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Taking Play Seriously

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers

Parents are surprised when I ask this question during a behavioral health assessment: “How often do you play with your child, and what does your play look like?”

Every conscientious parent is focused on preparing their children for a successful future. Education, nutrition, hygiene, manners – all of us are aware of the importance of consistent daily habits in these areas. We naturally support our children in completing homework, brushing their teeth, saying please and thank you, and eating a variety of foods. But one thing we aren’t taught as parents is the value of having consistent, high quality playtime together.

Why is playing together so important?

Play is everything for kids. It’s how they communicate, form and strengthen relationships, test out the laws of the universe, exert energy, and achieve physical and cognitive development. When you aren’t playing with your child consistently in a way that feels meaningful to them, the relationship suffers. When you prioritize play time, you send your children relationship-strengthening messages: I enjoy spending time with you, I feel good when I’m with you, you are fun to be around, I value the things that bring you joy, etc. Your focused attention is incredibly rewarding to your children, and is the fastest way to make them feel safe and connected.

Three tips for taking play seriously:

Follow your child’s lead. It is our responsibility as parents to enter the world of the child. Have an open, curious attitude and allow them to guide you. They choose the activity, create the rules, and you go along for the ride. To parents who say “But I don’t like playing with Legos” or “I’m not good at playing with Play-Doh,” I lovingly reply – so what? It’s less about the content of the play and more about the process of opening yourself to your child’s world.

Be (mostly) consistent. When coaching parents, I suggest at least five minutes of one-on-one play time every single day. Understandably, there are days when it won’t happen. But when it happens more days than not, you form a strong foundation of connection which is the basis of any healthy relationship.

Demonstrate your attention and approval. This happens verbally and non-verbally. Put your phone away, lean in towards your child, make eye contact, offer some physical affection, and smile. Manage your own stress response with deep breathing if you have a hard time relaxing into play. Specific praise such as “You are such a creative thinker!” goes a long way toward making your child feel safe and loved. It goes without saying, but avoid criticism or any negative talk. Even if the play is nonsensical, go right along with it.

When I am working with a parent on shifting their child’s behavior, we start by enhancing the quality of their connection. Play just so happens to be the best way to achieve this goal. Even if you don’t have concerns about your child’s behavior, make sure you are incorporating play time into your daily flow – you will see for yourself just how powerful play can be.

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