Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Child Centered Play: Increase Learning and Decrease Defiance!

Imagine a room full of toys. The only restrictions on the toys is not to break them. You are free to play with them in anyway you like and for as long as you like, just don't break them. Sounds like most any child's fantasy; a room full of unrestricted access to toys. However, as a family therapist who uses play therapy a lot, I am often confronted by the following question by far too many children: "What should I do?" More often than not, the parents of children who ask this question (or a variation of it) are too directive (tell their children how to...) with their child's play. 

A recent study on child centered play therapy used in an elementary school setting has found that children who were identified as at risk and not receiving any other intervention participated in a thirty (30) minute play therapy session per week for sixteen weeks (Blanco, Ray & Holliman, 2012). Over the course this play therapy intervention, children consistently improved in the following areas: spoken language, reading, math, writing, and an early achievement composite score. Blanco, Ray and Holliman (2012) reported that none of the children decreased in their achievement throughout the sixteen weeks. Another study found that children who exhibited ADHD symptoms were effectively treated with child centered play therapy (Ray, Schottelkorb & Tsia, 2007). 

So how can other children achieve these sorts of benefits? Parents can practice child centered play with their own children and not only increase their parent-child bond, but possibly increase their child's academic performance and decrease behavioral problems. Here are some important aspects of child centered play:
  1. Plan (schedule) the play with your child. Nothing else is allowed to get in the way. Imagine the message your child will receive when they find out your are putting them on your busy schedule. 
  2. Spend at least thirty (30) minutes devoted to their play time activity. You are watching them, not your phone, iPod, iPad, tablet or anything else; its just you and your child.
  3. Narrate what you see. Do your best to narrate their activity without applying any value statements or judgement on their play. 
  4. You clean up. Allow your child the freedom to leave the play area without having to clean up. There are several therapeutic benefits to this, but it would take a book chapter to layout the theory and evidence for it. 
Click here for a handout to more fully understand and practice child centered play with your own children. For a more comprehensive explanation the book, "The Parent Survival Guide" outlines how to better utilize child centered play with your children. 

So now that you know of the benefits that can come about with child centered play, try it out and share your experiences with your children. Do you think it can help increase learning and decrease defiance? What other benefits do you think play can have on children? 


Blanco, P. J., Ray, D. C., & Holliman, R. (2012). Long-term child centered play therapy and academic achievement of children: A follow-up study. International Journal of Play Therapy, 21(1), 1-13. doi:10.1037/a0026932 

Ray, D. C., Schottelkorb, A., & Tsai, M. (2007). Play therapy with children exhibiting symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. International Journal of Play Therapy, 16(2), 95-111. doi:10.1037/1555-6824.16.2.95

By Michael 

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