6 Gifts That Encourage Child-Directed Play

In case you haven’t noticed, play is hot. Once taken for granted as a universal childhood right, in the last decades aggressive marketers of early learning products and a focus on standardized testing have horned in on this valuable developmental time in a child’s life.
But lately it seems our collective appreciation for child-directed play has never been stronger, and there could be no better news for our children…or for us. The physical, cognitive, creative and psychological benefits of child-directed play are well-documented. Less acknowledged, though, is a secret that really shouldn’t be one: quietly observing our children playing is a magical experience for parents.

Learning to be a responsive play observer takes thoughtfulness, restraint and practice, but once we get this down, we’ll discover more delightful moments of joy, humor and surprise than we ever thought possible. And we need these daily parenting “bonuses” to balance the more difficult moments and break up the monotony. We’ll also get more guilt-free breaks from parenting because we’ve encouraged our children to hone their independent play skills in our presence (but that’s another post).

Essentials for nurturing child-directed play are safe, enclosed spaces and open-ended objects, equipment and toys that encourage creativity, discovery and extensive exploration. As a self-confessed child-directed play geek since my infant introduced me to its wonders nearly 21 years ago, my personal favorites would be too long to list here, so I’ve chosen just a few play accoutrements I thought worth sharing:

smaller cropped balls (3)

I’m 100% on board with GeekDad’s brilliant “5 Best Toys of All Time”.  But my list is focused on play objects that are just as inspiring and challenging, yet also durable, mouthable, don’t poke eyes, can be safely used without our supervision.

1. Best classic toy 

For me, balls are it, hands down (or in the air!). Balls of all sizes, weights and texturesare fun to grasp, roll and toss. Balls encourage movement and play for children of ages and are perfect for solo or group play. I’m often asked about ideal gifts for a one year old, and I couldn’t imagine a better one than a laundry basket filled with a variety of balls. My personal favorites for toddlers are the cheap bouncy balls found in supermarkets (like the lavender one at the bottom right of this photo).

better cropped stainless steel

2. Favorite untoys 

There are way too many favorites to list, but if I had to narrow it down to just a few, I’d definitely include stainless steel cups and bowls. They’re cool and smooth, make interesting sounds, are stackable, reflect light and look pretty in a play area.  Notice how joyfully this four-month-old experiments with one of the larger bowls:

cropped canisters

I’m also a fan of jars with screw-on lids like the ones I share in “Unexpected Toy Find!” and canisters like these:


Some of us have made a tremendous sacrifice… We’ve bravely devoured Talenti gelato for the sole purpose of providing our children with these really cool screw-on lid containers (in quart and pint sizes): 

3. Most versatile for natural motor development

side steps

This step climber, which turns over to become a rocking boat, is the most pricey item on my list, but if you have a young infant (who will use this piece until age 3, at least) or can share this climber between a group of parents, it’s well worth the expense. 

Safety precautions need to be taken with this equipment, and I should probably address those first:

The step climber is suitable for children of all ages beginning in infancy, but I don’t recommend turning it over until children are closer to two or experienced walkers. Either way, there should always be a mat, rug or other soft surface underneath.

Closely supervise children on this equipment the first few times they use it and whenever it is in use by more than one child. “Spot” rather than rescue, catch or otherwise remove children from the equipment, unless the child is too upset or exhausted to attempt getting down herself. (And if that’s the case, pick the child up rather than helping her down, so as not to give her a false of sense of her ability). Helping children with motor activities hinders their safety, because it gives them false impression they are able to jump, roll or step off of equipment independently.

3 in a boat working it out

One of the most common unsafe parenting practices is holding children’s hands to help them down steps. (For a story that illustrates, please read “Don’t Stand Me Up“.) Young children are impressionable and develop habits with astonishing speed. In a recent class, I was surprised to see a 14 month old whose parents have been diligently nurturing her natural motor development take a standing step off the step climber and fall. I was glad I happened to be there to break her fall (which is the goal of spotting — it’s very important to allow the child to fall as he or she would, so she understands the effect of her action). It was obvious to me that this toddler had been walked down steps recently, because she would not have taken a chance like that otherwise. The parents realized this must have happened with the substitute caregiver they’d hired for a couple of days. Through our patience and spotting during class this toddler quickly readjusted, remembering how to crawl down safely.

2 char, atticus and jack in boat

But enough warnings, here are some of the awesome skills children learn on the step climber and rocking boat: 

charlotte, atticus and jack in boat
3 in a boat

Infants practice climbing and descending the steps, first by crawling up and then descending either face-first or backwards (trust and spot them). Later they might descend seated on their bottoms and then, finally, they learn to step, which tends to be immediately followed by stepping down while holding the biggest toys they can find. Kids love challenging themselves.

I especially appreciate the way the rocking boat helps toddlers and preschoolers develop social intelligence as they experiment with it in conjunction with their peers. They learn to slow down their rocking to accommodate children climbing on or off, and they practice balancing together. We should be nearby with younger ones to spot, support and prevent toes from getting caught underneath, but we’re definitely not needed to rock the boat. Children learn more and are safer when they can control it. Some of the most joyful moments of togetherness in our RIE classes happen when children discover rocking with a peer. (Photographed at Resources for Infant Educarers)


4. Dressing up and more 

traffic cone
fafu play dolls

Generally, the rule of thumb for stretching creativity and imagination is less is more. Scraps of fabric can be all children need to create costumes and fantasy play. What I love about the products Fafu designs is that they take plain and simple up just a notch, which is just enough to spark the imagination, inspire open-ended role play and child-created stories. I also appreciate the versatility of Fafu toys. For example, one of their basics, the Cony, can be at least two types of hats, a cozy bed for a doll or animal, a telescope (yes, there’s a hole at the tip), or even traffic cones for toy cars and trucks. Like all the best toys, the possibilities are endless! (Fafu is offering 10% off to readers using the code word: janet)

purple back jack

5. Comfort for the audience

Child-directed play flourishes when parents are attentive observers and remain in the audience as much as possible. When we relax and stay put we provide our infants, toddlers and preschoolers a “secure base” they can return to as needed and, let’s face it, this is much more relaxing and rewarding than following our children around all day, especially when we can floor-sit on a cozy back-jack seat. I never got around to getting one of these for myself at home, so they certainly aren’t necessary, but they’re definitely nice.

Note: these seats aren’t safe for children unless supervised.

6. Mood lifter

When I was attending RIE parent – infant classes with my first baby, a parent asked our instructor Hari if we should play music for infants and toddlers during playtime. Hari responded that children don’t need background music, but if there is music that we enjoy, we might play it.

Hari’s advice resonated, and I utilized it most during the sluggish, seemingly endless late afternoons I endured with all three of my children — that period between naptime and dinner that parents fondly refer to as “the arsenic hour”.  For me, music was the antidote that seemed to lift my children’s spirits along with mine. My tastes ran from pop and rock to classical, folk and even to music geared toward children (that I loved, too).

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