The Importance of Play Time with Your Child

By: Katie Murray, MFTC

Playtime is important for childhood development and strengthening attachment bonds.

Why is Playtime Important?

Think back to when you were a child and were engaging in play time with a friend, sibling, or even by yourself. Maybe you created imaginary worlds that involved various heroes and villains, or maybe you preferred getting your hands messy while exploring in nature. With imagination running high, playtime is a creative experience that allows individuals the unique opportunity to create their own worlds. With age, you may have long forgotten the importance of play time.

As we grow older, the amount of time we spend engaging in play decreases due to life stressors and responsibilities that hinder free time. Hurried lifestyles, added pressure related to educational success, and less consistent play time incorporated into the mandated classroom structure all correlate to reasons why our society does not witness creative and imaginative play past childhood.

Benefits of Play

Although we may experience a lack of time to play in later developmental stages, play becomes increasingly more important when adults begin to have children. Play time in early childhood provides an opportunity for increased levels of development; specifically in the areas of mental, emotional, physical, and social health.

When a child’s play time is paired with a participating adult, this act also serves as a bonding experience. The child will begin to build relational attachment patterns to the person who plays with them, as they add this person into their imaginary worlds and playtime environments. Incorporating consistent time to play with your child has been proven to increase levels of attachment in parent-child relationships, which is an impact that has lifelong benefits.

So how does an adult regularly engage in playtime with their child and have it be beneficial for both individuals involved? What should this dedicated time look like in regards to types of play activities? To answer these questions, child-led play and the impacts it has on parents and children will be my focus.

Child-Led Play

The benefits of play include strengthened attachment bonds and enhanced child development.

What is Child-Led Play?

Child-led play is exactly what it sounds like: an opportunity for a child to lead a parent in play time, while incorporating them into their creations and giving the parent insight into what activities, topics, or fantasies their child enjoys. The main job for the child is to engage in playful activities in a way that they regularly would, while also using the parent in their imaginative worlds. The main job for the parent is to observe and respond when their child provides an opportunity for response, input, or opportunity for a reflection based on actions. Keeping in mind that this time is meant to foster connection and attachment between parents and children is important to ensure this does not feel useless or time consuming.

As child-led play becomes a regular occurrence of a parent-child dyad, the child will begin to build self-confidence and self-direction as they get used to leading someone in a playful direction. The child will also understand that they have times available to them where the parent will engage one-on-one with them, which in turn will lead to decreased effort trying to get the parent’s attention through misbehavior.

How to Participate in Child-Led Play

There is an acronym for child-led play that perfectly describes what this play time should look and feel like for children and parents. To engage in child-led play is to have FUN! These three letters give a guideline of what playtime will look like if the child has control over their creativity, but is also including their parental figure.

F– Follow the Child’s Lead
U– U Do What They Do
N– Narrate What You See and Hear

There are various success tips that studies have shown to be helpful when teaching this useful technique to families. Below are some of those success tips, but it is important to remember that some skills may work better for some individuals than others and it is crucial to adapt these tips to your child’s play style.

Playtime Tips for “Success”

Why is playtime important? Because it is crucial for healthy childhood development.

What to Do

  • Engage in child-led play several times a week during a time where your child’s mood is high and open to engaging with others.
  • Keep play time limited to 10-15 minutes each time to make the time special, yet frequent.
  • Pick an environment where there are minimal distractions from technology, TV, or other children who will interrupt the play time.
  • Let your child know during this time that they have your undivided attention and that this is “special time” for you to spend together.
  • If your child begins to show misbehavior signs, take a break from playing for 2-3 minutes until the child is ready to engage again.
  • If the behavior does not improve after the break, stop the playtime and resume again another day.

What Not to Do

Again, there will be certain skills in child-led play that parents will be more attracted to then others. It is okay to not be good at all aspects of this technique, especially when first starting out. However, there are certain behaviors, actions or statements that should not be used during this time.

  • Giving the child ideas of how to lead the play time.
  • Demanding what toys should or should not be used while playing.
  • Asking direct questions such as “Do you want to draw a picture of our family?” This can influence the child’s decisions of what they should be doing vs. what they want to be doing.
  • Engaging in competitive games. This can create competitive mindsets, create rules to follow, or introduce power struggles where the child may feel out of control or be uncomfortable.
  • Be distracted by outside factors including your phone or anything related to work. In short, this is a time to spend one-on-one with your child and should only be used for enhancing this connection.
Engaging in child-led play can help strengthen the bond between you and your child.

Child-Led Play through Developmental Stages

It is important for parents to understand how their children will change over time as they move through the various developmental stages. A toddler who enjoys playing with early developmental toys will not enjoy those same toys when they become an elementary age child who prefers activities surrounding outdoor exploration. When parents have this understanding before regularly engaging with child-led play, it will become easier to transition into various play time activities without wondering why a child may not interact with certain items any longer.

Often one misconception related to child-led play, is that the child has to be old enough to communicate with the parent. However, this technique can be appropriately utilized with babies as well. Watching a baby’s eye movements, or reactions to certain people or items is one way that they are leading a conversation with their parents. Although it may not be a verbal conversation, the parent can watch their child’s reactions and eye movements as they narrate what the infant may be experiencing.

For example, if your child’s attention is on a bright color toy sitting on the table, you can engage by moving the toy closer to them to play with or inspect. Another example of early child-led play would be narrating an environmental setting the baby is stimulated by, which would include phrases such as, “Do you see the fan spinning on the ceiling? That fan is making the room cooler. Oh, you can see your brother on the couch? What is your brother doing?” These are all examples of non-verbal interaction and conversation one can have with an infant, which will help foster that connection and parental attachment at a young age.

Child-led play benefits both parents and children - a win-win all around!

Play Time Ideas

Some children may have a harder time keeping up with a consistent schedule to involve their parents in play time. For these instances, when new activities or environments are needed to add new stimulating factors to playtime, there are various activities that you can undertake to continue bonding with your child.

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Reading a story together and having your child make predictions about what will happen
  • Using coloring pages and having your child describe their creation to you
  • Going to a public park and engaging in child-led play while in public
  • Cooking a meal together
  • Planting seeds in a garden and checking in on their growth every week
  • Building a fort and having the child describe why they put certain items in their fort
  • Go to a child’s museum to observe how your child engages with the various learning activities available to them, then find ways to incorporate these interests at home.
  • Have a puppet show where you control the movement of the puppet, but your child controls the story of the performance.
  • Use a doll house with characters and have your child tell the story of the family that lives in that home.
  • Have your child describe their day using only bodily movements (charades), you complete the same process back to them and both parties have to guess the descriptions.

Outside Resources:

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