Toddler Child-Led Play

An introduction to the importance of children leading their own play.

Why is child-led play important?

Why child-led play?

Every toddler has a natural desire to play and explore, indeed playing is core to the job description of being a toddler. It is a key way that toddlers learn about the world. Toddlers learn the most when they lead their own play, but as a parent it can be surprisingly difficult to let your child take the lead. 

It is easy to make suggestions, make corrections or ask questions, all of which unwittingly interfere with your child’s play. At ToddlerCalm, we suggest you try to add child led play into your daily life. It is very common for adult’s to feel uncomfortable about engaging in child led play. Reasons for this include feeling silly, having no experience of people playing with you as a child, getting bored or frustrated, particularly with a child’s like of repetition of same game over and over and  worrying that a child’s play is silly or unhealthy (e.g. role playing). It helps to understand why child led play is so valuable. 

Why is child led play important?

Helps to develop child’s self-confidence  

Develops trust in carers (as adults are not intruding into or putting controls onto their play)  

Helps develop thinking and problem solving skills  

Helps develop co-ordination of  hand and body movements  

Helps child to listen to sounds more effectively (a precursor for speech)  

Builds concentration, attention and listening skills  

Child learns to think independently  

Child learns to exist co-operatively alongside others  

Fantasy play helps children to think symbolically and helps them develop their sense of what is real and what is not  

Role-play helps children experience someone else’s feelings which helps them to learn to be aware of sensitive to others emotions 

How is adult play different to child's play?

Adult’s often structure a child’s play by adding commands, rules or instructions, e.g. “put the blocks on top of each other like this”, “this piece of the puzzle goes this way up”, “it’s not your turn, we must take turns in this game”. Putting an emphasis on a ‘best ‘or ‘correct’ way to play makes the experience unrewarding for a child and conversely means it’s less likely a child will develop skills through play.

However, if an adult follows a child’s rules and ideas, they are modelling listening, co-cooperativeness and compliance to their child. They are also encouraging independent thinking and creativity. Remember that our children will model the ways we behave more than the things we say so if we want our children to develop the above skills, modelling them is our most effective tool. 

Why is it important to follow a child’s pace when playing?

Young children tend to repeat the same activity over and over again. This is because they need to rehearse and practice an activity over and over again in order to master it and to feel confident in their abilities. If adults do not respect this need for repetition, a child will likely become frustrated, feel incompetent and this can lead to decreases self-esteem and a lack of confidence in own abilities. Following a child’s pace and sticking with their chosen activity for the length of time they choose, will help the child develop concentration and attention skills, key foundation skills for the school years ahead. Remember that children love to be able to predict what is coming next. So much of their world is out of control, so prediction of the future plays a key role in feeling control of the world. This is why a toddler will ask you to read the same book again and again, day after day. It is boring for the adult, but crucial to the child.

The ToddlerCalm approach to child-led play:

  • Set aside 10 minutes protected time each day to play with your child (or each of your children.
  • Do not answer your phone or allow yourself to be distracted during this time. 
  • Doing it at a similar time each day e.g. after breakfast or before bedtime routine starts allows your child to predict it more. The more your child can predict activities, the more they feel in control of their world (and therefore the less likely to try to take control in other ways). 
  • Let your child know that you are there to play with them.
  • This child led playtime will probably develop it’s own name in your household.  One girl named it “the number’s game” (due to a timer being set for a number of minutes) and another “daddy play me time” 
  •  For a younger child, use ‘descriptive commentary’ to describe what your child is doing. Descriptive commentary is what a sports commentator does on the radio, he/she describes what they see without making value judgements or shaping what happens. So with a child you could say “I see you are putting the blocks on top of each other, blue is on the bottom, then red. Crash, The blocks have been knocked over”. An older child may choose to engage you in imaginative play “I’m the mummy and you are the dog”. 
  • Have a pre agreed ending to the play. Many parents find setting a timer on their mobile phone works well. Explain “When the timer goes off it will mean it is time for us to stop playing”. A 3 year old can be given some control over setting the timer, “Daddy can play with you for however many minutes you want, up to 10, What number would you like to choose?” A 3 year old might then press ‘start’ on the timer. • Your child may be upset when the play session finishes. Try to give a warning “our play will be finishing in 1 minute”. When the timer goes on, thank your child, tell them what you have enjoyed about playing together and that you are looking forward to playing together tomorrow.

Heuristic Play & Story Sacks

Many parents are concerned that play should be educational – the shops fill with more and more ‘educational toys’ and toys are frequently sold by merit and skills they will improve, but the fact is play itself is how children learn – their chosen play things do not need to be made more educational!

Heuristic Play

Toddlers are naturally wonderfully curious about the world. We know as ‘Little Scientists’ they love to explore objects, manipulating them and cause and effect (and forming schemas about them!). We may feel they need special educational toys for this; however they are often happiest exploring everyday objects. Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson are famous for introducing us to the phrase ‘Heuristic Play’ –which they used to describe giving toddlers the opportunity to find out about objects of their own accord. The word Heuristic indeed is derived from the Greek word ‘Eeurisko’ - “serves to discover or gain an understanding of.” In Heuristic play we offer toddlers a range of objects to explore freely and thoroughly in their own time with as little adult intervention as possible, giving them crucial control over their own play.

Treasure Baskets

The most common form of heuristic play is ‘The Treasure Basket’ –many think that these are only suitable play things for babies, however this is not true – toddlers can play enthralled for hours and older children too! Treasure baskets contain a mix of natural and everyday items – all included with their child’s sensory experience in mind. A treasure basket might contain

• A natural sea sponge

 • A pastry brush

 • A spatula 

• A rolling pin

 • A whisk 

• A nail brush 

• A paintbrush

 • A large feather 

• A large shell 

• A pinecone

 • A bell (cat/rabbit balls containing a bell are great!)

 • Silky fabric

 • Shiny fabric

 • Tinfoil

 • Some old keys

 • An old purse or wallet

 • A CD

 • A small lidded box....And anything else you may find!


  • A child's play needs to be educational
  • Children need help to play
  • Children use play to learn
  • Child-led play helps children to develop self-confidence