“How much do I have to play with my children?”
“To be honest, I don’t really like playing…”
I hear these sentiments regularly and think that they are common questions and feelings for many parents. Play does not come naturally for many of us – myself included! But even if you are a parent who comes to me for coaching and tells me that you don’t love playing, I can tell you this: You can do anything for 15 minutes a day. What we know for sure about play is that it is one of the easiest ways to connect with our children – and what we know about connection is that it creates cooperation.
As a social worker and a parenting coach, I love to connect and work though challenges with my daughter. It feeds my soul. Curling up on the couch together and talking though whatever happened at school today is something I am comfortable and good at doing.
But that is not how young children release their emotions and discharge their energy. They do that through play. Play is the work of childhood. Laughter is magical in that it reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) and gives both you and your child a burst of oxytocin (the bonding hormone). When children get overwhelmed by emotion, they can release so much of that energy through physical play. Knowing these things can help us to push through that desire to sit on the coach and instead play with our children more often.
Parents want to know how long they must play with their children and what exactly I mean by playing. Here’s the good news: Our children do not need us to entertain them all the time, nor should we. Children, like us, need time and space to be on their own. But what they do need from us is to be included. Finding little ways to have your children be a part of your day while making it lighthearted and fun can go a long way. We can include playfulness throughout the day – race to put your shoes on; who can put together the silliest pair of socks to wear today; hop like bunnies all the way to the car. The possibilities are endless!
If you are looking for an ideal amount of time to play, the best place to start is 15 minutes. Commit to yourself that you will sit down with your children individually and ask them what they would like to play and then go for it. Play make-believe or cars or Legos like it’s your favorite thing in the whole world. Ignore your phone and your dinner plans and focus all your attention on your child. Join in their world and play.
Another fantastic way to incorporate play into your family is by roughhousing. Many families are unsure what I mean when I suggest this kind of play. Some parents are afraid that someone will get hurt or that their children will get too riled up. I offer a class, both in person and online, which provides demonstrations of ten roughhousing games to try. One of the best examples can be seen on my Facebook Page, where you will find a video of me turning my four-year-old daughter into a pizza. Roughhousing is another great way to get that burst of oxytocin while also inducing endless laugher.
As Dr. Larry Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, says, “Play can be the long-sought bridge back to that deep emotional bond between parent and child. Play, with all its exuberance and delighted togetherness, can ease the stress of parenting. Play is a way to enter a child’s world, on the child’s terms, in order to foster closeness, confidence, and connection.”
A couple of years ago, I made a promise to myself that any time my daughter asked me to read to her, I would stop what I am doing and read. Yes, even turning off the stove and pausing while cooking dinner. She knows it is a no-fail solution for play and connection.
What promise can you make to yourself?