You may not realise it but your child is your biggest fan.
They adore you, they look up to you, and what they wouldn’t do to spend some quality time with you!
Because “toys are children’s words and play is their language”, it makes total sense that kids are most likely to respond to us as parents if we speak to them in their language, which is play.
With this in mind, we hold the key to improving our communication with them, which really helps to strengthen our bond with them.
As an added bonus, playing with your kids also makes them more likely to respect your rules and boundaries. So it can only be good really, and trust me it really is...
In my good few years of experience as a Clinical Child Psychologist, where I meet children with emotional and behavioural issues and their parents on a daily basis, I am often struck by how much focus is placed on improving a child’s behaviour rather than on parents playing with their children and giving them positive attention.
Don’t get me wrong I think predictability and consistent boundaries and routine are crucial in shaping positive behaviour and in helping a child to feel safe.
But I’ve often noticed that playing with your child can sometimes be seen as an added luxury in a busy household, rather than as something they really need to boost their development and improve the child-parent relationship.
I know we are all busy, and with our ever changing society where both parents often have to work to make ends meet, setting aside time to play with your child can seem really difficult.
But what I have seen in my practice is that parents who do take the time to fully attend to their children on a regular basis develop an even closer bond with them, where the child is less likely to seek their attention using negative behaviour. Instead the child gets their injection of positive attention and they seem to go off happy with themselves...
So I hear you say “where on earth will I find time to play with my child?” I totally understand your predicament; I have two smallies of my own (ages 3 and 1), a full-time job and a house to upkeep, so where is the time going to come from?
I often feel guilty coming home from a day playing with other people’s children that I can’t be more energetic for my own daughters. The older one looks at me with those sad eyes and asks for her “mammy play time”, which she is perfectly entitled to have after a day in crèche away from us.
So what I try to do is tell her that she will get her “mammy play time” after the dinner / pyjamas, and I give her a time limit, which she seems happy enough with. FYI I don’t manage this everyday but I try to at least a few times / week. The younger one is catching on to it too at this stage!
When I recommend dedicated play time to parents, I suggest for them to build this into their routines in a way that is not overwhelming for them. Any bit of play is better than none. Taking opportunities to be playful and “having the craic” with them during the day is highly recommended too (including dancing around the kitchen, rough and tumble, or whatever your family fancies!)
It’s about learning the balance between being playful and having rules, which is not always easy. On occasion, I can get so carried away with for instance pretending to be a giant (“Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum!”) that I can forget that it’s time for the girls’ bedtime. I find what helps is putting aside a built in time for “mammy play time”, and here are few suggestions on when, what and how you might go about it:
Set aside a specific time for 5-15 minutes each day if you can. Or else aim for a few times per week. With young kids, short play works better.
Use a timer, be it an egg timer, oven timer or stop watch. Include your child in setting the timer and remind them how much time you have at the beginning. Give them ‘5-minute’ and ‘1-minute to the end’ reminders, as this will help them to feel contained in the “play time”.
Often children have a hard time finishing play even if you remind them of the time. If your child knows there will be more “play time” coming up during the week, this will make it easier. You can also reflect for them how they may be feeling “you seem upset that our play time is over for today. I really enjoyed it too and look forward to our next time which is...”
If you have more than one child, try to play with one of them each day and include it on a daily routine chart posted somewhere so you remember.
Ideally playing one-to-one is better, but if you have many kids, try two-to-one or a few together and see how this works.
If for any reason something comes up and you can’t make today’s play time, tell your child when you will do it instead (preferably the next day or soon after).
Choose toys and games that your child likes, ones that you can both play together.
For pre-verbal babies and toddlers, let them show you which toy they want to play with and remove the other ones so they don’t get too distracted.
As younger children (under 5s) can be overwhelmed by too many toys and choices, ask them to pick between two options (e.g. “we can play with the playdo or do some colouring”).
With an older child (ages 5-10), ask them what they would like to play with and then follow their lead. If they do not initiate play themselves, begin to play in a way you know they enjoy (i.e. with a toy they like, a board game, arts and crafts, activity book, singing, dancing, rough and tumble, hide and seek, outdoor play etc), and invite them to join in with you.
Regardless of their age, get down to your child’s level and make eye contact. Your child will know you are ready to play when you are sitting on the floor. I find that sitting on the floor reminds me that this is “mammy play time” and stops me from getting distracted.
Look at your child, mirror their body pose, pay lots of attention and participate wholeheartedly for the few minutes you have together. Be in the moment if you can...
Follow their lead. Avoid asking questions. Avoid trying to teach them how to play. You are there to enjoy the play with them, not to educate them in that moment.
To show your child that you are fully present and paying attention, comment on what they are doing or saying, and reflect on how you are both feeling. For example:
- Put words on the toys and their actions (e.g. “you’re using lots of colours to paint that house, I see green over here, red for the roof...”)
- Put words on their feelings (e.g. “you seem so excited to have built that big tower” or “you seem really frustrated that the blocks won’t fit into the trailer”).
- Put words on your feelings too (e.g.” jumping on this trampoline is so much fun!”)
- Provide positive support by modelling being calm when something is not going to plan, like those blocks not fitting into the trailer (e.g. “they’re just not fitting in as you would like them to. I wonder are there any other ways we could try?”)
- Imitate their sounds and actions and feelings, so it helps them to feel understood and gives you a chance to join in (e.g. hum a tune when they are humming, clap if they are clapping)
- Show them you are having fun by laughing with them. Use the opportunity to sit close to them and have plenty of physical contact through play acting and hugs etc.
- Encourage them in their play rather than correct them. If your child decides to put the beds into the kitchen of the dollhouse, let them. Instead take an interest and reflect what they are doing (“you’ve decided they are all going to sleep in the kitchen, they seem really tired”).
- When your child asks what you think of their picture, try to avoid saying “it’s lovely”. Instead praise them for their ideas (e.g. “you mixed the red and green to make this”). This will make them less conscious of their performance and more in tune with the joy of creating.
- Describe and praise your child’s positive behaviours (e.g. sharing, turn taking, etc.)
- Finish the play time by summarising what you did together, how much you enjoyed it and when the next time is.
Here is a handy acronym for you to remember the above: L.I.S.T.E.N.
Look at your child’s idea
Imitate what they are doing to show them you notice
Sit at their level so that you can see each other’s faces
Tell them what’s happening by naming what both of you are doing
Enjoy each other and let it show on your face
Name the feelings you both have at the time
A few final words... As play is your child’s most natural form of expression, it is important to value play and set aside regular and dedicated “mammy / daddy play time” with your children. Good play experiences with parents and caregivers can give children the chance to reduce the negative feelings they can carry around with them, and provide experiences that enhance their feelings of control, mastery and pleasure. Building this in will also go a long way towards strengthening your bond with them, and encouraging their development into unique, creative and self-confident individuals, which in my opinion is well worth the few minutes...
Dr. Malie Coyne can be found on on Facebook
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