This puts pressure on adults to spend more time directing the activities of their children and playing with them. In the main, parents really enjoy playing with children. However, there is confusion around how adults can best to do this constructively and in a way that fits everyone’s abilities and interests.
Play is a natural learning process for all children. It helps them build confidence and develop physical skills, it teaches them empathy and about caring for others and the environment. For younger children, it also plays a vital role in developing language and communication skills. When children play with their parents, this helps them to feel loved, valued and safe.
In order to play constructively with our children, we need to do two things.
Figure out why we are playing with them
Do we just want to spend more time getting to know them? Is it not safe for them to play outside with their peers? Are their certain social skills that are holding them back from making positive friendships with other children? By being honest about why you are engaging in play, you can develop an activity that will help your child.
Consider how they would play if they were with other children
In order to create a constructive play environment, we should first observe how children play with others. There is a tendency for adults to take control and direct the play, as they would any other interaction with their children (do the dishes, get ready for bed, etc.), but all that’s teaching your child is to be able to take orders! On the other hand, this is not an opportunity for children to boss us about either - parents should be willing to assert themselves as their peers would, or they are not helping them develop the negotiation skills they need in the future.
If we look at animal behaviour, the young will roughhouse and run, just for the sheer fun of it. But in doing so they are learning more about their bodies, what it can do and what their limitations are. It’s easy for us as adults to forget how to play – our bodies don’t work the same as when we were young and we can feel awkward and self-conscious.
An interesting study (Gray and Feldman, 2004) looked into how teenagers play with younger children. They find it much easier to tap back into their inner child and have less reservations about standing up to a child’s unacceptable demands than we adults do, but they are less likely to offend when they do say no!
So, once we’ve decided we’re going to play, what are we to do? We’ve got a few ideas for you here:
- Throw balls – catch is a good way to improve hand eye coordination, and communication skills.
- Go to the local park and push your kids on swings, catch them as they come down the slide – have a go yourself!
- Make mud pies in your garden; if you have a sand pit make sandcastles and get another family to choose the best.
- Go on a nature walk around your local area – make things with what you find.
- Play card games/ board games /party games – they teach children (and us) how to win, lose and follow instructions.
- Embark on a craft project together – paint, build, stick, sew, bake – kids get a real sense of satisfaction out of creating an ‘end product’.
- Listen to music together – sing, play percussion, dance, share stories of music that was popular when you were young.
- Read a book together – take it in turns, ask questions, write an alternative ending or make up a new story altogether.
Playing with your children should never replace the time that they spend with their peers, but it is an important opportunity for you both to learn more about each other – and this can only serve to strengthen your family relationships.