Learning Environments & Curriculum

Child Directed Play

My office was next to the playground. I could look out the window and watch the kids play. One day a couple of months ago I happened to look out and saw a toddler picking up leaves and moving them to a pile she had started in the corner of the play yard. I watched for a little while before I went out to take some pictures. Here’s what I saw:

Child Directed Play

This little not quite two-year old was using problem solving skills, developing large and small motor skills, and deductive reasoning. And she started it all on her own.

So often teachers in the classroom feel the need to provide an abundance of activities for the children and many times the children aren’t interested. So how do you get a child engaged? Watch them and let them take the lead.

Instead of providing the activity, figure out what you want the children to learn and provide the materials for them to meet your goal while creating activities that are interesting to them.

Do you want them to develop large muscles? Put up an obstacle course. Let them move the pieces around to re-create the course. Trying to teach colors to preschoolers? Put out paint in two primary colors. Let them discover, on their own, the secondary color they can create.


How do you know what interests your group? Observe them! And keep in mind your group this year is not the same as last year. Their interests and relatable experiences are going to be different. Pay attention. Take notes.

Are a few kids in your class really excited about the weather outside? Put on your coats and hats and go check it out. If they get wet, dry them off when you come in. Put their boots on and watch what happens in the puddles. Then go join them. Stomp some water and ask, “what happened to the water?” “Where did it go?”

Provide materials and props that children can decide for themselves what to do with. Just like this little one – she likely saw mom or dad raking up and disposing of fall leaves. She took the shopping cart and started to clear the playground.

This was the perfect example of child directed play. And the teachers didn’t have to do anything but watch.

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