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What is Child-Centered Play?

What exactly is child-centered play, and more importantly, why does it matter?

Child-Centered Play (and language)

Play is the natural language and work of children. It is how children express themselves at all ages and children from all cultures play. Play is not only universal, but also essential to human development. By observing a child’s play, you get a glimpse into their world. Child-centered play is based on the belief that through caring interactions with trusted adults in a safe space, children can “play out” their life experiences and work through them in a developmentally appropriate way. Child-centered play is a type of therapeutic play that is developmentally supportive by nature and facilitates the emotional well-being of children. Therapeutic play focus on the process, not the product. It allows for the child and adult to communicate in a different way and allows the child to express thoughts, feelings, assimilate reality, resolve internal conflicts, achieve mastery, and cope effectively.

Using child-centered play and language means you are:

  1. Accepting your child as they are in this moment. Respecting your child’s ability to solve their own problems and understanding they should be given the option to make choices.

  2. Allowing your child to express freely what they want to do during play with minimal limits – to avoid directing your child in their play.

  3. Acknowledging your child’s feelings and behaviors during play by using mirroring statements. For example, if your child is using a doll to yell at another doll, you could say, “Hmm, he seems really mad right now.”

It may feel unnatural to do this sort of play with your child because many adults are used to assuming an equal part in their child’s play experience and sometimes even leading it based on what they think or feel their child should be playing, doing, saying, choosing, etc. With child-centered play, you freely allow your child to make all the decisions and make empathetic statements that show you are attentive, hear them, and are interested in what they are doing. If your child asks you to join them in their play, you may… but you must still let them lead and you simply follow. Giving your child this control as they choose what they want can boost their self-esteem, confidence, supports their development, and shows them you are “seeing” them and their feelings.

Here's a quick guide on what to do and what not to do when facilitating child-centered play:

What TO do

What NOT to do

Answer direct questions your child asks

Ask questions

Narrate their actions

Lead the conversation

Label expressed feelings

Manipulate the play items

Give empathetic responses

Set arbitrary limits

Play if your child invites you to join in

Solve problems for them


Reach out and schedule a free consultation with one of our Certified Child Life Specialists (play experts) for any questions about supporting child-centered play in your home!


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