Recently I was talking to a group of parents, and asked who played with their children, aged from about three to ten. Sadly none of the parents in the group played with their children. Yes they supervised them and checked up on them but they didn’t actually get down on the floor and play with them. And yet play is a wonderful way to spend quality time with our children, build warm attachments with them, encourage good behaviour and build their competence and self-esteem. It can help children learn about the world, improve vocabulary, test out ideas and develop their imagination. It can also help them learn how to take turns, be sensitive to others and be more skilled in social interactions.

So how do we play with our children?

One of the things that we can do to re-introduce play is to notice when they are playing and ask if we can watch. Children love it when we describe what they do, so just giving a running commentary on their play is a great way to start. Or tell them we have 15 minutes to play, and ask what they would like to play with us. It helps if we can take their lead, without interfering, and to go at our child’s pace. Praising and encouraging their creativity and ideas is great, as well as giving them smiles, laughing and telling them we are enjoying playing with them. Giving them our attention and appreciation does wonders for their self-esteem.

Sometimes children will want to play games. Where there is a competitive element it is useful to bear a few things in mind. When we are playing with our child, the emphasis should be on having fun. Inevitably adults will be more proficient at a game where winning is not just down to luck. So letting our child start the game before us and giving them a 10-second head-start can be a good way to balance things up. Alternatively, if playing an electronic game, work out each person’s score and encourage each person to beat their own personal score next time –so the child is playing against their previous score not against the adult’s score. It is great to have a good selection of games that you can both enjoy, and a few that are good when travelling or on holiday. There are some great card games for all ages, and cards are so easy to pop in a bag.

Children do love to win, but they also need to learn how to lose. Let’s face it life will give them plenty of experience of that! So introduce an agreement, for instance that the losing player shakes the winner’s hand and says ‘well done’. If our children are able to maintain their composure, we should empathise with them, acknowledging how difficult it can be to lose and how pleased we are that they are keeping control and behaving so well. In this way playing with our children helps them learn about their emotions and how to keep their cool. They not only learn to remain calm, wait for their turn and work out strategies and solutions to problems, they have us to praise them for their social skills and friendly behaviours! All of this will help them when making and sustaining friendships with other children, which is a great bonus.

Some adults find dealing with a child who is upset difficult. Where we can acknowledge the sadness, and yet coach our child to learn how to deal with their disappointment we will be helping them with skills that are essential in life. If we can be sensitive to their feelings and yet teach them how to handle them, playing with other children will be a much easier. It helps our children if we make a regular time to play with them each day. That way when we tell them that there is only five more minutes they will feel easier about us leaving the game, knowing they can do it again tomorrow. Ignoring protests will help the child understand the boundaries. Paying no attention to inappropriate play is also useful –it is amazing how distraction or giving attention to another toy when our child is misbehaving can help change the behaviour. But turn straight back and join in again when they are behaving well. If at all possible when we are playing with our children we should try to suspend our criticism. But if the behaviour gets out of hand, and we start to feel angry, it is best to leave and say ‘I think we will leave it there for today, and we can play something different tomorrow’.

When you invite your child’s friends round to the house it can help to plan ahead, talking about all the activities and games they could play together and how they will handle any difficulties if they arise. Remember to praise all good behaviour after a visit and check if the child would do anything differently next time. Sometimes it helps to put precious toys or things that the child has difficulty sharing hidden away until they have the maturity to share them happily.

When playing with us children can learn so much. They can find out about numbers, counting, colours and shapes; the number of words they hear will improve their vocabulary; they will develop emotional understanding through imaginative play and fantasy; they will learn how to get our positive attention and how to work out winning strategies and solve problems (great skills to be encouraged). The benefits to playing with our children are enormous for their educational and social knowledge.

And lastly we need to remember that play is fun. We can rediscover our inner child and spend time laughing and enjoying our children. Play is one of the delights of being a parent. We can revive our creativity and imagination and yes, even be silly! Our children will love it and will build up happy memories that will last a lifetime.

So what are your favourite things to do with your child? I would love to know. Please comment in the box below.

The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

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