Younger children love to ask their parents to play. But when we are very busy, it is often difficult to make ourselves available.
Between managing the household, working and finding a little time for themselves, parents don’t have much leeway or energy to play princesses and dragons or soccer ninjas.
However, these moments of family play are very important, here is how to approach them and let the children take the initiative.
How play contributes to children’s development
Children love to play. For them, it is not only a way to have fun, it is also their main way of discovering the world .
There are many types of games. For example, it might involve manipulating objects, like playdough. It can also be an imaginary game, where children pretend to be moms, dads or babies.
In play, children use their environment to imagine and create another world. A block becomes a telephone, a table a house and a garden the home of a dragon.
Keeping an imaginary theme in mind and creating a sequence of actions and appropriate language to implement it requires considerable intellectual effort. Children then perform better than when they are engaged in other activities that they do not direct .
Through play, children learn to test their hypotheses and solve the problems they encounter. Parents will notice that children’s scenarios are usually about the world they live in. This is why they pretend to be families, pets or even other everyday figures such as shopkeepers, doctors or nurses.
These themes may seem banal (or even boring) to parents. Yet for children, they are exciting opportunities to explore their world, discover the different roles they see around them, and bring together ideas learned in varied contexts into play.
An asset for concentration and emotional skills
Children are often considered to have short attention spans. Yet in play they can follow an idea they have chosen for longer than when participating in adult-led activities.
Developing the ability to maintain attention on this idea in play and ignore other stimuli strengthens the child’s capacity for self-regulation .
Self-regulation – the ability to control one’s emotions and actions – is important in learning, in school, and socially and emotionally.
Play is also central to language development . It allows children to use the words and ideas they hear in their daily lives and experience them in imaginary environments. While playing, they can talk to themselves to guide their thinking.
The role of adults in play
Children aged approximately 18 months to 8 years want to play with their parents. The latter are the center of their universe, until their attention is focused more and more on their comrades.
They want to do it because it contributes to their learning and development. Parents can anticipate their child’s thinking and create common sense in a way that peers of the same age are not capable of. The meaning that is shared allows the game to continue and makes it more interesting.
The role of a parent is to help their child play. This means it is important for adults to let children make decisions. Parents can initiate play, make suggestions or provide props. But for the activity to be considered “play,” it is the children who must make the decisions and provide direction.
Research shows that when an adult tries to control play, children become distracted and quickly lose interest.
Play is not instruction (it is not about teaching your child how to do something). We’ve all experienced situations where people talked to us, where people didn’t talk to us, and we probably had a lot more difficulty concentrating.
Children need this control because in play they are operating at exactly the level at which they are best able to learn. Suggestions from an adult or older child, however, can take the child’s play to a higher level. This then becomes more intellectually stimulating than if the child played alone or with his peers.
How often to play with your child?
On almost every aspect of their day – when to get up, when to go to sleep, what to eat – children must follow adults’ instructions. Having regular play time where they lead, decide on an activity and how it goes, gives them power and a sense of control over their lives.
My work as a professional teacher and early childhood scholar has shown me that when parents – especially those who are concerned about their child’s behavior – spend more than 30 minutes a day (or every other day ) to these exchanges in the form of play, they notice that their child is happier and is more easily guided in other aspects of their life. Their relationship is also strengthened.
Not every parent can achieve this. But finding regular play time when you can is worth it.
Parents who play with their children may find that it provides a valuable window into their children’s thinking, interests, and world.
If you want to take part in the game, do it fully. Put your phone away – and sit on the floor or follow your child wherever they play. This will show your child that you really want to participate. And perhaps after these special moments, children will more easily accept that their parents also take time to themselves.
Author Bio: Victoria Whitington is Associate Professor in Education Futures (Adjunct) at the University of South Australia