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Picture this: you’re finally home from a long day of work. Your child has already had dinner and is playing with their toys. You’re trying to relax. But then, they come up to you and ask you the often dreaded question: “Will you play with me?”. You groan. But then you feel guilty. You wonder, "Aren’t I supposed to like playing with my kid(s)?"
First and foremost, I want you to know, you are not a bad parent if the scenario described above is true. After all, you are a human being with your own interests, stresses and relationship dynamics. It's understandable, that the last thing you may want to do is carve out time to interact with another human. And.... just because you are a parent, doesn’t mean you should love playing with your child.
In this month's blog, I'll talk about what it means to play with your child, common barriers you might face when it comes to playing with your child, and offer suggestions that might help you move past those barriers.
Why don’t I want to play with my child?
In order to reduce our guilt, it is first important to understand what our barriers/struggles may be. Some of the most common reasons I’ve heard from parents and personally experienced, when it comes to playing with children include:
Does any of the above resonate with you? Great, you've just solved the first problem - understanding what makes engaging in play so hard for you. The second step- understanding what play really is.
What does it mean to play with your child?
Play is generally defined as an enjoyable activity that has no clear “purpose” or “goal” – it’s something that we do spontaneously for the simple joy and fun of it. The American Academy of Pediatrics defines it as “an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery.”
Researchers have characterized different types of play. There’s the work of Mildred Parten, who identified 6 stages of play that children go through as they develop:
The National Institute for Play has also named different types of play that are relevant both for adults and for children:
So, to sum it up: Playing with your child means doing anything with them that is for the sole purpose of their (and your!) enjoyment. Yes, playing has many real benefits – it teaches children important executive functioning skills and is critical for their development. But playing is about more than just boosting skills. It’s about enjoying spontaneous, fun time together.
And for those who may be wondering whether being in the same room on a device or reading a book while your child plays with their toys, doesn’t meet the definition of playing together. Doodling with markers next to your child who is also drawing with those markers? That could absolutely be parallel play.
What are you to do with all of this?
Now that you have all of this information, the next step is to figure out the best way for you to move past your barrier and engage your child and your inner child.
Step 1: If your barrier is related to time, then, you WILL have to schedule time to play with your child. I know, I know. You don’t have time. But I can honestly say, the best advice I ever got, from my own therapist ;), was to schedule time to play with my daughter.
At first I resisted, but when I actually took on the challenge and penciled time in my calendar to play with her, I found something amazing happened - I actually saved that time for her and worked other things around that allotted time. And when I did, I was ready and present to play.
Granted, this took a lot of practice to get used to and my resistance was still a bit present, but it eventually set in motion a behavior that has become more of a self-care routine vs a chore. Yes, play is a form of self-care when you end up laughing and having fun.
Step 2: If your barrier is you don't know how to play, then figure out what kind of play you like. For this, I would recommend two books that I credit with understanding my own play interests and helping me reinvigorate my inner child.
The first is Play by Dr. Stuart Brown and the second is a book geared to women entitled The Gift Of Play: Why Adult Women Stop Playing and How to Start Again. Whether you get them in book format, kindle or audiobook, they are two that can help you on your play journey.
Step 3: If your barriers are more deep rooted like feeling you are being manipulated then I would recommend you get some guidance from a therapist to help you flush out barriers from your past that may be preventing you to connect with your child.
If you simply are just confused on how to play and don't know how to use toys to facilitate a fun time with your child, then I would recommend joining my Summer Camp for Parents.
Beginning in July, I will be hosting a hands-on "camp" for parents where you can learn all about how to play with your kids. This is an in-person, 6-week camp for parents of young children (aged 2 to 8) who struggle with play. I'll teach you:
Space is limited to four individuals. Toys, light refreshments and snacks will be provided to make this a fun experience vs a lecture type group. Get in touch with me today if you’re interested in signing up! Let’s make it a playful summer.
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