Children like to play. Left to their own devices children will play all day. It is the way as humans that we are designed to investigate the world around us. It is the way we are designed to grow in knowledge and skills. It is the way we learn.
Supporting our children in their play is vital to their developmental success.
Play with them.
Get your hands in the paint too. Download the app they are playing, learn to play it and play together. Bake together. Play dress up and shoe shops. Whatever they are doing, do it with them. Have fun together, see what makes them smile and lights up their spirit.
If your not sure how to play here are a few tips:
🎲 Start by playing a game that you know well or that has set rules already, a board game or well known game, for example ‘eye spy’. Your child might want to create their own version with new rules but it will give you a starting point to work from.
🎲 Mirror what your child is doing. If they are splashing in the bath then splash too. When their doll is eating, then make your doll eat too. If they are building a car using lego then you have a go that too. When they are drawing flowers, you draw flowers too.
🎲 Help them set up games they want to play, mini world people on the window sill or the train set on the floor, and then sit in the same room with them and watch and listen to their game. It is highly likely that they will repeat this game another time soon and you will be able to join in knowing how the game is played.
🎲 Be a willing ear and guide when they ask questions. Provide them space and time to explore the things that are of interest to them. Allow them as much or as little time as they need to investigate a toy or movement or a puddle or play a game. Equip them with the toys and tools they enjoy playing with.
Be available for your child as much or as little as they need you to be. Once you’ve got the hang of it you will begin to realise that it’s not about you. It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself to be any good at drawing or climbing or lego. Your child is genuinely interested in spending time with you, enjoy being together.
But I don’t want to play the same game for the umpteenth time.
One of the hallmarks of play is repetition. It is likely that some games will be repeated endlessly. This can happen in one intense burst or a game revisited over many days.
Another hallmark of play is that all the participants must enjoy it for it to have its optimum learning potential. If you are not enjoying it then your children will sense that. It is okay to say, ‘Shall we play something else?’ And come to a mutual agreement about how to proceed.
Make alternative suggestions. A change of direction or another game that you know they like. You can still spend time together and have fun.
If the game they are playing is absorbing them entirely and you have a vital role in that game you could fake it until you make it. You can pretend to enjoy the game and continue to participate. Remembering that your motivation is to show your child love and support until they are ready to move on.
If you need further motivation then look closely at the joy your child is experiencing and how happy they are being with you. Move from one game to the next seamlessly in accord with each other.
Widening the circle
At some point your child will want to play with more than just you. Even as young babies they can enjoy the presence of other children. And it is a natural part of their development to do so. Mixed age play is particularly valuable and children generally make better playmates for children than adults. (Although it is important that children need a community of engaging and supportive adults too).
Seek out, or even create your own, social circles for your children to enjoy unstructured play. Not classes or lessons where they have little to no time to socialise. They need play dates and group gatherings that are free flowing, where they can create their own games and navigate their own relationships and play unhindered by expectations.
Unstructured, free flowing, natural play is a dying art in Western culture. It is unsurprising that it is increasingly difficult for adults to relate to when their own lives have been largely devoid of it. The more you join your child in play and observe them, the more you will understand it and see real life reflected in their games. Trust the process.