How To Play With Your Child | The Four Types Of Play

You might be thinking…. How do I actually play with my child? Because some people say independent play is best, some people say child led play is best and others say I should lead the play. But which one will actually benefit my child’s development the most, while supporting our relationship?

The truth is…. You need a fine balance of all of these types of play.

There are 4 types of play

Independent play, child-led play, adult led and adult directed.

Lets talk through the pro’s and con’s of all 4 of these types of play before we move onto how you can put these into action at home.

Independent Play

All children need a certain level of independent play, to test their ideas without interruption, to learn what they love doing and to role play out the world around them in a way that makes sense to them. Independent play fosters creativity, problem solving and independence. Which are all great skills to have, the problem with just independent play is children can get stuck, repeatedly hitting the same problems and without adult support might not come up with a solution and instead give up. Their knowledge is also capped at what they already know so if they are playing with a butterfly they might make it fly around maybe land on some flowers. Because that’s what they have observed in their day to day life but without an adults input they are unlikely to know the butter fly is landing on the flower to collect nectar until they are much older.


  • Fosters creativity
  • Improves independence 
  • Offers opportunity to test out their theories
  • Allows problem solving skills to develop


  •  Knowledge can be capped to what they already know
  • It doesn’t build on your parent – child connection 

Child-led Play

Your child chooses what they want to play with and how they want the play to go but an adult is present to enable the environment and to ensure there are suitable resources for the play as well as offering thoughtful interactions such as supporting problem solving so they don’t get stuck or extending knowledge like the butterfly collecting nectar scenario. Child-led play is great for extending our children’s knowledge, improving problem solving skills and building that parent child connection which helps with comfort, behavior and so much more. Some people say “At least 10 minutes of child-led play a day keep the tantrums at bay” Child led play definitely helps reduce tantrums but  I’m not going to tell you you’ll never see a tantrum again… because tantrums are all part of learning and developing. 


  • Extends on your child’s interests and knowledge
  • Improves problem solving skills with support
  • Builds on the parent – child connection


  • Children may rely on the adult to do the trickier tasks without trying too hard.
  • The child may not get quite so lost in the play.

Adult-led Play

Now there are some people that would argue that the next two aren’t technically play because it’s not lead by the child. Focused learning is essentially adult lead, the adult chooses the activity and has a learning outcome in mind, but it is presented in a playful way. Often the activity will be based off the child’s interests (I’ll talk to you about observing you child to find out what these are in just a moment) But the adult is guiding the child to do what the activity is meant for. Activities like this are great for extending our children’s knowledge and interests that wouldn’t naturally happen within their play environment however they may not hold our children’s attention for long periods of time or our children may not want to take part at all.


  • Extends knowledge that wouldn’t naturally happen in play
  • You can work on specific areas of development


  • You child may not want to take part or their attention may not be held for so long.
  • It don’t allow for so much creativity

Adult Directed Play

Activities like this are not best suited for young children to learn, there is little to no play involved. The child normally is expected to sit and follow the instructions given. Personally I don’t use this technique with Ayla because I know she just wouldn’t take part and if she did we wouldn’t get nearly as much learning and engagement then if their was a play element involved.


I can’t actually think of any pro’s to fully directed play!


  • Children can’t express their interests
  • There is no room for creativity or trial and error
  • Unlikely to hold your child’s attention 

Observing your child

Observing your child while they play is going to give you all the information you need to set out a play environment (check out the toy rotation post here) to allow you to provide an environment that supports independent play as well as knowing where your child’s interests lie which comes in handy when you are setting up invitations to play for adult lead learning.

So how do you do it?

To be honest you don’t really need anything, sometimes I will note down a few ideas on a piece of paper after the fact but I will give sit close by and watch Ayla as she plays, sometimes she will hand me a toy so I can play along so I will hold a toy and that’s normally enough for her to continue with her play, if it’s not I will make minimal interactions! You only have to watch them for a few minutes just while they play. Take note of what they are doing as they play, what are they trying to achieve and what is being played out?

What do you need to use and when?

You want to have a mixture of the first three styles of play throughout your child’s day. Obviously there are going to be times when you are busy and you can’t play with your child so that is when independent, unstructured play comes in. When you are able to spare a minimum of 10 minutes add in some child-initiated play, I know we are busy and our lives can get a little chaotic but you want to aim for at least once per child, more if you can find the time. As for Adult-led play I aim to do 3 adult led activities a week however I will let Ayla lead so if she shows no interest in my aim for the activity I will revert back to the child led play approach.

Look before you jump!

Before you jump into their play consider what the flow of their play is and how you can fit in.

  • Do they need your input?
  • Can you offer any extra resources to support them
  • Do you want to offer any extra learning?
  • Do you just want to strengthen your connection with your child.

Next step for you to do at home

  • Observe your child; what are their interests? What do they often do with their toys, is their something that’s limiting their play? can you change that?
  • Adapt their play environment to meet their needs
  • Plan some invitations to play that will support and extend their interests
  • What role do you want to play in these activities?
  • How often do you want to do these activities?

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