7 Gifts That Encourage Child-Directed Play

In case you haven’t noticed, play is hot. Once taken for granted as a universal childhood right, in the last decades aggressive marketers of early learning products and a focus on standardized testing have horned in on this valuable developmental time in a child’s life.

But lately, it seems our collective appreciation for child-directed play has never been stronger, and there could be no better news for our children…or for us. The physical, cognitive, creative and psychological benefits of child-directed play are well-documented. Less acknowledged, though, is a secret that really shouldn’t be one: quietly observing our children playing is a magical experience for parents.

Learning to be a responsive play observer takes thoughtfulness, restraint and practice, but once we get this down, we’ll discover more delightful moments of joy, humor and surprise than we ever thought possible. And we need these daily parenting “bonuses” to balance the more difficult moments and break up the monotony. We’ll also get more guilt-free breaks from parenting because we’ve encouraged our children to hone their independent play skills in our presence (but that’s another post).

Essentials for nurturing child-directed play are safe, enclosed spaces and open-ended objects, equipment, and toys that encourage creativity, discovery, and extensive exploration. As a self-confessed child-directed play geek since my infant introduced me to its wonders nearly 21 years ago, my personal favorites would be too long to list here, so I’ve chosen just a few play accouterments I thought worth sharing:

I’m 100% on board with GeekDad’s brilliant “5 Best Toys of All Time”.  But my list is focused on play objects that are just as inspiring and challenging, yet also durable, mouthable, don’t poke eyes, can be safely used without our supervision.



1. Best classic toy 

For me, balls are it, hands down (or in the air!). Balls of all sizes, weights, and textures are fun to grasp, roll and toss. Balls encourage movement and play for children of ages and are perfect for solo or group play. I’m often asked about ideal gifts for a one-year-old, and I couldn’t imagine a better one than a large basket filled with a variety of balls. Wiffle balls have holes that help infants and toddlers grasp them. My personal favorites for toddlers are the cheap bouncy balls found in supermarkets (like the lavender one at the top right, above).

2. Favorite untoys

There are way too many favorites to list, but if I had to narrow it down to just a few, I’d definitely include stainless steel cups and bowls. They’re cool and smooth, make interesting sounds, are stackable, reflect light and look pretty in a play area.  Notice how joyfully this four-month-old experiments with one of the larger bowls:

I’m also a fan of jars with screw-on lids like the ones I share in “Unexpected Toy Find!” and canisters (like the ones with the turquoise lids in the photo collage).

3. Most versatile for natural motor development

This step climber, which turns over to become a rocking boat, is the most pricey item on my list, but if you have a young infant (who will use this piece until age 3, at least) or can share this climber between a group of parents, it’s well worth the expense.

Safety precautions need to be taken with this equipment, and I should probably address those first:

The step climber is suitable for children of all ages beginning in infancy, but I don’t recommend turning it over until children are closer to two or experienced walkers. Either way, there should always be a mat, rug, or another soft surface underneath. side steps

Closely supervise children on this equipment the first few times they use it and whenever it is in use by more than one child. “Spot” rather than rescue, catch or otherwise remove children from the equipment unless the child is too upset or exhausted to attempt getting down herself. (And if that’s the case, pick the child up rather than help her down, so as not to give her a false sense of her ability). Helping children with motor activities hinders their safety because it gives them the false impression they are able to jump, roll or step off of equipment independently.

One of the most common unsafe parenting practices is holding children’s hands to help them down steps. (For a story that illustrates, please read “Don’t Stand Me Up“.) Young children are impressionable and develop habits with astonishing speed. In a recent class, I was surprised to see a 14-month-old whose parents have been diligently nurturing her natural motor development take a standing step off the step climber and fall. I was glad I happened to be there to break her fall (which is the goal of spotting — it’s very important to allow the child to fall as he or she would, so she understands the effect of her action). It was obvious to me that this toddler had been walked down steps recently because she would not have taken a chance like that otherwise. The parents realized this must have happened with the substitute caregiver they’d hired for a couple of days. Through our patience and spotting during class this toddler quickly readjusted, remembering how to crawl down safely.

But enough warnings, here are some of the awesome skills children learn on the step climber and rocking boat:

Infants practice climbing and descending the steps, first by crawling up and then descending either face-first or backward (trust and spot them). Later they might descend seated on their bottoms and then, finally, they learn to step, which tends to be immediately followed by stepping down while holding the biggest toys they can find. Kids love challenging themselves.

I especially appreciate the way the rocking boat helps toddlers and preschoolers develop social intelligence as they experiment with it in conjunction with their peers. They learn to slow down their rocking to accommodate children climbing on or off, and they practice balancing together. We should be nearby with younger ones to spot, support, and prevent toes from getting caught underneath, but we’re definitely not needed to rock the boat. Children learn more and are safer when they can control it. Some of the most joyful moments of togetherness in our parent, infant, and toddler classes happen when children discover rocking with a peer. (Photographed at Resources for Infant Educarers)


4. Constructing and creating

Simple block shapes are ideal for extended child-directed play. It’s always best not to show kids how we’d build towers and structures so that they are encouraged to focus on experimenting and discovering for themselves.  Our children might use the pieces to form lines, trails, or tracks or combine them in a multitude of ways with other toys and objects. As with all the gifts on this list, the possibilities are endless.

5. Dressing up and more

Generally, the rule of thumb for stretching creativity and imagination is less is more. Scraps of fabric can be all children need to create costumes and fantasy play. A chest or basket of fabric scraps and second-hand costume pieces are as fun to assemble as they are to receive, and can provide many hours of enjoyment over the years. (In “Secrets to Magical Kids’ Parties,” I shared how our collection of costume odds and ends provided hilarious entertainment for my daughter’s preteen party guests). For creative dressing-up gifts that are brand new, check out the play scarves from Sarah’s Silks and THESE lovelies from Simply Sweet Fabric. They are simple rectangles of silk that can be used as capes, skirts, picnic blankets, rivers, or streams – you name it. The yellow fabric pictured in the collage is just a sheer scarf and the Amazon link offers a bunch of colors.

6. Comfort for the audience

Child-directed play flourishes when parents are attentive observers and remain in the audience as much as possible. When we relax and stay put we provide our infants, toddlers, and preschoolers a “secure base” they can return to as needed and, let’s face it, this is much more relaxing and rewarding than following our children around all day, especially when we can floor-sit on a cozy back-jack seat. I never got around to getting one of these for myself at home, so they certainly aren’t necessary, but they’re definitely nice.

Note: these seats aren’t safe for children unless supervised.

7. Mood lifter

When I was attending RIE parent–infant classes with my first baby, a parent asked our instructor Hari if we should play music for infants and toddlers during playtime. Hari responded that children don’t need background music, but if there is music that we enjoy, we might play it.

Hari’s advice resonated, and I utilized it most during the sluggish, seemingly endless late afternoons I endured with all three of my children — that period between nap time and dinner that parents fondly refer to as “the arsenic hour”.  For me, music was the antidote that seemed to lift my children’s spirits along with mine. My tastes ran from pop and rock to classical, folk, and even to music geared toward children (that I loved, too).

I realize that music choices could not be more individual and personal, but when a reader, Fiona Kelleher, introduced me to the music she has created for children, I was completely enchanted and knew I had to share it here:

The other CD I included is “You are my Little Bird” by singer-songwriter Elizabeth Mitchell, folksy beautiful music that’s kind to adults’ ears and loved by kids. Enjoy!

For many more self-directed, open-ended toy ideas, please check out my recommendations section.


I share more about fostering child-directed play in my book:

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

also available in Spanish and Chinese


For more on toys, I recommend:

The Best Toys for Babies Don’t Do Anything by Magda Gerber

Our Thoughts on Open-Ended Toys by Mamas in the Making (and all of their other posts on play)

What is Play? by Lisa Sunbury

The many “untoys” I’ve listed in Unexpected Toy Find! and the Play section on this blog

(Photo of girl with wiffle balls by Jude Keith Rose: judekrose@gmail.com)

And a HUGE thanks to Wendy, Tamar, and Lisa (and their spouses) for allowing me to share photos of your adorable children!


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you for a lovely post. I was most interested to your caution about not holding children’s hands when stepping down stairs, which makes a lot of sense to me.

    However, it make me reconsider how I help ten month old DS down from our full height queen size bed after cuddles in the mornings etc. I move him so that his feet are over the edge, and then edge him downwards until his feet touch the floor. I really do most of this for him, telling him what I’m doing as I go, but given that this move is well beyond his capabilities, should I instead just pick him up and place him on the floor in a way that’s much more obvious that I’m doing it for him?

    Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    Many thanks!

    1. I’m sure Janet will have a better answer, but wanted to share my thoughts/experiences.

      No idea how old your son is, but my son was able to get off the bed relatively young (before he was walking I thinks). This was mainly because our mattressis and boxspring are on the floor- still substantial for a little one, but not as high as a bed on a frame. We never helped him on or off. A few times while he was still figuring things out he fell off head first before we could stop him, but the comforter pooling on the floor kept him safe.

      He’s 2 and a half now, and unfortunately I can’t even estimate when he started being able to get down and up on his own. To get on the bed, I let him grab my hand. I wouldn’t pull, just let him use me as a handhold. He needed to use his own strength and strategy to climb up, but my hand was a solid grip and not slippery like the comforter (not sure Janet will approve ;-). Once he mastered that I told him to try on his own. Sometimes he still needed a hand, but he got the hang of gripping the comforter instead pretty quickly.

      To get down, he eventually figured out to turn around on his stomach and slide off feet first. While he was still small he would sometimes give up when his foot was a few inches from the floor because he couldn’t feel the surface with his toes. He did the same thing climbing down from any surface. These days he trusts his memory and eyes a little more, but I was always impressed by his caution. He was able to climb down from the bed after a few days of attempting it. Since we never helped him off, he didn’t really try until he was physically capable.

    2. Thanks, Kim! Hmmm… Yes, I would pick your little guy up rather then helping him get down…until he is ready to try going down himself (with your spotting). Then he might choose a different way than the one you’ve showed him! The idea is for children to stay very in-tune with their bodies and abilities.

  2. Christina says:

    Hi Janet, another great read, I had never thought of all those different kind of balls….. Love the music you shared, so relaxing, just what I need after hard evening settling kids to sleep, (they are still awake and complaining)….aged 2 and 4… you have such great play ideas I am totally changing the type of toys we have, not that we had many noisy ones with batteries…. but getting rid of lots of toys they do not play with, I love all of your suggestions…thankyou

    1. Hi Christina! Yes, isn’t Fiona’s music gorgeous? I’m so glad you are inspired to simplify your surroundings a bit. I wish you wonderful holidays!

  3. Love this post Janet! My daughter-in-law brought a small IKEA stainless steel bowl to class yesterday and it rocked and wobbled so beautifully I’ll have to get one for myself.

    Balls are my favorites too. Love the ‘hats/cones’.

    Last night we all observed our 7 1/2 month old granddaughter – she is teething so her mother had given her one of those mesh things with an ice cube in it. After I laid her on her back on the floor she continued to hold it, not sucking, she then began to kick her legs like crazy, then yell out in a loud voice – then she made a noise with a tiny voice. I swear she repeated this routine more than 20 times! Kicking, loud voice; stop kicking, tiny voice.

    We were all full of hidden laughter, mainly because it was the ‘tiny’ voice that amused us so much. No cameras out, just her parents and grandparents thoroughly enjoying her ‘at play’!

    Thanks again for all these great reminders. Happy Thanksgiving.

    1. She’s exploring her range! I love that story! There is so much to enjoy when we stop doing so much and let our little ones show us what they’re working on… Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Helen!

  4. The boat/stairs ARE really expensive, but I think they’d be super easy to make for cheap. There’s nothing complex in the construction- the hardest part would be cutting the curves on the sides accurately. My husband and I were planning to build one for my son’s second birthday, but his school has one in the classroom, so it seemed a little redundant, especially since there aren’t any other kids his age in the neighborhood.

  5. I have that bridge/boat in my preschool classroom and I can say that it’s well worth the money. I found it on Amazon for much less than other places and my 14 month old uses it just as much as my oldest (5 yr old) student. It became an even worthier investment when I realized that many of my two year olds weren’t able to climb or descend the steps without holding onto something as many of our houses here in AZ are one stories. I have watched coordination, balance and confidence grow exponentially in these kiddos! Definitely my best purchase this school year!

  6. My 2.5 year old LOVES music. There are some great children’s artists that are quite palatable for the parent set too. I would highly recommend the Okee Dokee Brothers, especially their newest CD, Can You Canoe? It is beautiful, fun and something that we enjoy together.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Melissa. I’ll have to check them out!

  7. Hi everyone,

    Just wanted to share my experiences with respect to #3 (natural motor development).

    We live in a small flat with no stairs so when my daughter started becoming interested in climbing I had to get creative. I wanted something like the stair-climber/rocking boat Janet recommends but since our location is temporary we didn’t want to invest in such a large piece. Thankfully I was able to order some bread crates and use rope, cardboard boxes and part of a stair gate to rig up a great climbing platform – all for under $20. My daughter has learned to climb safely and independently and every toddler who comes to visit absolutely loves climbing the platform as well.

    So yes, I agree with Janet that some sort of steps is amazing for child-directed play – even if you have to make them yourself!

    P.S. I can’t figure out how to attach a photo of our climbing platform to this reply but I’ll post one on my blog if you’d like to have a look. Happy climbing!

  8. Hi Janet

    This is the first time I post a comment but I’ve been following this website for a while, since my partner found it. We both really like it and we share most of the ideas and definitely the general philosophy of respectful parenting.

    Our 11.5 month old daughter, Kora, is amazingly agile by now, and we both believe it’s thanks to the spotting without intervening method. She’s also extremely curious, funny and happy, and overall a joy to be with.

    I have some stuff to share and questions for you:

    1) Among these gift ideas I don’t see any books. Kora discovered books about a month ago–instead of just eating them, as she was doing earlier, now she loves to flip through the pages, and one of her favorite activities has become to come to us and ask to read them for her. She actually wants us to sit down and crawls in our lap to listen. This is quite amazing, since she never liked to be in laps before. She also started “reading” the books by herself. She will do different kinds of blabla gagaga noises, and the most funny part is that they are more emphatic when she’s reading an Italian book than an English or French book (I’m Italian, partner English, and we have some French books around too due to place where we live).
    Anyways so this is to say that I was surprised not to see books in this list. Any particular reason?

    2) I can’t grasp all the way the concept of “self-directed play”. I love watching Kora and I have learned to avoid directing her or helping her, and instead let her figure out stuff. I still have to restrain myself at times, since this was not “natural” for me at the beginning, but I do understand and enjoy the benefits now. However in many cases even if I just sit around, Kora comes to me and wants me to be involved. She gives me the toy she’s playing with, throws a ball at me, wants me to read a book–in other words, she wants me to play with her. Other times she just points at things and seems to enjoy me trying to guess what she’s pointing at. She is not independently playing. She can be playing independently and alone for a few minutes, say, 10 min at most. Then she will come look for me and either want to join in what I’m doing or want me to join her.
    So what is your opinion about this? Should I suggest her to play by herself instead of with me? But what would be the benefit overall, other than maybe give me more time where I can do “my stuff”? What if at this stage of her development she is more sociable, and needs me (or her father) to interact with her? Maybe she needs to hear our voices to learn language, just for example?

    Anyways thanks a lot for a very useful and inspiring website.

    1. Hi Marta! I didn’t include EVERY toy idea here, not even close. So, I didn’t add books to this list… I also place books in a slightly different category, because they often (but not always) involve the parent active participation. I think of reading time as more like “caregiving” time than self-directed play, although books are wonderful for children to explore on their own, as well.

      Regarding self-directed play, this is a creative, therapeutic and enormously educational experience every child should be offered (in my opinion). But play can never be forced. Here are a couple of my posts about that: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/10/the-power-of-play-therapy-and-4-ways-to-encourage-it/


  9. Oh, I so enjoyed Ben’s video, playing with the untoys and then the puzzle.

    It felt so nice to know hes mother was nearby watching him so calmly, without interrupting him or demanding his attention in the 4 months section. And so lovely to see him seek her out during natural breaks in his thoughtful puzzle-making at 2 years old. I watched the whole thing.

    May I add another suggestion for music time? Some families enjoy singing together, or singing in turns without any accompaniment at all – even without formal words. Most babies and preschoolers are tickled pink when their parents copy their sounds back to them.

    Another musical suggestion I would make is dancing (or swaying, or sliding around, or rocking) while singing. Along the same lines as Ben’s movie, I would suggest that mom move and sing herself and respond gently but without coercion / correction if her kid decides to join in. And if baby is younger (and mom isn’t too tired), she can carry him along on her dancing / singing way.

    Thanks again for this delightful post!

  10. Thanks Janet for this post…
    I completely agree that classic and most simple toys are the best ones! They inspire and make imagination grow more than others…

  11. Alison Saul says:

    Hi Janet,

    Where did you get those lovely pink and blue containers with the handle on the lid. I have looked everywhere for something like that, but to no avail.

    Any help would be appreciated!

    1. Gosh, the RIE office bought those, Alison, and I’m not sure where they’re from… I’ll see if I can find out!

  12. Deena Kamm says:

    My 5YO’s favorite “toy” is a big bag of different colored pipe cleaners we got at a grage sale for 25cents. He makes EVERYTHING with these and when his friends come over the pipe cleaners inevitbally come out.
    Yesterday they made christmas wreaths, a “cat”, ornaments, etc… he has made “laser shooters,” keys, telephones… you name it. He now has a drawer full of twisted, waded up pipecleaners. It looks like a huge mess to everyone else, but to him – they are all unique, individual, special projects that he sees as accomplishments. It’s beautiful to watch.

    1. I love that, Deena! You’ve reminded me of when my middle daughter was two and three and would make stories out of anything and everything… One time she was waiting for me while I was teaching a class and only had a couple of paper clips, but was telling an elaborate story with them. Such wonderful memories!

  13. You are really helping myself and my daughter with your wonderful advise. Thank you so much

  14. Hi Janet,

    I just read this post and I am now very interested in learning about your suggestion for the following:

    Our daughter (now almost 14 month old) started showing signs that she wanted us to pick her up. We offered her the hand and allowed her to go downstairs the way you described. I felt that we weren’t really doing the right thing, but didn’t know what else to do, and so… She now doesn’t walk by herself and she has not learned how to fall. 🙁

    So I started trying to show her how to go up and down the stairs by herself, but she doesn’t accept that and wants to climb it with us holding her hand which feels rather dangerous for her and for us.

    Is there a way to reverse this process? (I feel like such a bad parent now! 🙁

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Elaine!

      I would simply (and calmly) insist she makes the choice of either being carried or working on the steps on her own (with you spotting her). When you don’t have time to spot her, it’s fine to insist that you will carry her. Let her know that it is not safe for her to descend the stairs holding her hand…and so you will no longer be doing that.

  15. I’m having a similar issue to what others have mentioned about helping their toddler on the stairs. We have steep uncarpeted stairs in our house and we usually just carry our 21 month old son down. We’ve let him step down while holding our hands several times, and now that’s all he’ll do. When I don’t give him my hand to walk down he gets upset and cries. I’ve tried letting him figure out how to get down on his own, on his tummy or bottom, and he gets frustrated to the point of tantrum. What should I be doing to teach him how to go down on his own?

    Thanks for any insight 🙂

    1. Hi Alissa,
      I am not sure how long ago you posted this but I am in a very similar situation with my 27 month old girl. She is very hesitant to go down and even up stairs without holding my hand. She also cries and won’t move unless I help her just like your son.
      My daughter never crawled as a baby and I am not sure if that is a direct result of my parenting or if she is just one of those kids that walk before they crawl.
      I couldn’t see an answer to your question and am wondering if you found a way to deal with this issue?
      I feel I have reached a stage where I have created a fear in my child that prevents her from trying to develop her motor skills independently and am stuck as to how to help her.

      Janet, if you are reading this, I would greatly appreciate your opinion.
      I love your website and have listened to a lot of your podcasts over the last few months. Thank you.

  16. We keep crayons in the gelato containers. They fit perfectly!

  17. This is a great. I love reading things like this on the website, I intend using some of the ideas mentioned in the playgroup, and in my course.thanks

  18. i live in Canberra , Australia and need to buy step climber/rocking boat but cant find it and online shopping has very expensive shipping fee, is there any place in Australia i can buy it atleast similar price to that in America ? thanks

  19. Hi Janet,

    I am new to RIE and just starting to try and implement all of these wonderful ideas from your site. My 10 month old daughter LOVES to cruise and climb. She has a few toys (wood stackers, sorters, blocks, balls) but shows no interest in them for more than a couple of minutes before she begins to cruise. She does enjoy looking at books. Is cruising and “reading” enough for her development at this age? I don’t want to interfere with her play but am wondering if I should try and keep her in a smaller confined space with her toys to try and encourage her to play with other objects? Thank you so much!

  20. Hi! Love RIE and this site but just wanted to mention… BEWARE OF WHIFFLE BALLS!!! Great idea, but it reality the plastic on many of these shreds very easily even when “gummed”! My baby was playing with one and I found little flecks of colored plastic on the floor. I don’t have a source for a good whiffle ball…

  21. Marj Bryen says:

    In response to Jennifers question about cruising l am a pediatric physical therapist and many children go through a phase when they are motor driven and that is the goal they want to work on. This is normal and will diminish as walking skills improve

  22. Nice gift options for kids. It is necessary that they learn with playing.

  23. Hi, I enjoy very much reading your posts!
    I have a question, my four and a half son is my only child and my husbands theird son, he has two teenagers from a previous marriage. He loves his brother and sister but at the time to play with them, sadly it’s all about screen. So when he is not not whit them he preffers watching tv or playing with me, he wont play by himself, he is always around me and rarely spend time by himself.
    How do you suggest I should encourage him to do do?
    Thank you in advance!

  24. Sabrina Marshall says:

    Hi there! I love reading these posts and I am really learning a lot. I have a question, what is the most appropriate age to start providing your baby with gifts that encourage self directed play?

    I’m a nervous first time mom and my baby is only 1 month old. I am torn between the old way of thinking where you must do all you can to aid them in their development so at 1 month it would be mobiles, play mats etc and the philosophy of RIE which I just love. Any advice I can get here for my 1 month old would be great and when to start with simple toys. Thank you all in advance with love!

    1. My daughter was about 2.5 months old when she started showing a distinct interest in objects — looking at them, grabbing them. Although even before that things might be interesting to look at. We’ve also had fun playing with our shadows, since they are so high contrast, although that’s not quite a toy.

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