Play provides enjoyment, curiosity, excitement, diversion, and allows us to be fun and silly. Beyond the fun and games, play is important! Play allows children to learn about themselves and others, explore their own interests, be creative, and try on different roles, and allows them to interact and build life skills.
Life skills like coordination as they are “it” in a game of tag with their peers, learning what to do when knowing is directing you, perspective-taking when they realize the robber goes to jail when he is caught by the police officer, creating original ideas, problem solving skills when siblings want to play with the same toy, and trying new things.
When engaging your child in play it’s important to ask them questions and be curious with them. Try and find ways to be silly with them. Let your inner child shine through. Explore new surroundings and follow your child’s lead. Play with your child should be from a more supportive role versus a direct role in the activities of play.
Research supports that toddlers should engage in at least one hour of free play each day, while older children need even more time to play each day. Finding time to engage in unstructured play with your kid can be challenging, here are some helpful ideas to get you started.
1. Play With Your Kid – Go Outside
There are lots of things to do outside with a child. Allow them to run around and explore, you can wash those grass stains out later! Ask them questions about their environment like “how many trees do you see”, identify the colors you see, or play “I spy”. Get active, create an obstacle course, play jump rope, play kickball, or go to the park to socialize with peers.
2. Play With Your Kid – Play Pretend
A child’s imagination is a beautiful thing and allow yourself to tab into that. Follow their direction and ask them questions to understand how they are making their play decisions.
The options are endless, pretending to be your favorite animals, dogs, cats and even owls are fun! See who makes the best animal noises. You can act out scenes from books or movies you are enjoying with your child or create your own scenarios to play out. If your child really enjoys an activity, play it out in your living room, maybe they are a chef, robber, fairy, police officer, princess, or superhero today.
3. Playing With Your Kid – Get Artsy
Art has always been a great form of expression for children and adults, it’s fun too! Give your child a few crayons and paper, and the possibilities are endless. You guys can both draw separately and then come together to tell each other about what you drew, or you can discuss while the process is happening. There are so many lovely forms of art to try, from chalk outside on the pavement to finger painting for that cool sensation on your hands.
4. Play With Your Kid – Create Something
This doesn’t have to be expensive; all those old containers and boxes your food came in – save it! Grab all those extra materials and create a village or castle or house, or whatever your kid sees. This really allows them the opportunity to use the tools at their disposal to create something from nothing, which is a very rewarding feeling. You can create a pillow/blanket fort to play in and play pretend in.
5. Playing With Your Kid – Ask Them
Have you ever asked your child, do you want to play with me or what should we play? Sometimes they may not have any answer, but other times they have so many great ideas. Maybe they want to play with a new toy they got and co-create a whole story around this new toy. Maybe they want to enact a scenario from school, so you sit down and play pretend school with them. Maybe they want to play cops and robbers. Take their lead and meet them where they are.
Remember that playing with your child doesn’t have to feel like a duty, it can be fun, and spontaneous. Play allows your child to build problem-solving skills, flexibility, self-awareness, social skills, emotional regulation/awareness, creativity, and most importantly it allows you and your child to connect. Ask questions, let them lead, try out different things, and be silly! Go play!
If you want to explore what play can look like with your child or support your child through engagement in unstructured play, please feel free to reach out to me, Dr. Kendal Vaarwerk, for a free and confidential consultation, after which, together, we can decide your preferred next steps. I look forward to hearing from you!