back and remember?  Family trips to the park?  Friday night fun nights?  Family celebrations? 

The Role of Praise in Raising Kids
I could talk on an on about the benefits of play but praising our kids is equally important, hence the perfect partnership!
 Praise brings out the best in our children.  Through giving positive attention (praise) to appropriate behaviours, children quickly learn to seek attention by increasing these behaviours.  For example, if your  child struggles to play with a sibling without bickering or fighting, the moment you see them playing nicely together, go over the top with your praise! 
Ignore any whining, arguments (as long as there is no physical harm involved) or tantrums.  As soon as the behaviour is desirable, praise, praise, praise!  “I love the way you are sharing together!” “It is such a joy to be at home with you. What fantastic cooperation you are doing!” 
Statements such as these have a transforming impact on our children.  They can and do change households.  From giving attention to negative, disruptive behaviour and instead switching to praising all that is good, cooperative and positive, children learn that if they want your attention, they need to put out more of all that good stuff! 
Allowing praise to become a regular part of a home also has a positive influence beyond your children.
 It can also impact adult relationships with partners and friends.  Imagine your partners’ response if instead of the usual complaints when they get home from work, “You’re late again/why can’t you be home earlier to help with the kids/you take them, I’m done,” you greeted them with some form of praise. “Thanks for going to work today.  I really appreciate the fact that you work so hard so our family can enjoy life.”
Try it out for a week and see what happens.  Your partner might look at you strange for the first few days, but you may also notice that reciprocal praise also starts to creep into their language!  Imagine a home where praising each other first is normal!
Our children learn via behaviours that are modeled for them. 
If you model praise and encouragement, you actively engage in play and spending quality time with your children, they will in turn model these positive behaviours.  Set yourself an achievable goal over the next two weeks to play and praise. Go on and try it.  It’s transforming!

Do you use praise and child-directed play to “teach” your kids?

Products We Recommend for Child-Directed Play and Praise
Hand Puppets
Blocks and Puzzles
Encouragement Charts

  About the Author: Keren Newnham is an educational facilitator of children, teenagers and parents. Currently living in New Zealand with her 4 young children, she is also her husband's biggest supporter as he travels the world advocating on behalf of the poor with World Vision International. Married for 13 years and a Mum for 10, Keren seeks everyday to fulfill her purpose - building strong, supportive and nurturing communities wherever she lives and what better place to start than with her own family! 

Top Photo Credit: David Goehring