Children love it when a parent will play with them, and child-led play builds a strong emotional bond. When children lead parents in play, opioids—the natural chemicals that give us a general sense of well-being—are activated in their brains. Child-led play has been found to reduce levels of stress as well as aggressive behavior. Such play also gives children the important message that their ideas are valued and that they can affect the world in a positive way.

Child-led play means just that—the child leads the play rather than the parent directing the play. Here are a few ideas:

  • Simply narrate what your child is doing. For example, as he or she is building with foam blocks, you might comment out loud, “So, you decided to put the red block on the blue block.”
  • Ask your child what she would like you to do: “What would you like me to do?”
  • Touch. Gently put your hand on your child’s back.
  • Praise your child: “I like how you were so thoughtful about the colors you chose for that painting.”
  • Teach as you let your child lead. Let’s say your child wants to build a train track and then gets more interested in taking the track apart. Let him. It is a wonderful opportunity to teach. What happens when the tracks are apart? Can the train travel without tracks? How about a car or a plane? How about a person?

From a child’s point of view, a parent’s willingness to play is love in action, and child-led play gives your child’s self-esteem a boost. Play attention to your child.

More to consider :Strengthening emotional bonds . . .

Sue Jenner is the author of The Parent-Child Game. Sue is a clinical psychologist who has used child-led play as one way to strengthen the emotional bond between parent and child. As Sue worked with children and families, she consistently found that children short on child-led play time with parents were more likely to exhibit difficult behaviors. When parents learned how to play following the child rather than directing the child, children were able to give up challenging behaviors.