There is much talk in the parenting cosmos about how play is vital for optimal child development. Rambunctious, high-energy tussling with grown-ups is said to increase IQ’s and foster better self esteem. Guided fantasy play provides children with frameworks for understanding how the world works, in all its moral and social complexity.
This is all well and good for the playful parent to hear. But there are many parents who struggle to find their inner wrestler or fairy princess. For those who feel downright awkward with most child’s play, it’s an ouchy thing to be told.
Kids and their preferred modes of play are moving targets. Their likes and dislikes can change with each major developmental shift, if not with each lunar cycle. Most parents will find some play interesting, and much of it deadly dull. There are bound to be parenting moments when every mom or dad feels like they are on auto pilot, counting the minutes till they’ve put in a respectable chunk of play time and can guiltlessly turn over the job to the babysitter, TV or Ipad.
You don’t have to be great at playing to be a great parent-playmate. In fact it’s good for your kid to see you struggle a bit. Good for them to show you how to play. Great for them to sometimes be the expert. All you have to do is be willing to try.
When playing with kids, there’s relief in the old adage; do what comes naturally, even if it seems woefully boring and not child-friendly on first consideration. I worked with one dad, who’s very cerebral. He’s super successful at his science-based job, and the first one to admit he’s the quintessential nerd and social misfit. He’s far from sporty. He reads science journals exclusively. He’s not a fantasy type of dude. Aside from his family, he’s really only interested in his research. When I first started working with him he hadn’t a clue how to engage with his baby girl. He couldn’t even hold her without feeling incredibly nervous. I suggested he let her rest in her bouncy chair while talking to her about his work and establishing eye contact (also hard for him). And so, he babbled away about his impossible-for-mere-mortals-to-understand vocation. She was mesmerized and delighted. And as a result, so was he. As she got older, she picked up key words, would blurt them out with glee. A verbal volleyball game emerged, lasting through her toddler and grade school years, forming a special bond between father and daughter which helped enormously with her verbal skills and his confidence as a dad. I’m sure you’re expecting me to tell you she’s now a science-y kid herself, but that’s not the case. She currently attends a performing arts based high school where she shows a precocious talent for playwriting. I give her dad great credit for inspiring a love of complicated words and concepts. And so does she!
Here are some suggestions for numerical, wordy and visual types of parents/people.
When outdoors, count windows on buildings, cars, note variations in colors, how many people are wearing stripes, shorts, stupid hats, etc.
Read books aloud
Play word games
Board games like Junior Scrabble, Baby Boggle
Share tales about your own childhood
Save all original content and relish nostalgically in later years.
Art projects of any kind
Visit museums and galleries
Be a photography team, create an album
Baking and cooking
Games like I-spy
‘Read’ wordless books, and/or create your own
So every parent: please don’t go down a self-flagellating path. Playfulness is a relative term. Thinking is playful, talking is playful. Engaging with life in any way is playful. Every parent can dig deep, or deep enough. Discover what you love, or merely like and share it. Engagement and connection with a kid is what matters most. The rest is child’s play.