You’re not the boss of me – at least during playtime

March 27, 2013 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary

Parents should play with their children but not micro-manage every aspect of playtime. That’s according to a recent study published in the academic journal, “Parenting: Science and Practice.”

University of Missouri researchers studied videotaped interactions of 2,252 low-income mothers with their children during playtime, paying close attention to how kids responded to “directiveness.” The children, between the ages of 1 and 5, responded best when their mothers were affectionate and involved but not overly controlling during play.

“Directiveness had generally negative implications for children’s behavior toward their mothers,” the report reads.

The more mothers directed how, what and how quickly to play, the more the toddlers displayed negative behavior toward their mothers. The children also tended to disengage from play when their mothers bossed them around or were too critical.

Even when delivered with the best of intentions, too much direction from Mom can limit a youngster’s autonomy and creativity, according to lead researcher Jean Ispa, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri.

Ipsa gives the example of a domineering mother telling her child to put a plastic cow into a toy barn through the door, not the window.

“Children flourish when they have opportunities to make choices about what they do, particularly in play situations,” Ispa told the science website. “Mothers who are highly directive do not allow that kind of choice.”

So what’s the best way to play with your toddler? Let them lead the way. Although parental correction definitely has its place in a child’s life, it shouldn’t be during free time, when kids imagine, explore and experiment.

According to a 2011 study in the American Journal of Play, unstructured play time is on the decline in the United States, while childhood depression has been increasing since the 1950s.


For further reading on the importance of play in a child’s development, check out:

The Atlantic: “All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed”

Psychology Today: Play, Play and Play Some More: Let Children Be the Animals They Have the Right to Be

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