Every parent knows that stage where your child wants complete control over what they do regardless of whether they can do it or not. Most parents come to a compromise- this can be called agency, the balance of initiative between a parent and child. Although it is important that your child has this sense of agency when they are playing, it does not imply ‘anything goes’. Below we will explore how agency and self-directedness are beneficial to and represented in play.
How agency affects development
Research has clearly shown that parents have to engage and accommodate their child’s perspectives and initiatives to promote child health and development. Think about these scenarios of a 2 year old child solving a puzzle with her mother:
- The mother hands the child the puzzle pieces one by one and instructs the child where to put them.
- The mother actively supports the child as she tries to figure out which pieces go where. From time to time, the mother gives some suggestions like looking for similar shaped pieces or rotating a piece to fit.
In scenario 1, the mother controls almost all aspects of the activity, leaving no room for the child to reason and problem solve. In scenario 2, the child is learning through hands-on experience and playing an active role in problem solving. Researchers have shown that activities similar to scenario 2 promote the child’s executive brain function- related to a host of important skills used during goal-setting and flexible thinking.
More examples of how agency benefits development
Studies have shown that:
- Infants who are allowed to grasp objects from a young age have a better comprehension of how mental states, such as intention and desire, affect the actions of others
- Children who are allowed to move around independently show improved cognition
- Children who are given the choice between topics/games exhibit more enthusiasm and motivation to learn
At the end of the day, playing is about your child having fun, being excited, and never wanting to stop. When children have the freedom to direct their own play, it becomes so much more meaningful as they nurture and explore their interests.