What is self-directed play anyway?!

Written by Kelly Humphrey, Founder of The Willows Child Development


Self-directed play, also known as open ended or intrinsically motivated play, happens when a child plays completely of his own accord, with no adult direction or instruction. There is a good chance that your child is already engaging in self-directed play, for example if they decide to build a rocket with magnetic tiles or they may find your pots and pans and decide to make music with them or cook in their own little pretend kitchen, they may use buttons or beads as ‘food’ or they may love to take out the art and crafts supplies and let their imagination take over to see what they can create. These are all great examples of self-directed play.

Why is self-directed play so important?

Years of research show conclusively that not only is self-directed play fun, but it also has massive neurological benefits and actually shapes the brain.

SDP develops cognitive, emotional, social and physical skills which are all a vitally important part of every child’s life.

When children are given the time to play in this way, they….

  • Learn how to take healthy, calculated risks

  • Learn how to engage and communicate with others

  • Learn how to push their own boundaries

  • Experience the pure bliss of self discovery and what their imagination is capable of

  • Practice skills such as problem solving (either alone or with others)

How can I facilitate self-directed play?

When we allow our children the time, space and opportunities to follow their own natural, intrinsic motivations, we are giving them the best gift we can give them!

We have all heard ‘I’m bored!’ Or ‘I don’t know what to do’, but if we allow children to be bored, it encourages them to use their imagination and follow their own internal motivations.

We can start by allowing children less screen time. I know this will be hard for some, and others may already have limited or zero screen time. I’m not saying screens are bad in any way. In actual fact screens are a really great learning tool but right now I want to talk about real life play and experiences. I will be writing about how we transitioned to less screen time and more play time in a future blog post and talking about how to overcome the inevitable hurdles in an upcoming podcast episode.

So, how can we spark imagination in our children? How can we facilitate their interests and help them to learn and grow through play?

As well as allowing them the time, space and freedom to play, we can set up an invitation to play. An invitation to play basically means setting up a casual play prompt. This could be as simple as leaving out some play dough with some rolling pins and cookie cutters for your toddler to find, or you could leave some Lego that hasn’t been played with in a while in the middle of a play space. I love to set up little invitations to play using our wooden rainbow, peg people and wooden cars. You can be as creative as you like and it really gets quite fun for us adults too! It can be great for older siblings to get involved too, my 11 year old also loves to set up some invitations to play for her younger brothers to find.




I must warn you though, not all invitations to play will be played with, they may be left altogether or they may even be played with in a way that you hadn’t intended, and that is fine! It is also important not to coerce, interrupt or try to direct the child’s play. The aim is for our child to enter a state of flow in their play, when they lose a sense of time and self awareness. This is when those all important neurons are firing, and important skills are being learnt.


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