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Play for Better Behaviour by Charlie Taylor

The more I do my job as a head teacher and the more work I do with individual parents I have come to realise the overwhelming importance of play. When I think back to my own childhood, some of the happiest and most powerful memories are of the hours I spent lost in play either with my siblings, with friends or alone. These passages of play are enormously rich in the development of children. Through play they develop their imaginations, learn to share, learn to negotiate, learn how to be in charge and how to let others be in charge. Play teaches children to develop empathy and sympathy: if you pretend to be someone else you get a sense of how they feel.

For many parents, most of the playing they do with their children involves 'activities' and most of this 'play' is more like teaching. Looking at books, drawing, and playing games are, of course, essential, but undirected play with the child taking charge will make an enormous contribution to his behaviour and development.

How does play help behaviour?

Small children have little control or understanding of the decisions that affect them. As a result, children often try to take control of situations themselves. This is one of the reasons two and three-year-olds turn into mini-divas or dictators, as they try to wrestle control back from a world in which decisions are imposed on them. Children who know how to play and have lots of opportunities to do it are able to create a little world that they can run as they like, where they are the boss and everything happens exactly as they want it to. When parents regularly enter this world and join in, not as teacher or adult, but as a subordinate playmate, they will often see a remarkable transformation in their child's behaviour. By giving the child a short period of time when he is in charge, setting the agenda and telling the adult what to do, his power-need is met and he is less desperate to take control the rest of the time.

How to use play to get better behaviour

Starting off

Have a range of toys ready, get down on the floor and start playing with them. If you are not used to playing like this you will probably find this really strange and embarrassing. Your child will be intrigued and will come over and begin to watch. At first, he may be reluctant to join in because he doesn't know what he is supposed to be doing. After a bit, he will get the idea and start to join in. Once you have had a few play sessions he will start to choose the toys he wants to play with.

Don't worry about the outcome

Playing with children is not about the outcome, it is simply and only about the process. If the child is building a wall out of Lego, you must resist the temptation to give a lesson on overlapping the bricks so it will pass health-and-safety regulations.

Let the child be in charge

This is your child's one moment in his busy adult-dominated day when he is completely in charge and there is no power-battle between the two of you. You might want to set up the play to get the ball rolling but, as soon as he is involved, let him take over.

Don't ask questions

This is really hard to do, as we seem to be hardwired into asking our children questions constantly. If you ask a question, you are very subtly taking control and manipulating the play. Also, if you are asking questions, children assume there must be a right answer, and they will try and find that answer to please you.


As the child plays, say what you are seeing. 'The cow is flying over the farm, through Daddy's hair and into the water.' Simply commentating works, however, because it stops you from asking questions or teaching, at the same time as validating whatever play the child gets involved in. This is the child's time to be in charge and whatever he does is OK.

How much? How often?

If you were able to have ten minutes a day of special play time with each child you would see, over time, a big change in their behaviour. Ten minutes seems very little, but life is so busy that it is actually very hard to find the time consistently. If you could aim to play for ten minutes, five times a week, this would make a noticeable difference to your children's behaviour.

Limit the time

Let the child know in advance how long the play time is going to be. Even if he is too young to have any idea about time, you are letting him know there will be an ending. Explain that, even though he will wish you could keep playing for a very long time, you are going to finish on time. By priming him in advance like this he will find the ending less hard. Always give him a warning before the end, so he is not taken by surprise when it is time to stop.

What to Play?

Anything that gets the child interested works. It doesn't usually matter much what you do, because one of the most exciting part of the experience is bossing you about.

Here is a list of things you could use to get the play going.

  • Toy animals
  • Teddy bears and soft toys
  • Water in a sink or a bowl
  • Kitchen equipment like whisks, funnels, spatulas and saucepans (this does not mean the play has to be about cooking, remember he is in charge!)
  • Pretend your bed or an armchair is a car, let your child drive, see where it gets you
  • Use the folds of your duvet or bedclothes- these can make an amazing world to play in
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Blocks or Lego bricks
  • Sandpit
  • Mud
  • Anywhere in the garden
  • Rugs spread over tables or chairs to make indoor camps
  • Dried pasta (the play doesn't have to be about cooking!)
  • Playdoh


  • Anything that involves skills such as cutting, drawing or sticking
  • Games with rules, outcomes or winners such as cards or board games
  • Books

For improving behaviour, developing imagination, empathy and understanding, undirected free play with the child taking the lead is the key. I promise.


About the author

Charlie Taylor has been a behavioural specialist for more than ten years. He has taught every age group, from nursery to 16-year-olds. He is currently head teacher of a special school for children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. He is married with three children.
Charlie's book, Divas & Dictators: The Secrets to Having a Much Better Behaved Child is published by Vermilion at £10.99

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