How to Genuinely Enjoy Playing with Your Child if it Doesn’t Come Easily

parenting, playing, bonding

Do you really enjoy playing with your children? Or does playing feel like a chore? It’s not an activity that comes naturally for many parents. And parents often feel shame or embarrassment about this, judging themselves as parenting failures.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The truth is that we spend much of our “family time” caring for the children or the home by making meals, cleaning up after meals, shopping for meals, laundry, baths, etc. These chores and errands take time, energy, and attention. This leaves little reserve to get on the floor to put together train tracks or set out paints for an art project.  No wonder play feels like another obligation!

But there are real benefits of parent-child play that makes it worthwhile to set aside some energy for this special parenting opportunity.

Unique Benefits of Parent-Child Play:

  • Physical development with improved dexterity for both fine motor and gross motor skills.
  • Healthy brain development, improving problem-solving skills, creativity, and cognitive flexibility.
  • Release of oxytocin hormone to promote parent-child bonding while reducing cortisol hormone. Both parent and child can feel more connected and relaxed.
  • During imaginative play, children often take on roles that help them learn to manage their feelings and feel a sense of mastery over their world.

Tips to Get Started Playing:
1. Tap into your silly side. The adult world is full of serious issues requiring serious attention. It can be difficult to take a break from this perspective to discover your inner silliness. Engaging in play means using your heart and your body more than your head. It might feel a little foreign and awkward at first. But you can probably recall your own childhood imaginary games and appreciate how fun it was to escape into a fantasy world. Being a parent gives us permission to enjoy our imaginations again.

2. Play for short intervals of time. Children benefit from a mix of cooperative, engaged play and independent play. So you don’t have to play an entire day or even an afternoon of parent-child play activities. You can go to the playground and spend 10 minutes engaged in hide-n-go seek then allow your child another hour of free play with friends or on his/her own. Be realistic with yourself and your lifestyle to set aside a reasonable amount of time regularly for parent-child play.

3. Choose activities you genuinely enjoy. Children benefit from a range of play from large motor activities to quiet focused games. You will most enjoy the play when you actually enjoy the activity. So if you like being physical and on the move, try having a dance party or creating an obstacle course. If you prefer more focused, quiet activity, try putting puzzles together or building with blocks. The range of options is endless. Consider sharing your passions with your children. And remember that you don’t need to enjoy all of the activities your child does.

4. Set aside distractions. Give yourself permission to prioritize play in your day and let go of other responsibilities. This often means setting aside the phone or other devices that may pull your attention away. But it also means letting the laundry wait to be folded or throwing together a quick, easy meal rather than a labor intensive dinner. Children crave parents’ focused attention at time. It’s not about entertaining them but just being present with them.

5. Enter your child’s world. Rather than observing your child play as a bystander, try joining in. Aim to understand and collaborate with your child as you play. Avoid becoming bossy or intrusive as you play. Allowing your child to take the lead will give him/her a chance to develop decision-making skills as well as self-advocacy.

6. Develop cooperative play among siblings. If you have more than one child, then you have the added challenge of finding activities that will entertain all children simultaneously and are age appropriate for everyone. While this may feel daunting, it inevitably creates moments to navigate important social behaviors such as sharing, empathy, turn taking, being a good sport, and managing conflict. You are the best example to teach these tough lessons. Hopefully, you can also create opportunities to play one-on-one with each child to tailor the play to his/her interests and developmental level.

When you create moments of engaged play with your child, you’ll start feeling more connected with them. You learn about who they are as ever changing, growing people. You experience the pleasure of bonding and emotional intimacy. You discover joy in parenting. And you’ll often find children are more cooperative and happy after playtime.

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Linden Blog based on information from the American Academy of Pediatrics article by Ginsberg “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds” Vol 119, Issue 1, Jan 2007. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Linden BP call 440/250-9880.