State of Flow:
The Benefits of Child-Directed Play
Amy has more than 10 years of experience as an early childhood educator, both in the classroom and the museum setting. In her current role, she focuses on staff professional development, program evaluation, coaching, and consulting for the Center for Childhood Creativity. Previously, she spent six years directing early childhood education strategic initiatives at the Bay Area Discovery Museum and a large science center in the Midwest. She was a classroom teacher, primarily for preschool, prior to her work in museums. She currently sits on the First 5 Marin Commission and was a founding member of the Leadership Team for the Association of Science and Technology Centers Early Childhood Community of Practice. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and a Master of Education degree in early childhood education.
As Director of Research at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, Helen authors original research on creative thinking and child development including the white papers Inspiring a Generation to Create, Reimagining School Readiness, and Roots of STEM Success. She launched and manages the onsite research lab at the Bay Area Discovery Museum and partners with U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University to conduct empirical research on cognitive, social, and emotional development, with a focus on creative problem solving. She brings more than 18 years of experience in research and education settings, including years in the technology and toy industries conducting research with parents and children to develop innovative learning products at Hasbro, Apple, Leapfrog, and LEGO. Helen received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Stanford University and has taught at U.C. Davis and San Francisco State University.
The CREATE Framework
C - Child-Directed Play Tips
- Say yes whenever possible!
- Set up toys, books, and/or art materials within independent reach of your child.
- Let your child plan and lead a family outing.
- Notice your child’s interests and curiosities and follow up on them.
One of the joys of parenthood is watching your children engage in an activity that they love—pretending to be their favorite superhero, building castles in the sand, or painting a picture of their family. They are completely immersed in the activity, lose track of time, and are not easily distracted. Psychologists refer to this as a state of “flow.”
Activities that lead to a state of flow are often child-directed, meaning children take charge of their own learning by exploring topics that they choose and are personally meaningful to them. Child-directed learning environments motivate children to learn because they are engaging in an activity for the sake of the experience, and not because they expect some reward at the end. This is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. When children are intrinsically motivated, they engage in an activity because they enjoy it—play is a good example. In contrast, extrinsic motivation occurs when children engage in an activity to gain a reward or avoid punishment (e.g., a treat for practicing piano). While research supports the benefits of intrinsic motivation, extrinsic rewards can also be a useful tool when used sparingly, especially if children have no internal desire to engage in an activity or are scared to try something new (e.g., potty training or learning to ride a bike without training wheels).
It’s important to note that child-directed does not mean adults disengage. Adults can play an important role in child-directed play by setting up developmentally appropriate learning environments, or by selecting specific materials or toys for children to use. Asking exploratory questions, such as “Why do you think that didn’t work?” or “What is another way to use this material?” is also important to deepen children’s understanding of and curiosity about the world around them.
When adults support children’s play in these ways, it, provides a balance between structure and freedom that promotes exploration and discovery. Studies with young children have compared learning outcomes for children taught something in a traditional, didactic fashion to children taught something in a collaborative, playful context. Overall, this type of play, known as guided play, has been shown to result in richer and more extensive learning. Adults support children’s learning in guided play by defining the learning goals of an activity while allowing children to maintain control over their learning.
The good news is that play can and should be child-directed. It’s intrinsically fun, often leads to children experiencing flow, and can be facilitated or set up in a way to achieve specific learning outcomes (e.g., building whatever they want with blocks, then challenging them to design something that can withstand an earthquake). Below we offer a few tips for how to provide more opportunities for child-directed play and how to support your child’s learning.
Say yes whenever possible! There will naturally be a lot of things to which you will have to say “no” to your child—whether to keep them safe or healthy or stay on schedule. Try flipping your perspective so that you look out for potential opportunities to say yes! Let your child pick out their own clothes, even if they don’t match. Say yes to their choice of (healthy) snacks or weekend destination. Giving them the chance to make meaningful decisions and be in control helps build their self-esteem and sense of autonomy, and should also decrease power struggles between you and your child.
Set up toys, books, and/or art materials within independent reach of your child. This gives them the chance to decide when and how to use materials, and reduces your need to micro-manage their playtime. Make it clear where to return items so that your child can help with clean up time as well.
Let your child plan and lead a family outing. Does it really matter if you see the bears, penguins, and lions at every trip to the zoo? Let your child take charge of the schedule and follow their lead. An older child will enjoy reading the map in advance and plotting out a course, while a younger child can choose from a few options at a time and decide how long to stay in each location.
Notice your child’s interests and curiosities and follow up on them. Are they fascinated by cooking and baking? Give them a chance to actually help chop, stir, and measure ingredients for dinner. Check out some books on cooking from the library for inspiration. Plan a special baking project for a weekend or holiday. Or let them play with low-cost, durable kitchen materials: a bowl with spoons, measuring cups, water, and salt can become a whole afternoon’s child-directed science experiment!