How to Play
(With Your Child)
A lot of parents find the idea of “play” to be a source of frustration. Some find it boring, some find it confusing, and many simply feel that they don’t know how to play. I often hear parents say, “Nobody played with me when I was a child, so now I don’t know how to play with my child.”. The good news is that you don’t need to work nearly so hard in order to engage meaningfully with your child. Children come preprogrammed to play – it is how they learn to explore their environment, make sense of their world, and build a whole host of skills – so if you take a step back, you’ll see that your child can teach you everything you need to know.
The importance of play
Research shows that play serves a number of integral functions in a child’s development. Play:
- Offers opportunities to build mastery (for example, playing with small kitchen equipment builds fine motor skills),
- Helps develop self-regulatory capacities (when things don’t go as planned during play, such as a tower falling over, children practice frustration tolerance),
- Allows them to work on problem-solving skills (such as how to rebuild that tower with a stronger foundation). It also exercises their communication skills. Think about how much language they can use during a tea party or when playing doctor; and
- Gives them an opportunity to try out and rehearse different roles, practice following societal expectations, and work through difficult moments.
While children can build on each of these skills through independent play, playing with a parent offers opportunities to expand on these skills, to play out more complex themes, and most importantly, to deepen and enrich intimacy and bonding in the parent-child relationship. Particularly in the era of social distancing, when children are largely suffering the loss of a peer group, they need us more than ever to support them in fulfilling this foundational task of childhood.
So if the idea of playing with your child seems off-putting or tiresome, read on for some simple strategies to take off some pressure, increase the positive impact, and actually make play fun for both you and your child.
Let Your Child Take the Lead
Letting your child take the lead is perhaps the single most important advice I can give. This is particularly true for parents who struggle to figure out what to do during play. Your child knows what to do, and he will show you. Children spend most of the day following the rules and expectations of adults. Free play is an opportunity for them to explore, to feel in control, and to take a load off from trying to do the “right” thing all the time.
So if your child uses playtime to order you around or doesn’t seem willing to accept your suggestions, that’s okay. Resist the impulse to assert yourself, and just watch how the play unfolds. If you’re playing with dolls, and you have one doll say to another, “It’s time for dinner,” and your child responds, “No, he doesn’t say that,” this does not mean that your child is being bossy or uncompromising. Rather, your child is hard at work exploring the environment in a way that is meaningful to him. Follow his cues and play along with the scene he is concocting. You may find that he’s actually trying to work through a problem he’s facing or make sense of things he’s observed in his environment (more on that in a minute…).
But Also Structure the Environment to be Tolerable to You!
Yes, it’s important to let your child choose the activity and be in control of how the play unfolds. However, if you absolutely hate playing dress-up or building with Magnatiles, nobody’s going to have a good time. So when you are playing together, take some pressure off yourself and keep any activity that would drive you up a wall in a closet for another time. Instead, lay out two to four different activities that you can see yourself enjoying for your child to choose from, and let her take the lead from there.
You Don’t Need to Give Up Your Whole Day, but Be Consistent
It’s hard to find the time to sit down and play when you have so many competing demands – cooking dinner, cleaning the house, helping an older child with homework, attending to any of your own work you may have, the list goes on. If you’re short on time, that’s okay!
According to studies done about one type of play-based therapy called Parent Child Interaction Therapy (or PCIT for short), you can have a positive impact on your child in as little as five minutes per day. So long as two things are true:
- You spend five minutes playing with your child EVERY day – that means seven days per week, 52 weeks per year. And,
- you make those five minutes count. That means being totally present – not checking your phone, not folding laundry, not spacing out.
If you can give your child at least five minutes of one on one playtime every single day, you are likely to see a decrease in difficult-to-manage, attention-seeking behavior at other times. Knowing he can count on having that important bonding time with you no matter what will provide him a sense of stability and connection in your relationship that will pay off for years to come!
Finally, Listen to What They’re Really Telling You
You can learn a lot about how your child experiences the world by paying attention to the themes that come up in his play. This is another reason letting her take the lead is so important. Parents often feel they need to “correct” their child if she does something socially awkward or out of the norm when playing. For example, if your child uses one doll to hit another doll, you might feel an urge to pivot the play to make the doll apologize. But it’s actually really healthy for your child to play out those impulses – it could be that she is discharging her aggression in a safe way (through toys rather than with her own body), or that she is experimenting with what it feels like to be the aggressor and/or the victim. Playing out aggressive themes doesn’t necessarily mean your child will become aggressive – if anything, chances are it will decrease aggression behavior because she has an appropriate outlet.
The easiest way to spot a deeper message in your child’s play is if you notice something recurs. Sometimes parents get tired of their child playing out the same exact scene over and over, but this is actually a fascinating strategy children use to come to terms with what they’ve experienced.
I was recently playing with a family friend’s daughter who wanted to play doctor. For over an hour, she had me pretend to be different patients – and each one had the flu, and each one died. Unsurprisingly, I learned that she had recently had the flu and had spent a lot of time at the doctor’s office. By playing out her biggest fear over and over, that having the flu could result in death, she was using play (the language of childhood) to communicate her feelings, face her fear head on, and work through it. After we played out this scene about a hundred times, she was satisfied and wanted to go play with Legos instead. According to her parents, that was the last time she brought up the doctor for a while.
Come on, let’s play!
So when it comes to playing with your child, you don’t have to worry about coming up with the perfect activity or maximizing “teachable moments”. Your child will gain the most from playing with you if you take a backseat and let him direct the show!