Episode 6: The Importance of PLAY!
Play is really important for your child's growth and development, second only to their relationship with you.
Let's take a quick look at some of the development impacted by play.
Physical Development. Fine and gross motor, feeding, sleeping, and potty-training.
Cognitive Development. Language, memory, attention, processing, and perception.
Social Skills. Theory of Mind (the ability to conceptualize what another person may be thinking or feeling), communication, reciprocation, negotiation, empathy, and leadership.
Emotional Wellness. Resilience, assertiveness, flexibility, ability to self-soothe and emotional-regulation (the ability to identify, communicate and manage emotions effectively).
Academic Functioning. Problem-solving, listening, following directions, curiosity, attention, and initiative.
What makes play so powerful? So supportive to developmental growth? Well, play is the language of children so it is the most effective way to communicate with them and to communicate information to them. It is their natural mode for exploring their world, so by allowing them to do this, we ensure they are learning everything they need to know about their environment and about their identity and emotions.
1. Model. Your child learns the most from watching you. By playing and spending time with them, they learn to hold and drink from a cup, to tie their shoes, to open and close the door, to share with others and to be assertive. When we are tuned into this, we naturally start talking about what we are doing and slowing down our pace so our little copycat can take watch and practice. We will break this all down into detail but just remember that the time they spend with you is helping them attain their masters in life. When you are playing with them they are especially engaged, so take this opportunity to model how to handle disappointment when they knock over your building, how to connect the train tracks or share with them. And when you sit down and engage fully with them you are modeling how to be in the present moment. I think this is so valuable because we are teaching our child that they don't have to save their mindfulness work for the yoga mat or meditation pillow only, we can bring this practice to all our activities!
2. Label. Talk about what you guys are playing with. If your child is taking care of a baby, describe all their actions, "You are placing the baby in the chair, you found his cereal, oh you have the spoon and are using it to feed him." I love this because it is the easiest thing to do and one of the most beneficial. We often have the urge to ask children a bunch of questions while they are playing- "what color is that? How many do you have there?" This pulls them out of the present and focused moment. It makes them have to attend to you vs. their own process of learning and creativity. Usually, the questions we want to ask have right or wrong answers, "No it's blue honey! Not red!" There is nothing like getting an answer wrong or the fear of getting the answer wrong to shut down our initiative to explore and experiment- what we know encourage growth and learning. By simply labeling or describing, you are helping to put their internal world into words and they, like the rest of us, just want to be recognized for who they truly are. With labeling, you are planting the seeds for language skills, mindfulness, self-esteem and emotional wellness.
3. Be the Audience. If you feel a bit overwhelmed your self or for some reason are tongue-tied, just sit with your child. Watch what they are doing. Can you imagine what it means to them that you are taking the time to observe them vs. your phone, computer screen, other family members, a book, or chores? You are just watching them, and if you feel funny about this don't worry, they will probably assign you a job fairly quickly. You are showing them that you also value being present- kids know how to do this, just watch them play but they slowly unlearn it from watching us be busy and multi-task. By watching you allow them to set the tone of the play, you learn so much more about what they need to process (maybe it's an emotional issue or maybe they are really ready to master their handstand). By letting them choose, you are helping them to listen to their own wisdom and trust it. It's also a fail-safe way to make sure that the activity is developmentally appropriate, so they get a sense of mastery from their activity, not a bunch of frustration trying to say, color in the lines like you. So be the audience and let them lead the direction of the play.
One more thing I want to mention about being presently engaged in play with your child by labeling their actions and being their audience is that you are teaching them the mindfulness skill of non-judgment. Do they have some angry feelings they are using their toy soldiers to express? Are they really battling something out, to the point it might make you worried or uncomfortable? Notice this, be curious about this but stay with them, stop yourself from judging their play or telling them to play "nicely." This gives them the opportunity to explore their emotions, and use play to self-soothe and self-regulate. It helps them to not get into the habit of having that inner critic we discussed in episode 2, always worried they are thinking or feeling the wrong thing.
These suggestions can be used for playing with multiple children but you may be called to intervene more if one child is uncomfortable with the play or there is an age difference, like with siblings. Trust your gut and use what skills you can, and if possible carve out as much time for one on one play with your child as your family schedule allows.
So now you have my top 3 skills, you can start these three interventions for engaging more deeply with your child and helping them to get the most out of their play: Model, Label and Be the Audience!
So with these basic tips for playing with your child, what can you guys learn and develop together? What exactly do the benefits I have been talking about look like?
Playing Together Helps You Bond. Play starts with attunement- if they bring you a block or make eye contact with you while dancing, they are asking you to join them in their play or at least become the “audience.” You are learning about each other as you play, learning how to communicate, what your interests are and what is important to you both. This is also a really great moment to model your values to your child- by cleaning up, asking for a turn, including others, being thoughtful, sharing, helping and accepting a loss with grace.
Imaginative Play Helps Your Child Understand Emotions. By playing pretend, your child actually gains clarity about what is real and what is not. This helps them with things like symbolism and a sense of humor. Pretend play also helps your child experience feelings as someone else. Remember when I mentioned Theory of Mind earlier? This is one way that play supports this skill development. Adults that lack this skill can be oblivious but to those they come in contact with it is glaring. They lose out on building intimate and professional relationships and likely run into trouble while collaborating with others or advocating for themselves because they really cannot put themselves in someone else's shoes- even for their own gain! By pretending to be a character that is not themselves or multiple roles in one game, your child practices this ability to imagine what another person thinks, what motivates them and how actions make them feel. This immediately benefits their relationships with friends and siblings and later their negotiation tactics, likely first practiced on you. When you get frustrated with your teen for reading you so well, be grateful they even can and help them to use their power for good. Children also manage their emotions through imaginative play, so after a particularly difficult day, stay near and watch your child get to work with their stuffed animals, cars or dolls, to unpack, process and make sense of their latest challenge. When you play with them you can help all these processes by labeling the emotions of the characters, "This car crashed into that one. I wonder if he is angry?" "This soldier is crying, he seems sad." Having this emotional vocabulary is the first step towards emotional regulation.
Play Enhances Social Skills. We touched on this a bit when we spoke about Theory of Mind. But when children play with other kids they learn how to enter or join a play activity, something we STILL have to do as adults when we don't know anyone in the room. PLay helps kids make friends, and again not much changes into adulthood here. When there is an activity two people enjoy or are skilled at, it's safe to start there. And all that is required of cooperative play, taking turns, sharing, learning someone else's limits and patience is all skills we need in order to maintain our relationships once we are in them. Social play also helps children practice being assertive, something that empowers little kids and could save your teenager's life. That may sound dramatic but think about how much practice is necessary to lead up to the moment your teen says, "No, I won't get in that car, take that pill or meet you there." Even when your child is very young and may not play with other children regularly, they start the foundation of these social skills by playing with you and are much more prepared to make friends on the playground if they have had this opportunity.
Play Helps With Emotional Regulation. Remember this is the ability to identify your own emotion and then manage it in a positive way. When I explain this to kids, teens, and parents, I let them know that what I mean by handling their emotions in a positive way is that the behavior is not harmful to you or anyone else and it doesn't blow your chances at goals or ruin relationships. With play, children are learning all about their own emotions and they are learning what play activities soothe them. Parents, this is something we tend to notice, when our child plays with this they wind down or become deeply engaged, you can label their behavior and emotions when you see them really connecting to their favorite activity, to help them begin to notice this as well. It helps remind them they have a space and hobby where they feel calm and centered. When your child becomes stressed out they can use their play activity, sport, hobby, instrument or art project to create meaning around what they are grappling with in their life. This also empowers them through self-expression. One of the best pieces play adds to emotional regulation is the sense of mastery and competence. Simple, child-led activities will actually lead your child to be more confident and exploratory than pushing them above their limits too early. As you can see, play really supports emotional regulation which in turn supports resilience. This is your child's first independent coping tool.
Play for School Readiness. I think that most parents and teachers are understanding that play holds such an important role in early education, in fact, we are even seeing middle school and high schools incorporate more project-based learning into their curriculum so I know I am not shouting into the wind here. You can see how describing the colors and numbers while you play really benefits learning but let's go a bit deeper. Let me share some of the factors I see as necessary for a child to succeed in school. And without, can leave them with poor grades, at odds with their teacher and maybe even having difficulty with friendships in the classroom. Problem-solving, if a child is not given the chance to experiment with problem-solving then they will get really stressed out with their work that doesn't require strictly rote memorization. Listening and following directions, which children can see the importance of during a game with other children, "If I want to participate I better listen up or I will be out! And I don't want to be out because I am having so much fun!" Curiosity, let's face it, the school day is long and maybe even grueling if your child is not able to get excited about how all of the things they are learning connect to them and their world, it's hard to push through. Don't underestimate this one because even the most prepared and bright child will run into a subject they are not immediately skilled at and this is when their curiosity will be there saving grace to help them ask questions and stay with it instead of giving up. Being able to explore our own interests helps to keep that aspect of our mind sharp, think about the people you know that love learning about practically everything! They are open and curious! Attention is also important and this muscle is flexed when children are given the opportunity to deeply engage in an activity by themselves or with others. Passive engagement, the opposite of play, erodes our ability to attend to things (think about all the screens we are surrounded with and what inattentive zombies we look like when we are on them).
Improved Behavior. When children are given more time to play, especially with you, watch their behavior improve. Children seek parent or adult attention. They need a certain amount every single day, what that amount is in time matters on age, temperament and the quality of engagement. So next time you notice your child acting out, think about the last time you sat down and played together. As I mentioned in our first episode, being present with your child is so important for both of you and starting with 5 or 10 minutes a day will be noticed and appreciated by a child currently getting less. The good news is you can double up and get bonus points here as playing with your child forces you to use your mindfulness skill of being present with them.
Sometimes parents will jump to, "Are you saying I need to play with my child all day long?" NO! Not at all. We all need a little time to ourselves- learning to be in our own company is a skill! Keep this on your radar and you will notice the balance, if you play with your child they will eventually move on to something else (and that is an amazing feeling to outplay a child). Or if you have been doing your own thing they will come get you and want to play in order to reconnect. If they aren't used to playing with you they will attempt to reconnect by doing something you aren't fond of so that is a moment to check in and ask "Have I clocked any child-directed play today?" If you really can't play with them, brainstorm, "Can I encourage solitary play that is active and engaging in place of a passive activity?" Art, riding a bike or playing dolls vs. watching TV or playing on an iPad.
How Do I Make Time for Play? First, keep it simple. Yes, I really went on and on in this episode and talked about child development and emotional regulation and blah blah blah but this was about the benefits of play, not how to play. How to play was simple, remember: Model, Label and Be the Audience. You do not have to find fancy gadgets or set up a beautiful activity. Have a playful manner with all the stuff you have to get done anyway. Helping with laundry or dinner prep can become play if you are short on time and they will be thrilled you let them participate. If you really want to practice the child-led play, find them when they are playing and join them, this will encourage them to not get bored and go looking for you because- they have an audience! And if you are super busy, it can be helpful to say “I have 10 minutes before I leave for work and I wanted to come see what you are doing?” Drag your child along on your hobby, you may find out they share your interest in yoga or softball or walking. Remember you can also give them choices you are comfortable with such as, "Do you want to do this now or do this with me after dinner?" This may help you to be more consistent because you have set up parameters that work for you. Finally, play can happen anywhere if we let it. Pay attention to cues. Engaging in some “on the go play” will make errands run smoother.
Play For Older Kids (and Adults). Incorporating play is healthy for teens and adults too! Being bored, just “hanging out” with friends, being silly, creative, and weird are all forms of adult play. We sometimes get frustrated when we see this in our teens and think of it as time mismanagement but really it is a necessary part of our self-development, self-care, and resilience. So have a conversation, attend to your arts and crafts, exercise, sports, and hobbies. If you can, try something new along these lines, even if it's just getting on a different piece of equipment at the gym. I am going to borrow Ms. Divecha's words again, we all " need magic, and boredom, and room for... .imagination, fantasies, and feelings."