The Child Led Play Approach

We talk a lot about play and “following our child’s lead” at Plant the Seed of Learning, but what exactly does that mean? When we allow play to be directed or led by the child, we as parents and caregivers are taking a step back during play and allowing the child to draw near to what he or she is interested in at the moment. Taking this stance during play empowers the child to make decisions in a world where there are so few decisions that he or she gets to make. By choosing to interact with toys in a way that is meaningful for them at that time, children are developing skills when they are ready to work on them, rather than when an adult decides the skills should be practiced. 

For example, shape sorters, such as the one linked here, are wonderful toys for babies and toddlers that help to develop critical skills, including hand-eye coordination, cause and effect, problem solving, shape/color recognition, turn taking, and language development. In an “adult directed” play setting, the adult may choose this toy for the child to play with and take time directly teaching the child about shapes and colors and telling him or her where to put them. On the other hand, in a child led play setting, the child chooses what toy to play with and how he or she interacts with the toy. Should the child choose the shape sorter, the adult may watch the child at first to see what he or she is interested in practicing at that current moment. Perhaps the child would like to take the shapes out and bang them on the top of the container, making all sorts of different kinds of noises. Although the child is not using the toy in the traditional sense, he or she is still learning through this interaction with the toy – exploring cause and effect, developing creativity, and exploring the sense of hearing and what different sounds he can make. He finds out: If I hit it hard, it is loud! After offering time for the child to explore freely, the adult might narrate or and provide the vocabulary for what the child is doing: Wow, you hit that really hard with the triangle block and made a loud noise! I wonder what would happen if we hit it softly? In this child led approach, the child is learning through methods he or she chooses and the adult is there to support the exploration and skill development. By responding this way, the adult is still teaching, but more indirectly by modeling vocabulary (loud, soft, hard, noise, triangle, block) and encouraging further exploration by using an I wonder… statement. At this age, introducing the word “triangle” may seem too advanced, however, adult use of a wide range of vocabulary during play helps even very young children with language development.

As the child grows and begins to use the shape sorter in different ways, a child led approach can still be taken. The adult can allow the child to interact with the shape sorter as he or she wishes or play side by side and practice turn taking. When the child struggles with what to do with a block, providing time for him to think, manipulate the block, and try different things without adult intervention is a very valuable practice. In this approach, the child develops perseverance, problem solving, and self-confidence. To teach how to use the shape sorter, the adult may model problem solving during her own turn and how to respond when experiencing a “struggle”: Oh my, I can’t seem to get this block to fit. I wonder what would happen if I turned it this way? Additionally, as the adult and child are playing together, shapes, colors, and other vocabulary can be taught simply through narrating: I’m going to put in a green cylinder next or Ooh, the square on this cube matches this square hole! I bet it will fit!

The wonderful thing about a child led play approach is that it can be used with mostly any toy! Taking a step back as the adult and allowing the child to interact with the toy in a way that is meaningful for them is fun and rewarding as you watch your child’s creativity and thinking blossom over time. Much of child led play is about trust – trusting that the child will explore and learn skills at his or her own pace and trust and confidence in yourself to facilitate that learning through modeling the skills and language you know your child will eventually develop.


If you have further questions about child led play approaches in the home or a classroom setting, please reach out to PTSL’s Family and Community Outreach Specialist, Meredith Bailey at