The 5 Key Features of Child Initiated Play

Definition of Child Initiated Play

Child Initiated play is defined as play that is instigated, led and controlled by the child rather than the adult. A child led play scenario should allow a child to control the direction and narrative of their play experiences. It has benefits for the child including enhanced initiative, confidence, creativity and innovation.

The 5 Key Features

The central feature of child initiated play is, of course, that children take the lead. However, there are several features that follow from this premise. Such features include:

1. Resource Rich Learning Environments

For a child-led play scenario to be successful, educators should ensure the learning environment is full of valuable, age appropriate and challenging learning resources. Maria Montessori (see reference list) was the first proponent of this sort of learning environment. For Montessori, 

2. Child in Control

The child should be able to control the direction, pace and length of the play scenario. They should have the freedom to select the play materials that they would like to use to progress their play.

3. Open-Ended Possibilities

Play should not follow a set structure or direction. Children should have the freedom to move about their play space and create story lines of their choosing.

4. Adults follow Children’s Cues

Adults do not need to be part of the play experience. Children can play alone or with peers. However, if adults are part of the play, they should not impose themselves on the situation. Rather, adults should follow children’s cues as to what to do.

5. Adults Support, but do not Direct

Adults can provide support to the children by asking them to explain and elaborate on what they want to happen, but adults should not direct students on what to do and how to do it. Even if a child is ‘doing it wrong’, mistakes are part of the learning-through-play experience.

How much should Adults Intervene in Children’s Play?

This is one of the biggest debates in play-based learning scholarship. There are debates about whether adults should lead, guide, facilitate, or be non-interventionist during play.

Here are the examples and pros and cons of each:

  • Adult Leadership: Play where the adult is the leader generally follows a set of adult-imposed rules that children are taught to follow. This is evident, for example, in sports and games that have a rulebook that needs to be followed in order for the game to be successful. The greatest benefit of this approach is that adults can set clear learning goals and assess them. Creativity and ‘rule breaking’ tend to be discouraged during adult led play.
  • Adult Guidance: Guided play is a very popular approach to play-based learning. Guided play attempts to strike a balance between unstructured play and adult-led structured play. It involves the teacher scaffolding learning and posing prompts to students to help them learn, while still allowing children to take the lead during play.
  • Adult Facilitation: Adult facilitation usually involves having adults act as what Montessori called “unobtrusive observers”. They set up the environment so that it is resource rich and safe. However, when children are playing, adults simply watch and only intervene for safety and security reasons.
  • Adult Non-Interference: Non-interference involves adults standing aside entirely and allowing children to play in unprepared environments. Non-interference used to be very popular; for example, children once were allowed to roam the streets until after dark playing with their friends. While we may be shocked at the safety concerns these days, non-interference has some benefits such as freedom to learn and quick learning of self-regulation.

So, there are pros and cons of each approach. Child led play is evident in just about every approach aside from the ‘adult leadership’ approach.

For Elizabeth Wood (2014, p. 147), one of the central play theorists of the 21st Century, an ideal role of the teacher during child led play is as follows:

“…The forms of control exerted by practitioners [should be] open-ended, with a focus on being emotionally present, supportive and responsive…”

Advantages and Disadvantages of Child Initiated Play


Advantages of child initiated play include:

  • Sustained Focus: When children have the freedom to rule how play occurs, their interest may be more sustained than if the task has been set out by an educator. Self-determination theory, for example, highlights that motivation is negatively impacted by rules, interventions and deadlines provided by external forces such as teachers.
  • Ownership and agency: Children have a greater sense of ownership over their tasks, enabling them to take up positions of relative power and importance in the learning environment.
  • Teachers can Learn about the Child: When children initiate the play, educators have a great opportunity to sit back and observe things such as what children are interested in, what their weaknesses are, and what their learning styles might be. Each of these factors may help teachers identify teaching strategies that might help the child improve in future tasks.
  • Communication: Craft et al. (2012) found that child led play tends to give children many opportunities to express themselves in ways they desire most. Further, children tend to be very active in communicating their desires for how others should participate in their play scenarios, giving opportunities for leadership and coordination of others.
  • Creativity: Craft et al (2012) also highlight the role of creativity in child led play scenarios. They state that creativity could be conceptualized as ‘possibility thinking’, where children can create any number of possible outcomes and pursue those narratives to conclusion.
  • Innovation: When adults interfere too much in play, children are often directed to follow the pre-set rules and structures of our society. By allowing children freedom to create, they can develop their own innovative storylines and objects of their imagination.


Disadvantages of child initiated play include:

  • Minimal teacher scaffolding: ‘Scaffolding’ is a term used by educators to explain how we provide support around students to help them progress. When we use scaffolding techniques like questioning, prompting and providing cues, students are helped to understand concepts that may be just out of their grasp without our help. Without scaffolding, students may progress more slowly.
  • Lack of structure: Without structure, play scenarios may not lead to learning. Without structure, children may ‘play it safe’, fail to play in new and innovative ways, and fail to progress. A Vygotsky inspired sociocultural perspective, for example, would highlight that teachers are required to help achieve developmental milestones.
  • Curriculum Constraints: In early learning centers, there is an onus on educators to follow set curricula in order to ensure children learn at a developmentally appropriate pace. As Johnson (2014, p. 182) states, “…child initiated play is insufficient for achieving early childhood education curriculum goals. There must be teacher-guided and directed play at times to attain the sought-after outcomes.”
  • Concerns for Quieter Children: Wood (2004, p. 32) has highlighted concern for children who are less dominant when group play is child-initiated. Such children may be pushed aside while a small group of domineering children take over the play space.
  • Safety Concerns: Many parents voice concerns about their child’s safety during play scenarios. When adults allow children to initiate the play scenario, the child may lead the play and games into risky play scenarios or inappropriate environments for children.
  • Bickering: When children are left to initiate play together, competitions between children to control the situation can occur. Without adult guidance on how to navigate disagreements, the play situations could deteriorate into bickering matches.

Theoretical Links

The benefits of play-based learning were first outlined by Freidrich Froebel who argued that play is the “highest form of learning”. According to Froebel, play enables children to be creative and learn through discovery. Playing with objects, which Froebel named his ‘gifts’ was also believed to help children develop their intellectual skills.

Even after play-based learning was established as an important element of play, there was still disagreement on just how much children should be allowed to initiate play.

Here are some perspectives on play based learning:

  • Montessori: Maria Montessori’s play based learning approach was very hands-off. Her ideal was for children to play without any adult intervention. She called educators ‘unobtrusive observers’. The most adults should do is set up a very resource rich environment for children to explore within. However, Montessori was also a big advocate of play that was linked to mundane domestic tasks, like play acting at being a teacher, cleaning the house, and so forth.
  • Steiner: Rudolf Steiner was a big proponent on adult intervention in play. He believed adults should be moral and spiritual guides to children. Adults should do a great deal of storytelling during play.
  • Reggio Emilia: The Reggio Emilia approach (founded by Loris Malaguzzi) emphasizes adult facilitation of play. Children can lead their play scenario, but adults should be there to ask questions and prompt learners to get the most out of their play.
  • Forest Schools: Forest schools advocate for outdoor play that, while risky, helps students to engage in child led and initiated play in natural and unstructured environments.

Final Thoughts

child initiated play

Child initiated play is a very popular way to help children learn in early childhood education. It helps children to develop creativity and imagination. However, it is also critiqued for lacking in structure and potentially not helping students develop as well as if adults were taking charge.

Learn More about Alternative Approaches to Childhood Education:

Learn More about Types of Play Based Learning:


The following references are in APA format:

Craft, A., McConnon, L., and Paige-Smith, A. (2012). Child-initiated play and professional creativity: enabling four-year-olds’ possibility thinking. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 7(1): 48–61.

Johnson, J. (2014). Play provisions and pedagogy in curricular approaches. In: Brooker, E., Blaise, M., and Edwards, S. (Eds.) SAGE handbook of play and learning in early childhood. (pp. 180 – 191). SAGE: Los Angeles.

Wood, E. (2004). Developing a pedagogy of play. In: Anning, A., Cullen, J., and Fleer, M. (Eds.) Early childhood education: Society and culture. (pp. 19-30). London: SAGE.

Wood, E. (2014). The play-pedagogy interface in contemporary debates. In: Brooker, E., Blaise, M., and Edwards, S. (Eds.) SAGE handbook of play and learning in early childhood. (pp. 180 – 191). SAGE: Los Angeles.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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