The Best Ways to Play With Your Kids, According to Childhood Development Experts

Photo credit: MoMo Productions - Getty Images

Photo credit: MoMo Productions – Getty Images

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Finding the energy to play with your little ones after a long day at work can be difficult, especially when you just want to collapse on your couch and stare off into space for a minute. As families are still learning to adapt to the new normal of life in a global pandemic, one of the challenges is coming up with new and exciting ways to occupy kids who are housebound for extended periods of time.

While nobody will shame you for taking a mental break by turning on “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” for the third time in a day, off-screen play is some of the most important time for your child’s development, especially during times of uncertainty and turmoil like we’re currently in.

“Play is important because it’s a laboratory for children to learn, explore and process the world around them, which can feel so overwhelming. It’s a chance for them to experiment with relationships and concepts that they’re curious about,” says Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a clinical psychologist and parenting coach at Little House Calls. “[It’s a safe way] to take this big world around them and make it small. To have control and play with things at a pace and in a style that feels familiar in which they’re comfortable as they grow and learn.”

Playtime can even help kids with their mental health, offering them a healthy and safe way to deal with anxiety and stress in their lives. “When we feel anxious, we’re not in the present moment. Sometimes, kids say they feel like they’re a boat in the ocean on the stormy sees without an anchor, and that’s overwhelming,” explains Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of Melissa and Doug Toys and Lifelines. “Play is that anchor. It’s complete liberation in the heart and tethers us to our senses in the present moment. It’s the definition of mindfulness … there’s no grade or evaluation. It’s engaged in nothing other than accessing joy.”

The good news? You don’t have to sacrifice your own mental health to help your children use play to develop socially and emotionally. Good Housekeeping hosted a panel about “The Power of Play” for its annual We Are Family Parenting Summit, covering everything from the benefits of play to how to get kids to do it independently. It turns out, there are many ways to engage with your children while still taking a breather.

It’s important to take a step back and let your children solve problems on their own.

You may feel pulled to fix their struggles immediately, but it’s actually beneficial to let your kids take control. “I think it’s about taking a step back, giving [your kids] a little bit more space to struggle, and letting them figure things out on their own,” says Jessica Rolph, co-founder and CEO of Lovevery. We all know the feeling of watching a kid play with a toy and wanting to see them play with it “correctly,” she says, whether that be putting the shape through the right hole or placing the ball in the basket. But it’s so important to “create a ‘yes’ space where everything is safe … and playing a bit less intrusively on the parenting side.”

These themes can cross over from playtime into real life, when your kids aren’t getting their way or have a fight with a sibling. “It feels tempting to jump in and fix it and make everything better … but we have to remember to not make our issues our kids’ issues,” Dr. Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, a pediatric psychologist, parenting coach, author and business owner explains. “Being your child(ren)’s emotion coach means you’re observing, you’re narrating and you’re casting. It’s about teaching our kids how to make accommodations, be empathetic and be other-centered.

Rather than swooping in and handing out a solution, Dr. Lockhart suggests posing the question to your children, “I noticed that you’re having a conflict here, I wonder if there’s a solution to that?” and letting them take the wheel and navigate the situation on their own. By being an observer, this helps let your children learn first-hand about compromise and consider different perspectives.

If you’re feeling burnt out, you can still prioritize your own mental health while encouraging your kids.

The most important thing to keep in mind? It’s not the amount of time you spend with your kids, its the quality if that time that’s spent. “We put so much pressure on ourselves to spend oodles of time with our kids, but the key is quality focused child-centered, child-led time, regardless of their age,” Dr. Lockhart says. “Even if it’s 15 minutes of focused attention when you’re fully present and not in your mind doing other things elsewhere, that could be a big thing.” And if you don’t even have the mental capacity to do that? “Lying on the couch just observing your kids, watching and commenting can be a way of attending and being present.”

Dr. Lockhart also emphasizes the importance of letting your kids know when you’re burnt out and need a minute to yourself. “Modeling for them what that looks like to be in tune with your body and emotions” can be incredibly helpful. So, set a timer, give yourself 20 minutes to breathe, and demonstrate for them the importance of self-care.

“We talk about a parent being an imagination coach,” Bernstein adds. When your kids start to feel that creep of boredom, you can be the spark to help their imagination create an exciting new experience. She recommends creating “imagination boxes” full of themed toys so your child can create something on their own for a few minutes and then come back and experience it with you. “[Try not to be] the center of their play, [but rather] be the catalyst to ignite their own imaginations.”

And, although it probably seems contradictory, decreasing screen time will in fact help foster independence amongst your children. Dr. Lockhart says that “having more downtime to use their imagination [and creativity]” without relying on screen time, especially when playing with open-ended toys, will really improve their ability to self-entertain.

But, if you’re hoping to fostering independent play, it all comes down to your motivation.

Are you hoping to score yourself some free time to decompress, or do you want your child to learn the value of playing alone — an important step in their development? It all comes down to your motivation, Dr. Hershberg says, and if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, you’re unlikely to create the right environment for independent play. Rather than leaving them alone and hoping they’ll entertain themselves, try to stay connected and present while being apart.

Independent play isn’t about disconnecting from a parent,” Dr. Hershberg explains. “If you’re coming at it with an energy of ‘oh, can you just play by yourself for a few minutes,’ that’s not going to foster independent play.” You do your own thing, like read a book (make sure it’s not a screen related activity as kids see that as too much of a treat) while your kids engage with a toy or activity. After a short period of time, you can join together and go over what you did in your solo time. “It’s about thinking about the exciting reunion where we get to reconnect and actually share our experiences,” Dr. Hershberg says. “If we come at it with that spirit, we’re much more likely to [encourage] that skill in our little ones.”

It’s also a great idea to take a bit of a backseat while still being present to help strengthen your child’s attention span for self-entertainment. “It’s all about expectation setting,” Rolph says. “For a 2-year-old, attention span lasts about five to eight minutes, but it’s all about calibrating. How long can that last and how much of a break are [parents] actually going to get?” Luckily, you can actually set up their environment to encourage play and lengthen their attention span. “Research shows having less stuff can promote deeper, better learning and longer play time. Having a more minimalist approached [to their playroom] and rotating toys in and out can be really helpful.”

Don’t worry about the “red flags” — they aren’t revealing a secret truth about your kids.

You’re not alone if you find yourself shocked when you overhear your kids playing “Cops and Robbers” or imagining a stick from the backyard is a weapon. With your knowledge of the world, you may want to immediately shut down that style of play, or see it as a red flag for future aggressive behavior. Don’t worry, this is all normal development. “It’s really a natural instinct that kids have to explore these different roles and relationships,” explains Dr. Hershberg. In fact, Dr. Hershberg suggests that repressing that aggression can actually lead to more issues since it discourages kids from “experiencing play, feelings, exploration or talk around [aggression] in an open way.”

“When we notice themes in kids play that panic us, it’s because we come to it with the perspective of an adult who has seen these awful things unfold,” explains Dr. Hershberg. “We have meaning attached to [these games], and we panic that somehow our children have that as well.” The key to getting through this panic? Remembering to separate your feelings and knowledge from that of your children. The topics you feel passionate about and the things you know “are not necessarily what’s playing out on the playground.”

And, in case you’re still worried, “The research shows that there really is no correlation between playing with guns, sticks and swords (not including video games or on-screen content) and becoming an aggressor as an adult,” Dr. Hershberg confirms.

Playtime is important for adults, too.

Don’t think just because your kids (or you) have grown out of blocks that playtime is over. “Play is something that you must engage in your entire life,” says Bernstein. “Literally schedule it out in your calendar every single day. If we don’t engage in those things that bring us joy for no reason, we will start to fall into a state of languish or despair.” For teens, that can mean helping your older kids rediscover their passions and find ways to be creative and imaginative outside of their phones. “Living a life of purpose takes deliberate and intentional crafting, and play is an integral part of that.”

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