I work with a lot of parents who are shocked to hear me say that I’m prescribing frequent and high quality play with their children as a method to reduce behavior and emotional problems and improve academic performance. I often get responses such as “my parents never played with me when I was growing up, and I turned out fine” or “I don’t have time for that” or “they have their sibling to play with, isn’t that enough?” or “I’m telling you my child is misbehaving, and you want me to do what??”
And it’s got me thinking, why is it so hard for us adults to play with children?
Do most of us not know how essential play is for children’s development?
Do we have difficulty being in the moment with children?
Is it because we were not played with when we were growing up, and so we don’t know how to play with children?
Do we value getting chores/homework/extracurricular activities done more than play for our children?
In order for children to have healthy emotional, social, and cognitive development, they need adequate amount of sleep, proper nutrition, lots of opportunities to explore and learn, unconditional love, and lots and lots of play.
Through play, children learn about new things, their vocabulary grows, they learn how to connect with another person, they learn social skills (e.g., turn taking, making eye contact, sharing, showing interest in someone else’s interests), advance their creativity and imagination, they master fine and gross motor skills, and all these things are needed for their self-esteem to mature properly. All of this is backed up by tons of research. We now also know that fathers engage in a unique style of play that is very essential for children’s emotion regulation skills, making it very important for children to have frequent play sessions with their fathers and/or father figures.
Why adults MUST play with children
When you join children in their play, it gives you a chance to label what you are doing together, and tell them more about what they are engaging with. This increases their vocabulary and advances their brain development and sets them up for academic success.
It gives you opportunities to provide them with support when you notice that they are attempting to master a new skill. This is called scaffolding and is a great parenting strategy when done right.
It helps you travel to their world, and in that place your bond grows, and your relationship strengthens, and that becomes the foundation through which your child’s self-esteem is built upon.
It gives a lot of opportunities for you to praise their good behavior and to let them know what type of behavior you want to see from them, which is one of the most effective strategies to reduce behavior problems in children.
It provides a lot of chances to be face-to-face, have eye contact and shared smile and enjoyment, and practice social skills with them.
Through play, children can often express the feelings and thoughts that they cannot express verbally.
It teaches children problem solving and emotion regulation skills, which are both foundational for academic, job, and marital success.
How To Play With Children
Playing with children is not rocket science, but it can feel that way if you haven’t seen it, or if you were not played with when you were growing up.
1) Put away your devices. Free yourself of any distractions ahead of time so you can truly be present with your child. If your mind is somewhere else, you won’t be able to make observations and be engaged with your child. If you notice your mind wondering away to your cell phone or the chores list, bring your attention back to your child, over and over.
2) Let go of your own agenda for how you two should be playing together, and instead start making observations on how the child is playing. Verbalize your observations, such as “oh…you are drawing a circle” or ask them questions about what they are doing. It makes them know you are paying attention to them.
3) Let the child guide the play session. Notice what they are drawn to, and play with them using those toys or activity. Stay with that activity until they are ready to change direction to something else.
4) Be in the same hight level with children as much as possible so you can have lots of eye contact and shared smiles with them.
5) Label. Label. Label. Label and describe objects and verbs, and ask the child questions so they can use their vocabulary. Don’t be scared to use big words.
6) Praise frequently. Aim for a 6:1 ratio of positive to negative comments. You can say simple statements such as, “I really love how you are drawing” or “nice throw!” or “I appreciate how hard you are working on this puzzle”. No, you will NOT spoil your child for praising them. You are building their self-esteem. Make sure when giving praise, you are being specific (e.g., instead of “saying good job”, say how you really appreciated the way they did a specific thing), timely (make the praise soon after the particular event), and sincere.
7) Play can take many shapes and forms. It can be pretend play with dolls and action figures, or with cooking utensils. It can be making arts and crafts, building a puzzle, reading a book, exploring the garden or your backyard, playing a sport, playing peek-a-boo, or singing and dancing. With older children and teens, it can be playing a board game, doing your nails or hair together, hiking, building something, or playing video games.
8) You want to spend at least 10 minutes a day playing one-on-one with each child you have. The amount of needed daily play involving a parent is actually much higher for children 5 and under.
Some adults find it very hard to engage in play with children, and they may need some extra guidance and support around that. That’s OK! A good child therapist or someone who specializes in play therapy can be very helpful in facilitating theses interactions until you have become more comfortable playing with your child.
Here are also some fantastic books that can help you get better at playing with children. I hope you enjoy them!
150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids: The Very Best and Easiest Playtime Activities from FunAtHomeWithKids.com!
Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children
Parenting with Theraplay®: Understanding Attachment and How to Nurture a Closer Relationship with Your Child
Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn-and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less
Hasti Raveau is a child and family psychologist and the founder and owner of Mala Child and Family Institute. Much of her work is focused on helping children improve their emotional well-being, supporting parents on their parenting journeys, and empowering families so they can repair, grow, and thrive.