Leader or follower – help your child experience the other side

All children are different but when you notice that your child is naturally falling into a pattern of ‘leading’ or ‘following’ in play sessions with friends, how can you encourage equal play, asks Nicola Guy, from Acorn Family Centre?



While children who are playing in a group might appear to naturally fall into certain roles it is important in relationship-building to encourage them to explore different points of view in an effort to boost self-confidence and mutual respect. If you notice that your child naturally takes on the ‘follower’ role during play dates, you might want to encourage them to question this and to challenge this positioning, in a sensitive manner. Likewise, if your child often takes on the ‘leader’ role, you might want to ask them to think more about asking the others for their opinions and direction from time to time. Group dynamics may be challenging at times, so staying focused on the goal of the children ‘working together’ is important while observing and managing a group play session. Structuring a session well can help children feel comfortable and ready to explore different roles – here are five tips on how to do so:


1 Check in and check out

It is important for children to have boundaries, stability, routine and consistency. These are foundations that work in playtime as in many other aspects of our children’s lives. Checking in and checking out at the start and at the end of each play session can help establish a safe and predictable experience, especially for younger children.


Checking in

With your guidance, each child can start the play by sharing their feelings. A fun way to do this that encourages creativity, self-expression and imagination is to use toy animals. You can demonstrate by sharing your feelings first, saying for instance, “My elephant feels happy.” Each child can follow your lead and pick an animal and say how it is feeling. It can really get the imagination going. There is no right or wrong, and it is an exercise to help children feel accepted, acknowledged, validated and heard, as well as giving them a sense of belonging. It can really boost confidence and self-esteem too.

Taking turns during this activity can give a child who is a leader and a child who is a follower the opportunity to swap roles. It helps to “step into” the other child’s role to experience how it feels and for the child to understand.

You can gauge the children’s energy levels too through checking in exercises. Using a musical instrument as a way to share feelings can be an indicator of how energetic they are feeling. One child might softly tap a drum, whereas, another child might hit it loudly. Once we understand how the child feels, the more sensitive we can be and our expectations can change.


Checking out

Bringing a structured session to a close in an organised way is important too. You may use similar tools as for checking in, comparing feelings between start and finish, and also make it clear that playtime is winding down. A calm and orderly conclusion to the session is helpful for everyone.


Ideas for checking in and checking out at the start and finish of a play session, with or without words:

  • Show a picture to represent a feeling (eg photo of an excited face)

  • Draw a quick picture to represent a feeling (eg a sun, a storm, a happy face, a sad face)

  • Make a sound to express a feeling (eg hit the floor, clap hands)

  • Name an animal to represent a feeling (eg I feel like a zebra today)

  • Use a musical instrument to represent a feeling (eg bang on drum)

  • Use movement to express a feeling (eg jump, run on spot)

  • Show a colour to represent a feeling (eg yellow, blue, black, green, orange)

  • Use a facial expression to represent a feeling (eg big smile, frowning eyebrows, sad face)

  • Name a shape to represent a feeling (eg square, diamond, circle, triangle, rectangle)


2 Establish rules

Establishing rules gives children a clear foundation of what is expected from them whilst they play together. It teaches them respect. Encouraging the children to help make the rules allows new opportunity for growth and inclusion. Let the children take turns to give one rule at a time. You can write down the rules on a big piece of paper and stick it up where the children can see it. During play, new rules can be added to the list at any time.

Suggesting rules is a great opportunity for a child who is a follower to give their thoughts without having to go along with what another child says. It also gives a leader the opportunity to learn to give someone else the lead. Each child gets to experience the role of the follower and the leader.


3 Communication – respecting each other

It is important for children to learn about respect, being kind, thoughtful and polite to one another. By using the rules as guidelines, the children are already on the right path to respecting each other. When each child is respected this can have a positive influence on the group.


You can guide children in using appropriate communication towards each other by being a role model for appropriate language and action yourself. During play, encourage the children to use the following phrases to reduce conflict and encourage successful communication:


An example of appropriate communication:

Child 1: “Please can I borrow that pencil?”

Child 2: “I am using the pencil, but you can have it once I’m finished.”

Child 1: “Okay, thank you.”

Child 2: “Here you go… thank you for waiting.”

Child 1: “Thank you for the pencil.”


4 Sharing and deciding

Giving each child the power to decide and share amongst themselves with little guidance can do wonders to the dynamics of the group. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your children will be working together cooperatively. You can guide the children by giving a little bit of direction when it comes to equal sharing. For example, you can place modelling clay on the table in one big pile, and then guide each child to communicate between themselves and decide what is equal when sharing and playing with the clay.


An example of sharing and deciding with your guidance:

Parent: “There is clay in the middle of the table, can you each take an amount that you feel is equal?”

Child 1: “He’s got more than me.”

Parent: [directed at child 2] “Do you think that the amount of clay you have is the same as [child 1]?”

Child 2: “I have more. I want it all.”

Parent: [directed at child 2] “Why don’t you ask [child 1] if she is okay with the amount that she has and the amount of clay that you have?”

Child 2: [directed at child 1] “Do you have enough clay? Is this fair?”

Child 1: [directed at child 2] “I would like some more because my clay is too small.”

Parent: “Remember, we can start to play when both of you decide on the amount of clay that is fair and that you both agree.”

Child 2: [directed at child 1] “Here you go… is that enough?”

Child 1: [directed at child 2] “Yes, this is enough.”

Parent: “Have you both decided that you each have the same amount of clay? Do you both agree?”

Child 1 & 2: “Yes.”

Parent: “Now you can both play. Remember the rules and remember to be polite to each other.”


5 Conflicts

Conflicts are normal and may arise when children are working together. For example, a child who is typically a follower may start to enjoy being the leader and feel more confident to express his or her wants and desires. This is an objective of playing equally together but it can cause conflict within the play. The habitual leader can show signs of wanting to take control, seeking leadership. Boundaries can be tested and arguments can occur. Both children may be seeking control by pushing boundaries and seeking leadership.

Keep your focus on the goal, which is “working together” rather than each child’s individual needs. It is easy to divert your attention from the goal to the individual needs of each child, so it’s really important to be mindful of your overall goal. By being aware of this, you can help the children to settle.


Try it!

As well as applying these ideas in larger group sessions and play dates, try these ideas out at home and your own children will be working well together, getting on with activities, encouraging each other, sharing and respecting each other in no time.

These simple ideas are valuable because they give each child the tools to communicate appropriately with others, which in turn helps them establish relationships, make friends, build confidence and grow self-esteem.


This article appeared in Playtimes March Issue 2016.

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