Playtime: Follow Your Child’s Lead

EVERY family is different and the way they play is different, even when they engage in the same games or types of play activities as the next door neighbors. Your family’s dynamics influences the types of play experiences your child has. Think back to your own experiences as a child. For some of us, it’ll be a little farther back than others. That’s OK. Think back anyway.

When you look back, do you see anything similar or familiar in the way you play in your own family now? Could that be influenced by the way you played as a child?

A parent’s understanding of play and their role in their child’s play often reflects their own experiences as a child. It can be helpful for parents to spend some time and take a look at this. If the child can be a part of this conversation, it is also a good time to hear from them about what they enjoy and if they would want anything to change about the play they have in the family. This is also a good time to talk about the benefits of play for the family.

First, respond to these statements:

(Go ahead and write down your answers if you wish. There is no right or wrong response. The aim is to reflect on play from your yesterday to look for links today. What you reveal may alert you to the possibility of changing or maybe enhancing your established play dynamics with your child[ren].) 

  • The type of play my child enjoys is:……
  • My parents’ involvement in my play was:………
  • I think the benefits my child may gain from play are:…..
  • My involvement in my child’s play is:……
  • Things that are going well with play in our family are:…….

The benefits of child-led play
Play is important for the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development and well being of children. When children make their own decisions in play, they develop skills in problem-solving and decision-making. As they develop new activities and ideas, they gain a sense of achievement which contributes to their sense of well being and positive mental health.
Child benefits of parent-child play
When a parent plays with their child, the child has their parent’s undivided attention and interest in their ideas and activities. This is powerfully connected to feelings of acceptance for the child with the parent. It builds an emotional resilience within the child, and better prepares them to manage challenges throughout their life.
Parent benefits of shared play with their child
Parents can deepen their understanding of their child, their likes, interests and strengths. Parents who play with their children learn to communicate more effectively with them, providing opportunities for more open and effective communication. Most important, for parents, is you can have lots of pure fun playing with your children.
How do you get ready for play?
Many families haven’t the confidence in playing together due to everyday pressures and life’s demands and complexities. Sometimes parents are not sure about how to join in on their child’s play. Child-led play depends on the parent following the child’s lead in play. It also helps to strengthen the parent-child relationship. Developing a plan for play may help you feel more confident and ensure positive play experiences.

man holding boy
Tips for child-led play
◯ Let your child choose the activity (if the child is 0-2 years old then you may offer them a few choices of toys).
◯ Let your child be the leader in play:
• Watch and listen for your child’s prompts as to how to join in.
• For younger children (under 3) try imitating your child’s play and describing what you are seeing them do.
• Avoid interruptions (e.g. from phones, TV’s or other people).
◯ Show your warmth, interest and approval by smiling, using eye contact, affection, and loving comments and tone of voice.

Things to avoid:
• This special playtime is not a time for teaching.
• Don’t give your child advice or correct them.                                                Don’t multi-task. For example, don’t watch the news while playing with your child, or have a conversation with your partner while playing. Aim to give your child 100% of your attention.
◯ Don’t use this shared playtime as a reward or take it away as a punishment. Offering this shared time with your child regardless of their
behavior tells them you always love them, and this is very powerful in helping them see themselves positively.

Planning Shared Play

  • To begin playing with my child I will:…….
    [ask my child if he or she wants to play with me, and what he’d like to do]
  • When I play with my child, I will aim to:…….
    [let my child take the lead, avoid distractions, like phone, work or chores. Keep my voice pleasant and be patient]

Many of today’s parents find it hard to find time to play with their children. It can be helpful to know that the quality of shared playtime can be more important for children than the amount of time. 20-30 minutes is ideal, but five minutes a day of uninterrupted play can have a big impact on how connected a child feels to their parent.

Brainstorm times when play with your child might be more possible……[just before bed, right after school, when little brother is asleep]

  • Tell yourself: This week I will:……
    [What will you try this week? Which days, what times and for how long]
  • What might get in the way of our playtime?……..
  • To overcome this, I could:……
  • I can focus on………..[fill in the blank] to keep me motivated to achieve this shared playtime
  • To help me remember our playtime, I can:………..

Afterwards, reflect on how your playtime was with your child.When developing a new routine, it is not expected that everything will go right the very first time or each time. Once you have started your plans, you can reflect on how it went, what went well, and what you might want to do differently next time. You are able to learn from your experience and apply this new knowledge in the future.
To help you reflect, answer some of these prompts:

Making time for play was…..
I think my child found this playtime:………                                                         Following my child’s lead was…….
The things I did well are…..
Next time I will do these things differently……..
My plan for next week is:……….

In practically no time at all, in the midst of your busy lives and hectic schedules, you will have had many purposeful moments with your child.  The biggest takeaway is that starting from today, you understand the importance of play for your child, and yourself too. Build confidence, make some time for shared play, and follow your child’s lead. You and your child will be just fine.


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