Let them lead: Why you should let your child make the calls when it comes to play

By ParentTV on 1 Jun 2020
Categories: General Parenting

When your kids decorated the Christmas tree last year, did you sneak back and rearrange the decorations later to make them look nicer?

Do you like to lead the games you play together to make sure they don’t veer off track?

When you’re making something crafty or building with Duplo, do you sometimes take over so the end result is ‘better’?

Guilty as charged, your Honour…

As adults, we’re used to fixing things and improving them. We watch plastic surgery makeover and home restoration shows for entertainment. We’re trained to do things as well as possible. We colour in between the lines, we’re concerned with accuracy, factuality, punctuality and perfection. We value neatness and cleanliness. We focus on results rather than progress and judge ourselves and each other on output and our finished products.

In other words, we’re nothing like kids!

And, when we try and get kids to operate according to our priorities, we rob them of huge and rich opportunities for learning, fun and development. So, how do we let go of the part of ourselves that wants to teach our kids the ‘right’ way or the ‘best’ way to do something? How do we step back and allow them to take the reins and do things their way when they seem unsure?

The key, says ParentTV expert and outdoor education and play specialist, Lukas Ritson, is to change the way we mentally position ourselves when we’re doing something with our kids so we don’t assume authority.

‘As parents, when we’re playing or engaging with our kids, we need to be the hired help, not the boss,’ Ritson says. This can be tricky, as our default settings are to protect and guide our children, but they’ll actually get a lot more out of it when they’re given freedom, autonomy and creative license.

‘Our reflex as parents is to step in and try to help, extend or make something better but we can honour our children by moving aside and letting them try and do things themselves. A lot of adults find it challenging to move from our ‘doing’ brain to our ‘being’ brain,’ says Ritson ‘but that’s what we need to do. We want to dictate play, but we only need to scaffold it. When we dictate it, we annihilate it.’

WATCH: Following Your Child’s Lead: Part 1, with Lukas Ritson

So, what does this look like in practice? Well, when you’re playing with your kids, it’s good to come into the play without an agenda or a fully-formed concept to be carried out, Ritson says. You might have a vision of a perfect cubby you could build together, but your child won’t learn anything for themselves by just executing your vision.

‘When you’re doing an activity with your kids, you don’t want to be too prescriptive. Start with an idea, then let them gradually take ownership and do more as you do less.’

‘Get comfortable with mess, get comfortable with experimentation, and let them try things even if you think they won’t work. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work, because the result is not the most important part.’

‘Activities don’t have to be outcome-focused,’ says Ritson. ‘That makes us miss out on the magic that happens along the way. Instead, they can be about creating real experiences rather than simulations.’

This applies to older children, too. If you’re past the stage of really ‘playing’ together, a ‘let them lead’ philosophy will also stand you in good stead when it comes to cooking, crafting, climbing or any other activities they want to try.

WATCH: Following Your Child’s Lead: Part 2, with Lukas Ritson

Ritson’s advice to parents echoes the words of another ParentTV expert and play advocate, Teacher Tom, who suggests that playing with loose parts rather than toys can be one of the best ways for kids to learn (and for parents to learn to get out of the way!) because they’re open-ended in terms of usage.

‘Toys tend to have scripts that tell you how to play with them,’ Teacher Tom says. ‘But when you give kids loose parts to play with, they write their own scripts, and they have a lot more options. Ultimately, playing with loose parts makes kids more creative people, more critical thinkers, and better able to adapt to a changing world.’ 

What’s more, allowing kids to take the lead in play gives them the chance to understand their physical abilities, as Teacher Tom explored in our earlier blog, Learning their limits: Why you need to let your child take physical risks. Without the sort of risk-taking that comes with child-directed play, children don’t get to fully understand their own boundaries and those of their environment.

‘There’s no greater teacher than experience, and we need to trust them,’ agrees Lukas. ‘All of us, including children, have an in-built safety system that makes our brains only cue us to explore things when we believe we’re physically competent and capable of doing so. The only time that’s overridden is when parents dictate their child’s play. If a child’s doing something independently, then they’re physically capable of it.’

And finally, if you still need convincing to step aside and let them make an absolute mess of their Book Week costume all by themselves, think about how they’ll feel when they do manage to execute the vision they had, or when they don’t but they still have a whale of a time with the hot glue gun and crepe paper!

Or, as Lukas Ritson puts it more elegantly, ‘When a child seeks out a challenge, sets a goal and accomplishes it without a parent interrupting them, they get the satisfaction of achieving it and learning what they’re capable of.’

child-led play
child-led play