Engaging in playtime with your kids can be more powerful than you think!
By seeing play for the skill-building practice that it is, getting involved with your kids when they do it, and expertly crafting your toy toolbox, you can unlock the power of play for your family!
You may have heard that “play is the work of children” (famously touted by one of the first child development experts, Jean Piaget). Not only do we trust our kids to have fun while playing, but we also know that through play, they learn countless skills. But did you know that playing with your children is also one of the best ways to communicate? We’re breaking down the why, how, and what of creating growth and connection through play.
Why Should Children (and Parents!) Play?
Play isn’t a broad category for anything that’s “not learning;” on the contrary, play allows children to practice what they’ve learned and experiment with new skills and ideas. You may have noticed your children playing games that reflect other aspects of their life - your 6-year-old uses Legos to build a summer camp (he’s missing his camp friends), or your 8-year-old is always on a superhero mission (her new friends at school love Marvel). Watching your kids play can be like a window into their world. Better yet? Playing with your children will give you a foot-in-the-door; you’ll suddenly be an active participant in their most important work, and this role will give you credibility and insight when you need it to work through future situations.
How Play Builds Skills
Giving your children space to play not only introduces some fun but also allows them to explore feelings, thoughts, and questions that may be too complex for words. It’s often easier to see what a toddler learns from play – fine motor skills, colors, object permanence. What’s more challenging is seeing the value that comes from an older child’s playtime: when kids play low-stakes games, they can freely practice high-importance skills. When play is self-directed without an adult agenda, children are more likely to persist when confronted with challenges. Practicing patience, persistence, and resilience ultimately lead to success and confidence-building. Similarly, risk-taking during games can help kids learn what it feels like to forge ahead even when scared and seek out resources during difficult situations. Playing with others is a prime space for navigating social roles and developing empathy. And when kids play with their parents? They learn that adults can have fun and make mistakes, and that communicating with their parents is not always adversarial.
What if I Don’t Like Playing?
You can see why play is central to a child’s development and that your role in play is crucial for building connection and communication, but what if you don’t like to play? You’re not alone. Many parents find that playing pretend or collecting your 100th Pokémon isn’t an enjoyable way to spend time – and that’s okay. You don’t have to love playing these games, and you’re not a “bad” parent if you’d rather do something else. Just keep three things in mind:
- Negotiating is one of the skills that your child learns through experience, so feel free to collaboratively decide what’s on the agenda.
- You don’t necessarily have to play for a long time for it to be meaningful, so opt for short 10-minute sessions of your least favorite games.
- You get to choose what games and tools are in the house, so make the most of this power by choosing wisely!
Choosing the Right Tools
Play can happen spontaneously or at a planned time, with toys or without, alone or in groups – its versatility means that there are almost infinite tools available that market themselves as “the best.” Because play provides so much of your child’s foundational experience and creates a way to build connection and communication, it’s important to spend time thinking about the tools that you provide for playing.
Consider a few questions when building your home’s play toolbox:
- Are there tools and opportunities for outside play?
- Is this toy open-ended or is it limited in scope?
- Do we have toys and tools that address various aspects of learning (social, emotional, physical, etc.)?
- What are my child’s interests, and do we have ways for them to explore these?
- Feel like you’re “supposed to” shy away from digital tools/games? Don’t! Often, online games provide an approach that can help fill in the gaps. When choosing digital options, look for things that are created by child development experts. A great example of a digital tool is Mightier. A research-backed video game platform that helps kids to practice navigating emotions through play. Along with teaching emotional regulation skills, it can help to enrich play and communication between kids and parents in a way that’s often hard to target through traditional toys.
If the work of children is to play, then it’s up to parents to provide the best tools for the job. By actively participating in our children’s play and offering games and opportunities for exploring a whole range of skills, we can ensure that they are well-equipped to continue their most important work of growing up!