A mother sits on the floor playing with her young daughter in the aisle of the children’s section at Barnes and Noble. The gentle sounds of their games, mostly giggling over counting the little girl’s toes, or pretending to make animal noises while looking at a picture book, are nurturing. It’s easy to tell from their play that mom would be able to entice her child to leave the store in a fun way. It wouldn’t surprise me if scientists announced that watching happy play transforms brain chemistry, making us more pliable and loving. In the meantime, we know for sure how much having fun together contributes to our relationships with children.
Want your child to cooperate? Get down on the floor and ask, “What should we play?” or “What should I be?” if he is already engaged in fantasy play. Engaging in the themes your child wants to explore creates closeness in your relationship. Those feelings of intimacy fuel your child’s desire to please you and comply with your requests. Most of us actually know this. However, our busy lives eclipse that awareness. If your child starts acting grumpy or defiant, try asking yourself, “How often am I joining my child in play?” Playing boosts cooperation far more effectively and with more long-lasting results than lecturing, punishment, or even positive activities like driving together or going shopping for a new toy.
As adults we often have resistance to play and feel guilty we don’t play more. Getting down to play when we step in the door from a long day at work can feel like being pulled into a rushing river that drags us away from everything we need to do. As one mother said, “I just want a time to change my clothes and take off my jewelry and make dinner.” If we’ve had a day full of difficult interactions, our minds probably yearn for the quiet non-engagement of routine tasks. Yet stopping to play for a few minutes may save amps of energy the rest of the evening because our attention has made them more cooperative.
To make a gradual switch away from work stresses, listen to soothing CDs on the way home in the car. If you pick your child up from school, start playing words games on the way home. Count the number of red cars you see or play an alphabet game with license plates with older children. “Who can find an ‘A’?” “Now we have to locate a ‘B’!”
Even when you’re exhausted, “acting as if” you feel playful will change your mood and your child’s. You can create lighthearted moments even while making dinner. Bring toys into the kitchen. Set up homework at the kitchen table.
Did your parents play with you? Perhaps you can remember how putting aside their concerns to have a good time made you feel valued. When parents play with children, it actually gives energy to the child’s construction of a separate “self.” Without that positive energy input, it can be difficult for children to create a strong identity or the ability to regulate emotions.
Children do better processing anger and frustration when we participate in their play or at least show acceptance of their fantasies. Let your child play baby or mommy or growling mountain lion without censure. Play is the safe way to learn to process feelings unless your child starts hurting someone. Many games have components that teach self-regulation – even simple ones like tag or Duck, Duck, Goose. Men often play with children more physically, giving positive sensory stimulation unless the games are over-exciting, scary, or someone is liable to get hurt. It’s important for any parent engaging in roughhousing to tell the child that wrestling isn’t allowed at school. At The Meher Schools, we don’t allow any play that threatens or hurts other children.
The promise of play is a great motivator for children. “We can play checkers after you clean up.” “We’ll have time for five minutes of acrobatics if you’re ready for school on time.” Play also spurs learning. Try creating a store, restaurant, or hospital with a young child and witness all the concepts you can explore. Play chess, Scrabble, or Pictionary with older children rather than video games so you have to look at each other and communicate about your strategies. Children need your attention more than electronic energy.
Finally, play creates loving memories. Few children will look back as adults and say, “I loved that evening watching TV with mom.” However, an evening walk under the moon pretending to be bears or forest rangers rest pleasantly in a person’s mind for a lifetime.
Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.
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