While we all navigate our way through the coming weeks with our kids at home with us 24/7 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s easy for us to get wrapped up in our adult world and forget about spending time playing with our little ones.
Many of us will be putting pressure on ourselves to be teaching and scheduling our children from the minute they wake up to the minute they go to bed. Living in fear that they will forget all they’ve learned in school so far this year if we don’t keep them in academic routines. I’m not saying that having a routine is a bad thing, as I recognise and agree that having a routine provides our families with predictability and safety in this otherwise chaotic time. I also agree that dedicating some time to academic learning is a very important and necessary part of this routine. However, please, please, schedule in time for play! Allowing your child to play alone, as well as dedicating as little as 10 minutes a day to play with your child, will be of huge benefit to their development and wellbeing. This post will be of most use to parents of pre-school and primary school-aged, However, most of the ideas can be adapted for teenagers too.
As a certified Play Therapist and Early Years Professional I am passionate about the benefits of play, and I would love to share some ideas with you on how we can all get the most out of play-time together as a family.
Why should I let my child play?
When children play they are learning and practising skills which are important precursors to academic learning. They are provided with many opportunities to make decisions, to make choices and to problem solve. They will be developing and using motor skills, language, and numeracy skills. They will be building their creativity, resilience, and will be learning about their preferences.
When children play with others, in addition to the skills above, there is a whole layer of social skills which are also being learned and practised. Learning to share; to compromise; to stand up for themselves; to be authentic; to say no to someone; to learn about someone else’s likes and dislikes; to know when to walk away; to build a friendship, to practice empathy.
These skills are all so very important for our children to learn and practice so that they can be successful in both academic and social areas of their lives.
Why should I play with my child?
Children love to play, and most will play alone, with peers or with siblings. However, there are also many important reasons for us adults to play with our children too.
Through playing with our children we can learn a lot about their world and how they are feeling.
We can provide them with our unconditional attention, and really get to know them. Our children crave our attention and time, and by playing with them we are letting them know that they are important to us and that we want to spend time with them.
However, the world of play can be a tricky place for many parents and it’s not something that everyone enjoys. As a certified Play Therapist and Mum of 2 young children, I spend a lot of time playing, and for me, it’s generally an enjoyable experience. I’ve worked with children and families for most of my working life, so being creative, imaginative, silly, and embracing the nonsense world a toddler creates in their play, all feels ok to me.
However, I totally get why so many adults have mixed feelings about playing with their kids, or simply just can't find the time to be able to play and also be everything else we need to be (doing housework, working, looking after ourselves, etc etc etc!!).
So, here are a few suggestions to help!
- Think about how much time you have.
Before you begin playing with your child, think about how much of your unconditional time you can offer them. It's frustrating for little ones if we get distracted with housework or phone calls when they have just given us an important role in their play.
If 10 minutes is all you have, then this is fine. It's better to spend 10 mins with your full attention than it is to have 1 hour of you half involved, having to nip away to put on a wash load or check on the dinner. Be clear about this time with your child, tell them that you have 10 mins where you are available to play with them in their game. It really is quality over quantity.
- Let them be in charge.
Simply let them take the lead. That's it!
Children are great at telling you what to do and will let you know if you're getting something wrong (especially once you've given them permission to be in charge of the game). Young children are likely to want you to join in an imaginary game rather than a more structured game in which you will know the rules. I encourage you to allow your child to direct you and just go along with it. As long as it's safe for everyone, anything goes!
Older children may want you to join in something which they are in to (probably something digital!). Again I would encourage you to go along with it and let them guide you on what they want you to do.
You're probably going to feel a bit uncomfortable joining in on something you know little about, embrace the unknown and discomfort - it's not for long!
Allowing them to have this short amount of time in the day where they get to call the shots can go a long way. By giving your child some power and control, they are more likely to comply when you are back in control and asking them to do something.
- Don’t take over.
The time you spend playing together does not need to be structured, or even make any sense at all. This is not a time for rules and routines. Ask your child what they want to do (within reason) and then embrace it.
(If this feels too challenging give your child a choice of 2 options, eg, we can kick a ball in the garden or play inside with the lego. They still get to be in charge of the choice, but they are both options you are comfortable doing. Try to choose things you know your child enjoys.)
It doesn't matter if your 3-year old wants to use the Jenga blocks to make a road instead of building it up to play the game correctly. Or if your 8-year old wants you to join in on the lastest game on their games console. We may see this as a waste of time if we're not into gaming or a waste of learning time of they are not following the correct rules, but this time is about us being in their world. Be a good listener and observe the world through their eyes.
- Plan the ending
Children often struggle with the transition from one thing to the next. So the end of playtime can be really difficult, and often when misbehaviour is at it's worst.
Try to prepare your child for the ending of the playtime by telling them when there is a minute left. You can even use a timer if you need to. Also, let them know the next time you will be able to play with them so that they know when they will get to do this again (eg. we will play again tomorrow at 5 pm). They may not be able to recognise that they are feeling disappointed that the playtime has ended and need some help with identifying this feeling.
- Show gratitude.
When you have ended your time playing together, be a good role model and say thank you. Its a privilege to be able to join in play with our children, and hopefully, you will enjoy the time spent together. Tell your child this, they will like hearing it from you. And they are more likely to show gratitude to you if you regularly model it to them.
While we wait for COVID-19 to pass and for our worlds to return to normality, we have been gifted with the opportunity to spend time with our children. Please post questions and your experiences in the comments. I’d love to know how you get on! Be playful everyone! You can do it! Keep following for further blogs on similar topics. Also, let me know if you have something particular you want me to write about.