Now you might find yourself asking: what is “child-led”? Child-led is exactly what it sounds like. Child-led activities are when the adult lets the child take the lead and make most of the choices in an activity. It includes any activity where you follow your child’s lead-- be that in pretend play, while hiking, or during arts and crafts time. You may find you already engage in child-led play but didn’t realize it had a name. Allowing for child-led play removes a great deal of stress that comes with parent-led activities. It’s no fun to coax a child into doing an activity they aren’t interested in. We know at our houses, it's a losing battle for us to force an art activity or other project if our kids aren’t interested.
It’s really beneficial for kids to engage in child-led play. The ability to think ahead, plan, and make decisions are great skills to learn that can be applied to other areas of life. There has been lots of research around child-led play and its role in learning and development. One of the key takeaways of this research is that the more time children spend in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning-- a set of mental skills that includes working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control (Barker 2014). These are all great skills for our children to build!
It might seem like letting kids be in charge could lead to anarchy, but in reality you are not really giving up complete control over an activity. In child-led activities, parents are still in charge of maintaining a safe environment and deciding when and where the activity occurs. Children are in charge of the focus and direction of the activity. Safety, social, and family rules still apply; you are just giving up control over what the more fun parts of the activity look like.
For example, in our favorite child-led activity to engage in, hiking, we let our children decide our pace, where we stop along the trail and for how long, and what games or activities to engage in A typical child-led hike starts at our hiking location of choice. We set the hiking rules, or expectations, with our children, which are that they stay in sight at all times, stop when asked, and (in this current time of pandemic) to move off the trail to give passing people appropriate space. Then we head off on our way! We let our kids run or walk at their desired pace as long as we can see them. Often they start out running full speed ahead. From here on what happens varies. We may stop in one spot and explore until it’s time to go home.
Our kids might lead us in a race around the hiking loop. We may climb all the boulders next to the trail. They may take an impromptu dunk in the pond which leads us to leave earlier than expected. We might find a cool bug or rock that we decide to research when we get home.
Part of letting kids lead outside is accepting that whatever happens, happens. It's knowing that pants may get muddy from jumping in a puddle, hands may get cold from playing in the snow, kids may play so hard they get tired or hungry... but the learning, connection, self-regulation, experiences, and memories are all worth it.
And really, hikes are an ideal place to try out using child-led play. There are fewer things to break, there is a general direction built in with the trail guiding the way, and there are thousands of things to stop and look at if desired. Plus, kids are more active and get more exercise when they are outside and in charge of the activity. A study by Brown et al in 2009 of preschoolers looked at how often children engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity in different settings. Think: running, jumping, climbing, throwing, etc. They found that indoors children were only that active 1% of the time. Outside that amount of vigorous activity was seen 11% of the time, and it jumped to 17% if that activity was child-led!!
Another benefit of child-led activities is that kids (and adults) learn best when they are invested in an activity. Consider who finds memorizing dinosaur names easier: a child who’s obsessed with them or an adult trying to keep up with their kids talking about them all the time? The child obsessed with dinosaurs for sure… and they tend to know random facts for each of the dinosaurs besides their names!! If kids are allowed to choose the direction and focus of their attention who knows what they will learn? They might find a rock that leads to a long geology lesson that they find intensely interesting because it relates to something they discovered themselves. (Or it might lead to a pebble collection in your house… don’t ask us how we know.)
When do you let your kids lead? What are the benefits you've experienced for your family? Is letting your kids lead ever a struggle for you?
-Jenn, Irene, and Kelly
Barker, et al. 2014. Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology.
Brown WH, Pfeiffer KA, McIver KL, et al. 2009 Social and environmental factors associated with preschoolers’ non sedentary physical activity. Child Development.