How to play with children

This may seem like a defunct bit of advice. Everybody knows how to play, right? Playing is easy. It comes naturally. It’s enjoyable. To play, officially, is to engage in activity for recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose. Really? Anyone who’s a parent will have had another experience. That playing with your kids is boring, unnatural, and hard work. A chore that you’d rather someone else did. Or, you can only do it in short bursts.

There are many unconsidered reasons for this, one of which is that playing with your child can be a trigger of uncomfortable, unconscious emotions from your own childhood. The very act of playing can pull you right back in your own childhood, a place where a lot of us were not comfortable being in the first place! What follows is a kind of dissociation in which you want to get away. Even if you are playing, you find yourself disengaging and just going through the motions. Kids pick up on this.

Most parents end up encouraging their children to “Go play outside”, “Go play with your friends/your brother/your sister”, or simply “Go play by yourself”. There is nothing inherently wrong with these suggestions, but know that when your child is asking to play with you, their parent, they are asking for connection.

It does wonders for your relationship and their sense of self-worth if you are able to respond positively to them and truly engage. On the upside for you, it will be much more enjoyable.

I have a friend, a mother who doesn’t do Lego at all. That’s fine. What I’m offering here are some strategies that will help you have a better time when you do play:

Say yes

This is a good policy in parenting generally. We’re not talking about boundary-less permissiveness here, but about an attitude that says yes to life. “Yes”, “Great”, and “Let’s do it” are helpful responses to connection requests. If you are very tired, you can say, “Yes, let’s play and afterwards I’ll take a nap” (or even “I need to sleep right now, and I will play with you when I wake up” – be sure to do it though.) The same applies if you are working or have a chore to do. Ask yourself, how real is it that I need to do that other thing right now? Playing doesn’t take long. Half an hour of engaged connection goes a long way. Heck, fifteen minutes of full-on intensity and they generally wander off to do something else. When you meet a need, it goes away.

Give up fortune-telling

As we start to play, we may automatically flash on how this is going to pan out. Your child says, “Let’s play spies” and your heart sinks because you really don’t feel like running around the house peeking at Daddy. But you don’t know what is going to happen. It helps a lot to remember that you are stepping into a fluid space where one thing sparks another. Rocket becomes shop becomes office. Just go along for the ride. See what happens – it will surprise you.

Energy follows attention

This has been the single most helpful pointer I’ve had. Attention. It’s a simple word that means put your focus here. Your mind will want to wander to do your To Do List, your mobile, the amount of dust on the toys. Look in your child’s eyes, listen with intent, and press that rocket launcher. Energy will follow your attention. You’ll have the energy, physically and emotionally, that you need to play. For me, attention is a more helpful way of thinking about it than “being present”, but it’s basically the same thing.

Pass the baton

Playing is like improv for actors. The other party hands you a bid, and you bat it back in a way that opens things up. For example, if someone said, “Are you the plumber?” and you answered, “No”, the action would stop there. If you responded, “Sure am, Bill’s the name and drains are my game. What seems to be the problem here, Ma’am?” you give the other actor, or your child, a spark to fan into a flame. Your child’s delighted laughter, energy and sparkling eyes give you feedback that you have successfully entered into an alternative reality!

Believe it

Take this playing business seriously. Nothing feels worse than just going through the motions, while your head flies around elsewhere. That’s truly exhausting. If you’re building a fort, build it to live in. Make your bed on the floor exactly the way you want it. Enjoy smoking that fake carrot cigar if you’re a gangster. Tilt your hat (props help). Enjoy rattling across the keyboard of that (broken) computer, imagining that you’re a journalist character from a Marian Keyes novel, or a detective in your favourite Netflix series.

In the above ways you co-create the interaction, being as much a part of it as your child is. You are not at their mercy, being “played with”, and it’s not boring. Best of all, IT FEELS GOOD, like any creative endeavour. If you are making sure that your own needs are met (physically, emotionally and spiritually), then you should find that you do have the space in your life to enter into this other world. You will love playing with your child, and even find yourself inviting them to do so!

Images by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

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