If hearing the question, “Mommy, will you play with me?” makes you feel tired, overwhelmed, guilty, or stressed, you’re not alone. Some parents enjoy playing with their children more than others, but don’t feel guilty if you’re not one of them. Meeting the basic demands of parenting and life are already a lot; being your child’s playmate can simply feel like one more thing you need to do! But first, there are three things we know from the latest research on play, relationships, and brain development.
- Play is literally a prescription for a young child’s healthy brain and body. A 2018 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics states that play enhances brain structure, teaches children to pursue goals and ignore distractions, promotes healthy social interaction, and helps regulate the body’s stress response (particularly if childhood adversity is present and a child has a nurturing caregiver who plays with them.)
- Children need independent play. They need the space the problem-solve and be creative and get lost in their imaginations without adult help and intervention. Independent play is healthy and necessary! It's easy to simply think of play as a time-filler or a distraction for children. But play is actually a child’s work! It’s one of the most important ways they learn about the world. Play teaches them creativity, to follow their curiosity, to problem-solve.
- Children also benefit from one-on-one attention from you during play, even if it’s just a few minutes. So, if play is vitally important, what is a parent or caregiver’s role in play? Let’s talk about what this can look like in real life with real parents and caregivers who have many responsibilities and perhaps lack the desire or energy to play. Here are some practical ways to work simple play into your daily life.
- Play begins at birth and happens in everyday moment.
When your child is born and in those first few months, think of play in terms of responsive relationships in which you interact with your infant by recognizing nonverbal cues and responding to their needs. Talk, sing, and point as much as possible. As your baby gets a little older and becomes more interested in the world around them, return their interest. “You’re looking at the ball. The ball is round.” Simple activities like playing peek-a-boo or counting toes during diaper-changing time promotes healthy brain growth and bonding with parents.
It’s also important that your baby gets tummy time each day. As they are able to lift their head and look around, get down on the floor with them and place simple objects within their reach. Each stage of development—from tummy time and crawling, to walking and climbing, presents new opportunities to explore through movement and play.
- Follow your child’s lead.
You don’t have to put so much energy into play. “The trick to enjoying this child-driven quality time is to try to fade into the background a little bit, energetically speaking,” says Lawrence Cohen, a psychologist and author of Playful Parenting. Simply meet the child on his level and observe, involving yourself in a laid-back way. Your presence and attention are still there, but it’s a less draining experience for you.
- It’s okay to set a timer for a certain amount of time you’ll play.
Playing with your child doesn’t need to last as long as you think. You can tell them, “I’m going to set the timer for 15 minutes so we can play.” (Or 5 or 10 minutes.) You’ll be surprised at how loved and connected your child will feel, even if it’s a short amount of time.
- Stay focused during this time.
For the minutes you have to play, don’t pick up your phone or chase other distractions if possible. Even 10 minutes of focused one-on-one time creates quality bonding and helps your child feel valued and close to you. Focused play time can even help prevent negative, attention-seeking behavior later in the day because you’ve made “deposits” in their emotional bank.
- Play can be easier when you naturally enjoy the activity.
Though it’s simple and good to follow your child’s lead, it can also be fun for you as the parent or caregiver to create play moments surrounding the activities that come more naturally to you on the days when you do have the time, energy, or opportunity. Perhaps your thing is painting, crafts, Legos, sports activities, games, or being in nature. Share who you are and what you love with your child.
- Use your local library for free story time and preschool activities.
Most local libraries offer activities throughout the week for young children. They’re free and all you have to do is show up with your child. The rest of the work is done for you!
- Bring them into daily tasks and turn them into “play.”
Think about it. Young children love to pretend they’re doing household work already. They pretend to cook and bring you plastic food to taste. They pretend to buy groceries, talk on the phone, or play house. These early years are therefore a great opportunity to combine what they naturally love to do with what you need to do. Simply interact with them as you do what needs to be done. As they help you put dishes away, match socks, put the laundry away, you can turn these activities into a race, into sorting activities, games, or just a way to playfully interact.
Your child loves to be with you and they love to have your positive attention. The memories you make in these simple, playful moments will last a lifetime. They don’t have to be complicated or structured or take up much time; it’s simply important that you have them. It’s the togetherness that helps them feel safe, secure, connected, and loved!