Younger children enjoy asking their parents to play. But when we are very busy, it is often difficult to make ourselves available.
Between doing housework, working, and finding some time for themselves, parents don’t have much wiggle room or energy to play princesses and dragons or soccer ninjas.
However, these moments of family play are very important. Here’s how to approach them and let the children take the initiative.
How playing contributes to children’s development
Children love to play. For them it is not only a way to have fun, it is also their main way of discovering the world.
There are many types of games. For example, it may involve manipulating objects, such as playdough. It can also be an imaginary game, where children pretend to be mothers, fathers or babies.
In play, children use their environment to imagine and create a different world. A block becomes a telephone, a table a house and a garden the house of a dragon.
Keeping an imaginary theme in mind and creating a set of actions and the right language to implement it requires significant intellectual effort. Children then perform better than when they are engaged in other activities over which they have no control.
Through play, children learn to test their hypotheses and solve the problems they encounter. Parents will notice that children’s scenarios are usually about the world they live in. That’s why they pretend to be families, pets or even other everyday figures such as shopkeepers, doctors or nurses.
These topics may seem banal (or even boring) to parents. Yet they are exciting opportunities for children to explore their world, discover the different roles they see around them and bring together ideas they have learned in different contexts into play.
An asset for concentration and emotional skills
It is often assumed that children have a short attention span. Yet, while playing, they can follow an idea they have chosen for longer than when participating in adult-led activities.
Developing the ability to maintain attention on this idea and ignore other stimuli during play strengthens the child’s ability to self-regulate.
Self-regulation – the ability to control one’s emotions and actions – is important in learning, school, and social and emotional life.
Playing is also the core of language development. It allows children to use the words and ideas they hear in their everyday lives and experience them in imaginary environments. While playing, they can talk to themselves to guide their thinking.
The role of adults in the game
Children from about 18 months to 8 years like to play with their parents. The latter form the center of their universe, until their attention is increasingly focused on their comrades.
They want to do it because it contributes to their learning and development. Parents can anticipate their child’s thinking and create common sense in a way that peers cannot. The meaning shared keeps the game going and makes it more interesting.
The role of a parent is to help their child play. This means that it is important that adults let children make decisions. Parents can initiate the game, make suggestions or provide props. But for the activity to be considered ‘play’, it is the children who have to make the decisions and provide leadership.
Research shows that when an adult tries to control the game, children become distracted and quickly lose interest.
Play is not instruction (it is not about teaching your child how to do something). We’ve all been in situations where people were talking to us, people weren’t talking to us, and we probably found it much harder to concentrate.
Children need this control because during play they operate at exactly the level at which they can learn best. However, suggestions from an adult or older child can take the child’s play to the next level. This then becomes more intellectually stimulating than if the child were to play alone or with his peers.
How often do you play with your child?
In almost every aspect of their day—when to get up, when to go to sleep, what to eat—children must follow adults’ instructions. Regular play where they lead, decide on an activity and how it runs, gives them power and a sense of control over their lives.
My work as a professional teacher and early childhood researcher has taught me that when parents – especially those concerned about their child’s behavior – spend more than 30 minutes a day (or every other day) on these exchanges, in the form of play, they notice that their child is happier and is more easily guided in other aspects of his life. Their relationship is also strengthened.
Not every parent can achieve this. But it’s worth it to find regular playtime when you can.
Parents who play with their children may find that it provides valuable insight into their children’s thinking, interests, and world.
If you want to participate in the game, do it fully. Put your phone away and sit on the floor or follow your child wherever he or she plays. This way you show your child that you really want to participate. And perhaps after these special moments, children will more easily accept that their parents also take time for themselves.