Here I am four years in as a parent, with more than a decade of professional training under my belt, and I am still amazed by the impact that play has on the parent-child relationship. In addition to providing a safe and loving environment for children, I have not discovered any method, behavioral technique or parenting hack that is more effective in strengthening the bond between parents and their children than play.
In a culture that places such emphasis on the importance of IQ and test scores, play is often thought of as a luxury or something that can be reserved for weekends and special occasions. And yet research collected by The American Academy of Pediatrics states that play prepares children for life in different and equally valuable ways.
When it comes to play, it can be as simple or as complicated as we make it. Children don't need adults to swoop in and change what they are doing. Play provides a beautiful avenue for relating, learning, and just having fun in and of itself. Though independent play is incredibly valuable for young children, this article is centered on play between parents and their children.
Here are seven insights about play that I have gained from my experience as an occupational therapist and mother of two.
1. Adults tend to think too much.
When it comes to playing with a child, often the best way to start is to simply observe. Watch to see what the child enjoys doing—maybe notice how they are playing with a toy or object or how they are using their environment. Once you figure this out, try not to judge or correct what they are doing unless it is unsafe or inappropriate. You could also try commenting on what they are doing ("oh, you like the way the wheels bounce over the sidewalk") or imitate them the way another young child might do.
From there, the child will likely show you what to do next. Richard Solomon, MD, founder of The PLAY Project, a play-based early intervention for children with autism, says: "when you do what your child loves, he will love being with you." This is really what play is all about!
2. Resist the urge to take over.
It can be difficult to let go of your own agenda and follow your child's ideas. Once you know what your child is interested in, you might notice patterns in their play and anticipate what they want to do next. Instead of jumping to conclusions, try to be patient, and wait to see how their ideas evolve. Allowing a child to lead shows them that you respect their ideas and that they don't need to perform for you.
We do not want to unintentionally train children to play in a way that pleases adults. Instead, we want children to play in a way that honors their curiosities, and by being patient and respectful players, we can show them that it is safe and fun when we join in. And don't lose heart if your child's idea is to play with the same toy or the same game that they have been curious about (obsessed with) for weeks.
Playing with children is about the relationship, not the toy.
3. Be fully present during play.
Children know when you are distracted, rushed, or when you are multi-tasking. They know when you are engaged versus just going through the motions. They certainly don't want to compete with a screen for your attention—hint, turn off the TV and leave your phone in the other room.
Even the littlest of children (two years and under) are aware of this and may act out if they feel like they are being ignored. They need your full presence, your eyes, and your energy. Of course, you can't give children your full attention all day long, but when you can, it will be more enjoyable for both of you.
4. Play helps children cope with stress.
Often parents are first alerted to stress in children through behavioral issues, disruptions in sleep, clinginess, or physiological symptoms. Studies have shown that there is a strong link between play and decreased levels of the hormone cortisol, which triggers your body's fight or flight response.
Play also gives parents opportunities to support children in regulating their emotions, communicating their ideas, problem-solving, strengthening fine and gross motor skills, developing empathy, and so much more. Children may give clues into current stressors (i.e., fears, fascinations, etc.) through pretend play, thus allowing parents or professionals to better understand the child's perspective.
5. It's hard to make time for play, but every minute matters.
This is something I didn't fully understand until I became a parent. I used to stare blankly at parents who complained that it was difficult to find an hour to play with their child each day.
I get it now.
With so many other responsibilities, sometimes play seems less important. Not to mention that play is often physically demanding, and young children do not understand why it needs to begin and end at a certain time.
Under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to make time for play. Add in family stress, single parent homes, children with special needs, etc. and making time for play may feel impossible. Here's a suggestion: instead of waiting to see how much time is left over at the end of the day, try to schedule blocks of time for play (even 5-15 minutes at a time) and stick to them like you would anything else on your calendar.
This shows your child that they are a priority, and you might be surprised by how much time you put in. But don't beat yourself up if you have days when the only playtime you could find was squeezed in between your child's bath and bedtime. That time you spent playing with your child will likely be their favorite part of the day—and yours too.
6. Your child thinks you're fun, even if you don't.
As an Occupational Therapist working with families, I divided my time between coaching and modeling and guess which part was easier? The coaching, of course! It is always easier to be on the sidelines, so don't feel bad if you and your child occasionally struggle to connect.
Sometimes play feels fun and easy, and sometimes it feels awkward and frustrating. If your parents didn't play with you, you might not feel comfortable playing with your children. You might not know what to do, or you might feel embarrassed joining a child in something silly. Maybe you were raised to believe that children should simply play alone.
If you do need some guidance, know that you are not alone, and there is no shame in asking for help. Also, remember that although a therapist may have more experience playing with children; you are the expert on your child, and you will always be your child's preferred play partner.
7. You will NEVER regret the time you spend playing with your child.
Hands-down, my favorite memories with my boys are not captured in photos or videos. They are not even the big milestone—first steps, first words, and first birthdays. They are the moments of pure engagement and delight when we were completely in-the-moment during play. My favorite memories are of my oldest pretending to be the fire chief and barking orders about where to go and how long to spray the pretend fire. They were endless games of hide-and-seek when I knew exactly where my youngest was hiding. They are races through the house and around it, pretend picnics, and Lego set-ups, and so many more.
Our relationship is grounded in love, but built through little moments of engagement and play and as "hard" as it can be to make the time for it, those are the moments that I cherish the most. After all, a day will come when our children will spend more time playing with the little kid down the street or friends from school.
We won't always be our child's go-to play partner, and we won't always need to be a horsey, a tickle monster, or a fort builder, but they will remember when we were.