Between work, school runs, laundry and rushing to prepare dinner, playing with our children can often feel like just another chore on a never-ending “To Do” list. Play is the most effective way to develop a healthy and strong bond with our children. You don’t have to play together every single day. Even twenty minutes twice a week can mean a lot to a child!
Try to find a few opportunities in the week to play with your children individually. That way, they don’t feel they have to fight for your attention. Even a short game with your youngest before their older siblings come home can make a big difference to your relationship.
Play is especially important if you find yourself continuously correcting or disciplining a child. Too many tantrums are often a sign that you need to work on more positive quality time. This does not mean a treat, screentime or rewards. The most precious thing you can give your child is your uninterrupted, undivided attention. The more familiar and comfortable you are with your child’s play, the more tuned into them you will be. This will help you both to negotiate and resolve the difficulties and challenges you will inevitably encounter together.
Follow your child’s interests and choices, rather than giving them toys and game ideas you think they will like. Think about their preferences and favourite games. Do they like imaginative play, dress up, roleplay or using small figures, animals and vehicles to tell stories? Or do they prefer structured play with rules? Remember, children need to be 7 years or older to understand game rules. Are they excited about sensory play in the bathtub or the sand tray, making playdough or doing some baking? Do they prefer to play inside or outside? Do they like to play by themselves or on their own?
If you don’t often play with your child, don’t intrude on their play. Let them know you are interested in the game and wait for them to invite you in. You can do this by watching them and describing what you see happening in the game.
When playing with children, their stories and ideas can be confusing and hard to follow. Don’t worry about understanding the game, just name the emotions that the characters or participants may be feeling. That’s how children learn about their feelings and the feelings of others.
When you are walking or driving someplace with your child, reflect on the gameplay. Describe the story as you remember it. You can also offer suggestions about how to make the game better next time. This allows the child to appreciate that you were paying attention and you were engaged in the play.
They say that the greatest gift a parent can give is a piece of their own happiness. Take the opportunity to be surprised by your child’s imagination and enjoy the experience!
This article was contributed by Hugh McMahon, Phoenix Creative Psychotherapy Centre, on behalf of Parenting Limerick. Parenting Limerick is a network of parenting and family support organisations in Limerick. For more information on this and other topics go to www.loveparenting.ie.