Playing with children doesn't come naturally to everyone. Plenty of great parents connect with their children in other, more intuitive ways. But at the end of the day, children communicate best through play. Your child will get a lot more out of a fifteen minute intentional play session than any amount of you asking them "how was your day?" at dinner.
To promote strong mental health and prevent some common parenting struggles, parents should consider 15 minutes of one on one play every day (that's not a limit. Play all 24 hours if you want!). We are busy, busy people with very little time. But 15 minutes at home is something you have. Setting a timer is a great option, and even better if you can keep play time the same every day as part of a consistent routine. Please note that this 15 minutes of one on one time is different than the other play your kiddo will do during the day and is just one part of your child's whole day.
But how do we play with our kids? Many of us haven't played since we were little and find ourselves feeling a little self conscious pretending to feed a baby doll or rocking a superhero cape.
The nice part is, you don't have to know what to do. Your kid's will tell you. One of the most important parts of play is that it is child led. This means a few things: the child picks the activity, the child tells you your role in the activity, and you don't correct the child during play. For example, if they grab the small green car, now is not the time to say "wouldn't you rather play with the red car? It's bigger and I like it more." or if they hold a banana to their ear to talk, don't tell them that bananas are for eating. This helps give your child a sense of control- something that children often don't experience during their day and will seek out in other ways.
Another important benefit of play is that your children are receiving attention, which fills a basic human need. If they are receiving regular, positive attention it could help decrease the need to seek out attention in less positive ways later. This leads us to two other important parts of playing with your kids: they have your undivided attention (no phones!) and you verbally observe what they are doing without asking questions or correcting them. For example, you might say "You are putting the green truck underneath the chair! You are making it go fast!" instead of saying "The car will go faster if it has more room. Don't be so loud. Look, Legos would be more fun!" This your chance to spend time your child reminding them that you enjoy being with them, you are paying attention to them, and they are amazing just as they are.
And here's my big ask: bring enthusiasm. I get it. I GET IT. I do. It's hard. It is hard at the end of the day to pretend to want to crash monster trucks or to crawl around on the floor like a tiger when you just want to crawl into bed. But enthusiasm is contagious- if you show up ready and excited to play, your kiddo will feel that and at the end of the 15 minutes, when the timer goes off, you might just find you feel pretty good in that superhero cape.
If you feel you could use accountability or enhanced support in connecting with or helping your child, consider Parent Coaching services at Fireweed Counseling.