What’s the best way to play with kids?
It’s a strange question because we were all once kids ourselves. Back then, play felt natural. Make believe, pretend, toy cars, dolls, action figures — life revolved around having fun.
Over time, however, we’re often trained to leave play behind. We told by grownups to not focus on an activity unless we can prove why it has value. Unless we can demonstrate it adds to the bottom line. As a result, many parents have forgotten how to play or even find it downright boring.
It’s been the theme of many children’s books for more than a century. Classics such as Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh and Where the Wild Things Are all explore the joy and delight of childlike play in contrast with the boring, workaday life of grownups.
Recent research suggests that these books might be onto something. Laurel Bongiorno, PhD and director of the Champlain College’s graduate program in early childhood education, says that grownups vastly underestimate the value of play. “Play and learning go hand-in-hand,” she writes. “They are not separate activities. They are intertwined. Think about them as a science lecture with a lab. Play is the child’s lab.”
And Stuart Brown, medical doctor, psychiatrist, and play researcher, says, “The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person. … The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.” Isabel Behncke, field ethologist and primatologist adds that “play increases creativity and resilience, and it’s all about the generation of diversity — diversity of interactions, diversity of behaviors, diversity of connections.”
In short, play brings all sorts of emotional and intellectual benefits for kids (and probably for grownups too!).
So, how do you put it into practice — especially when it might seem dreadfully boring and pointless?
Here are some ideas.
Look for types of play you enjoy. You don’t have to do participate in every form of play your kids engage in. Take some time to think of what kinds of activities you would actually enjoy doing together, whether it’s blocks, video games, pretend, role-playing, dress up, board games, card games, swinging, catch, jumping on the trampoline, swimming, etc. Sit down with your kid and make a list of things you both enjoy doing. Say, “Mom enjoys doing these activities with you when we have time.” You might also make a list of activities you don’t enjoy as much, just so they know what you aren’t as excited about.
Set a time limit. If your kid wants you to do a form of play you don’t love, you might set a time limit. Say, “I’ll play this with you and do nothing else for 10 minutes, but then I have to focus on work again, okay?” At first they might complain when the timer goes off, but hopefully they’ll learn that you stay true to your word and give them your full attention during your time together.
Be an announcer. If you don’t have the energy to run around with your child as they play, pretend to be an announcer like at a sporting event. Describe what they’re doing in detail to show that you’re paying attention.
Let them lead. Your child likely gets bossed around throughout day. (“Get your shoes on!” “It’s time to go!” “Please hop in the car!”) Play is the perfect time to let your kid be in charge because it gives them the chance to have control in their life. Say, “For the next 10 minutes, you are in charge. What should we do?” (Note: This can work if you have chores to do but your kid wants to play. Say, “This room is messy! You’re in charge. How should I clean it?” By pretending to be the boss, kids start to sense what it takes to keep the house clean (and hopefully start to clean it themselves).
Mirror the emotion of your children when they play. They’ll sense if your heart really isn’t in it.
Don’t criticize during playtime. Unless someone is physically in danger, make playtime a criticism-free experience. Avoid any indication that they’re “doing it wrong.” Instead, use the improv principle of “yes, and” — which is where you build on ideas they propose rather than shooting them down.
Encourage friendships for activities you really can’t stand. If your kid really wants to keep doing a certain activity you don’t care for, suggest they do that activity with a friend. Say, “I’m happy when you play that game with David because you and I enjoy other games.”
Let them know firmly when you’re done. Say, “It was fun to play, but I am done now. We will play again after dinner tomorrow.”
By encouraging play at home through regular focused time together, you’ll reap the emotional and intellectual benefits. “Caring for children is hard work, getting the chance to play again is one compensation,” writes Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and philosophy at UC Berkeley. “If it had no other rationale, the sheer pleasure of play would be justification enough.”
For more, see our lesson on play, which contains an original conversations card game to play with all ages.