Feeling worn down as a parent? Harness the power of play.

If you were to create a pie chart for the things you do as a parent, what would it look like? My guess is it would be filled with two types of activities: times you are in task-mode (chores, laundry, bedtime routine), and times you play and connect with your child. It can be hard to balance both. If we’re honest, the times of connection and play don’t exactly get the lion’s share. 

But what if I told you that the smaller part of the pie could make the larger part easier?

What if I told you that making the most of your playtime with your child can help you when you’re in task mode?

This is exactly the case. Play is largely underrated. Often play is seen as something children lightly do “for fun”. I want to enrich our understanding of what play is, why it’s important, and what you can do

What is play?

Play is the way children express, make sense of, and explore their world. When children experience their world they make sense of it by re-playing it themselves. They run, they build, they throw, they see how things work with their bodies. Later, when our frontal lobes become developed, we gain the capacity to talk about our world – essentially using words as shortcuts for rehearsing things with our bodies. We don’t have to actually act things out anymore, we can simulate situations with our language. But kids don’t have this capacity. They still use the most pure expression of their internal words – their bodies. They play out things they see with friends, they stack blocks and move sand to see how it works. They try out social behaviors to make sense of why their parents do them. Essentially, play is the space where a child’s internal world becomes external.

Why is play important as a parent?

So you reduce your stress as a parent.

It’s not only your children who are affected by play! Play can change your mindset as a parent as well. Playing with your children can leave you feeling refreshed and connected with them. It can leave us feeling connected with the younger versions of ourselves! 

So you can nag less and include more.

The feeling of connectedness between parents and children can lead to greater empathy for what our children are capable of, interested in, and motivated by. Your unrealistic demands subside (“pick up all your toys now!”), and your excitement for seeing your child try new tasks grows (“Can I see you pick up all the blue blocks?”).

So they listen to you.

You know what this feels like. We listen and cooperate better with leaders who we sense care about us. As we take time to intentionally connect with our children, we build up a strong reserve from which cooperation flows. When our children sense our care for them, they are less challenging and more ready to listen.

So you can explore and understand your child’s world.

If play is how children express their world, then play is a wonderful way to get to know your child. Consider entering in and becoming a character in their play! Most people watch or narrate (“I see you’re being a dinosaur!”), rather than becoming part of the play (“Here I come! I’m a dinosaur too!”). Watching and narrating have their place, and sometimes kids want to be on their own, but it’s also good to look for times to enter in and join their world through their (and your!) imagination.

So you can form a deeper connection.

Your presence in a child’s play is a strong foundation of your connection with your child. As you dig in the sand, or have a tea party, or play Hide-and-Seek, your child is learning that you can understand them, delight in them, and enjoy them. They are also learning they can trust you and feel attached to you. 

So you can expand their imagination for what is possible.

Your presence in your child’s play is powerful. You are not passive, but an active presence in shaping your child’s world. Children constantly look to their parents to help guide their play. There are 2 important things at “play” here: (1) your emotional responses to the child’s play, and (2) your ability to co-construct prosocial narratives. 

Make the most out of play!

Engage. Participate in the play.

Once we understand the value of play, it’s much easier to allow ourselves to get wrapped up in imaginative play with our children. While many parents engage passively with their children, an engaged response makes the most of the value of play in terms of connecting you and your child. An engaged response involves allowing the play to engage you, to impact you personally and invite you in. Allow yourself to enter into your child’s imagination! Below are some examples.

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Emote. Tune in to their affect.

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These look familiar? Pixar’s Inside Out re-introduced us to the value of all emotions. Emotions are interpersonal, meaning they are something we share with each other. How you as a parent respond to your child’s emotions teaches them how acceptable each emotion is. This image tries to capture a concept which may take an entire training to fully parse out, but basically, it’s good to allow yourself to “mirror” your child’s emotions, whether that’s disgust, surprise, joy, anger, fear, or sadness. As you “tune in” you’ll be surprised by how  connected you feel to the child, and how quickly that emotion is “regulated” – especially emotions like anger, fear, and sadness.

Expand. Co-construct prosocial narratives. This idea involves including your imagination in your child’s play to help them think about relationships in new ways. You might suggest two trucks share a heavy load, or that two dolls hear and forgive each other after one spilled the tea. Some ideas of themes include adventure, partnership, helping, forgiveness, listening, or constructive anger. Look for how you might gently introduce these themes into the stories your child creates!

Feeling stuck?

Many parents find it difficult to connect with their children through play. While on the surface play seems to be intuitive, for many of us our own childhoods were not so rosy. Engaging in play with your child may bring up issues you felt as a child with your parents. Notice the places you feel stuck or rigid, the times you get frustrated, overwhelmed, or checked out with your child. These may be important clues to the hurt or pain you may have experienced as a child. If so, help is not far away. 

Your play with your child does more than help you conquer the bigger piece of the pie. I hope you and your children are able to experience all the joy and connection of a strong relationship!