Parents and Play

“Mommy, will you play with me?”

This is a frequent request from my 4-year-old and unfortunately, the answer lately has been “no.” There’s a variety of reasons as to why, from being busy with work stuff, or house stuff, to just everyday fatigue.

Yes, I feel guilty and I do try, but it does not come easy. Which brings up the question, After a certain age, do parents have to play with their child?”

Side note: This post is referring to play with kids ages 2 and up. Please play and engage with your newborns and babies as they are not able to do that on their own yet.

What is Play?

As we defined this in our play post, it is any spontaneous or organized activity that provides enjoyment, entertainment, amusement, or diversion. It is an occupation that is intrinsically driven by curiosity and exploration to interact within their surroundings. It allows for imagination, the ability to pretend with limited consequences, as well as the opportunity to share and act out ideas with no judgment.

Play is and always will be a pleasurable experience, regardless of the activity. So, if it’s not fun, it’s not play.

Some play can do you good.

Engaging with our kids in their world of make-believe and leaning into their interests is not always easy, but research shows that playing with them does have perks for adults. Play for parents can:

  • Elicit positive childhood memories
  • Promote effective communication with their child
  • Allow them to appreciate their child’s humor and individuality
  • Boost creativity
  • Form bonds through shared interests, building a meaningful relationship with their kid
  • Decrease parental stress and anxiety, improving overall well-being

But in truth, as we become adults, play isn’t a priority as expectations and obligations take center stage. And yes, because we have to adult, most of us have forgotten how to play, including myself.

A 2018 study found that most American parents, regardless of their socioeconomic status, felt obligated to stop what they’re doing if their child asked to them to play. Another report revealed that parents have feelings of “failure and inadequacy” when they don’t want to play or think they’re not fun or stimulating enough for their kid.

Play is your kid’s job, not yours.

Play is necessary for your child’s physical, mental, emotional, and social development. It is their full-time job to explore, be curious, and imagine. It is not ours. Let me repeat that: YOU ARE NOT IN CHARGE OF YOUR CHILD’S PLAY. An important part of play is allowing your child to have the unstructured free time to grow and learn. That means letting them have the freedom to explore and figure out how to play on their own terms without our direct interference or expectation.

With that said, if you’re not good at play or it isn’t your cup of tea, don’t beat yourself up about it. The concept of playing with our kids is recent. In fact, many cultures around the globe don’t see playing with their child as necessary to their growth and development, let it alone some finding the practice as downright odd (Is your child hurt? No? Then why are you on the floor with them? Weird.)

How can I play?

Even if you aren’t great at it, your child appreciates the good ole’ college try if they ask you play with them. The request is asking more for your undivided attention and quality time rather than actually playing with them. Try these ideas to help you out:

Pencil it into your schedule. Put aside at least 20 minutes of play a day for your kid. It doesn’t have to be play in the traditional sense; it could be any activity that you both find fun and that they are in charge of (within reason). This also means no phone calls, no checking your texts and emails, or doing anything that may take your attention from them. That blocked out time doesn’t necessarily have to be all at once. It could be 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there. The goal here is that you are spending your time with your kid and that their ideas and efforts are appreciated and important.

Be in a place of yes. Even if you want to say no, just say yes. If you’re kid wants you to chase them around the kitchen island, just do for it. If they say that there’s a spider on your head, play along. Even though it sounds like a lot to submit to, you can definitely have fun with it. So, if you are asked to play a game of chase, you can say, “Yes, but I have to go slow because I’m a snail.” If they laugh about an imaginary spider, you can tell them, “Yes, so you met my friend who keeps those pesky flies away. Glad you two finally could meet.” Think of it as parent improv theatre. By playing along with your kid’s imagination, you are promoting creativity and showing that you value their humor and thought.

Play, your way. Okay, so play time is not your thing and will not be a thing. Young kids really just want to know that you are and will be present in their lives. They look up to their parents, flaws and all. If that’s the case, show them how to be a grownup. Sounds weird, but children observe and imitate their parents, assuming these actions and behaviors are expected from them as they get older. So, if your child wants to help with chores, teach them how to do it. It can be as simple as bringing in grocery bags and taking utensils out of the dishwasher to vacuuming or putting away their toys. If they show interest in cooking or gardening, find a way to get them involved instead of saying they aren’t old enough. If you are constantly telling them that chores and helping out aren’t their job, then they will grow up still believing that chores aren’t their job.

Share your interests. So, your kid is all about (insert cartoon character), but it’s not your jam. Suggest something new that you are into. Maybe they didn’t know you were a LEGO master builder, or a 5-time Connect 4 Champion in your hometown, or that you can kick a ball in between two cones. Maybe they don’t even know how to play or do any of these things, but they may want to try it out if you are willing to share it with them.

Change of scenery. As our kids get older, they are much more difficult to satisfy and will get bored frequently if they are always in the same space. Throughout the week, we try to plan small places to go to after day care, so they spend less time in the house. This could be a short trip to the park, a neighborhood walk, or running a short errand. We’ll purposely plan or save something to do for the afternoon when we know their boredom hits the most.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself. If you genuinely want to play with your child, but feel guilty because you are spread thin, perhaps you might have to carve out and re-prioritize what is important and what isn’t. What tasks are mandatory and what can be delegated to someone else or for another time? Maybe your schedule could be reset by re-establishing some self-care or dropping that thing you were obligated to do for PTA but aren’t really excited about. Some things that have worked for us are making a shopping list so we only have one trip to the store per week instead 3 or 4, or leaving housework until after the kids’ bedtime.

Remember, you don’t have to play with your child all the time.

You are a parent; not a cruise director, clown, or your child’s personal assistant. At the end of the day, kids prefer to play with their siblings or peers rather than us adults anyway. But although we may be their last resort for entertainment before boredom sets in, they still need to know we are around and will always be there for a hug, words of comfort, and perhaps a spot of pretend tea with their panda bear.


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Related posts:

The Importance of Play

Child(ish) Q&A: When will my kid be fun?

Course Notes: The Whole-Brain Child Approach, Pt. 5

Inside Out: How Memories are Made

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