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Directorial vs Participatory – the Different Ways Children Play

Directorial vs Participatory – the Different Ways Children Play

Posted by Phil Wrzesinski, National Sales Manager, HABA USA on Sep 9th 2020

When my boys were younger, playing games with my older son was always a challenge because he liked to change the rules to help him win whenever he fell behind. My younger son was different. He expected all the rules to be followed to the letter of the law – no changes ever.

They had other ways they played differently. My older son was into role play toys like Playmobil and Rescue Heroes. My younger son was into role play toys like dress-up and sports.

When it came to arts & crafts, my older son just needed a blank canvas whereas my younger son preferred coloring books, dot-to-dot, and step-by-step instructions.

They played differently.

Knowing those differences can save a parent a lot of headaches and money in buying toys. There is nothing worse than spending twenty, thirty, or fifty dollars on a toy your child doesn’t play with.

The two types of play are easily recognized when you know what to look for.

Directorial Play is seen in children who like to make the rules, control the play, and want to direct all the characters and elements in the play.

Participatory Play is seen in children who prefer to be part of the narrative instead of controlling the narrative. They would rather be a participant than the overseer.

Observe your children playing and you will see their tendencies. Ask yourself:

  • Do they prefer role play like action figures or dollhouses where they control all the actions and the story line (Directorial) or do they prefer dress-up, puppets, or sports where they play a character (Participatory)?
  • When they set up a tea party for their dolls and stuffed animals, do they participate as one of the characters at the party (Participatory) or do they organize the event only for the stuffed attendees (Directorial)?
  • Do they make the rules (Directorial) or do they abide by the rules (Participatory)?
  • When building a construction toy, do they prefer the open-ended, no-instruction, build-what-you-like play (Directorial) or do they prefer to follow the step-by-step instructions to the finished product (Participatory)?
  • Do they prefer to play with one character or one object at a time (Participatory) or do they manage multiple characters and objects within the same play (Directorial)?
  • When doing an art project, do they prefer the outline and step-by-step directions that govern the project (Participatory) or do they prefer the open-ended blank slate on which to be creative (Directorial)?

Neither form of play is right nor wrong, just different. Nor can you infer anything about your child’s imagination or creativity from these tendencies.

Participatory Play children can be just as imaginative with their one character as a Directorial Play child can be with a whole doll village.

Both forms of play are awesome, are mind-stretching, and can help a child reach his or her full potential.

Your job is to know how your child plays to help you choose toys that fit his or her preferences and bring your child much more joy and excitement from their play.

Here at HABA, we get it. We built many of our toys to fit your children’s needs no matter how they play. For instance, the My Very First Games all teach the basic rules of Game Play (Participatory) while also encouraging Free Play (Directorial).

Kullerbü appeals to both the child who wants to build the structure as pictured and the child who wants to create something new.

Dolls fit both types of play with ease.

Watch your kids. You will see the tendencies right away and it will make a huge difference in the value you get out of the toys you buy.



Phil Wrzesinski, National Sales Manager, HABA USA

Phil, like his grandfather and father before him, has been in the toy industry his entire life, helping thousands of parents make the best choices of toys for their kids.