How To Play WITH Your Children – It’s Harder Than It Sounds

Ask parents if they play with their children and they will inevitably reply, “Of course I do.”  Chances are, however, that they are not really playing WITH.  Adults tend to play near, at and around but not quite with. 

The most important part of a child’s day is play.  It is through play that children experiment with role playing, symbolism, rule setting and negotiating social situations.  They begin to develop empathy, expand their vocabularies and create new brain connections.  Children need to design their own play based upon their view of the world.  Young children are very concrete and can only pretend that with which they are familiar.  They are also often unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality.  That inability to separate the real from the imagined is what makes their capacity to play so much deeper than that of an adult.  Adults do not typically spend endless hours in a doll’s imaginary world or putting toy cars through the toy car wash.  Adults cannot stay in the realm of the imagined.  Not only can’t we stay, we are challenged to enter it successfully.

In order to get a glimpse of how children see the world and to determine what interests them, adults need to enter their play.  Adults have to resist the overwhelming urge to make the rules and steer the course of their children’s imagination.  Adults tend to dictate play rather than join it.  When a grown up walks over and dictates play – says, “Let’s do this” – the grown up has taken over the thinking process.  When adults become the active thinkers, children become passive.  They become followers instead of leaders.  It is essential that adults do not take control of play.

The first steps in entering play are to wait for an invitation and to observe.  There are times when children prefer to play alone or only with other children.  Adults should not power their way into this other world.  Going over and trying to join with them is, when you think about it, not very polite.  It is not very different from that moment when we are writing checks to pay bills and our children come over and grab the pen.  We are models of behavior in every situation and play is no different.  Pull up a chair.  Sit nearby on the floor and wait.  If the children want to play with you, you will be invited.  The children will hand you a toy or begin to include you in conversation.  While waiting for your invitation, observe.  The only way to truly enter their play is to observe.  Take note of what exactly they are doing.  Children sitting around a table in a play kitchen may not actually be cooking.  Children building with blocks could be building anything – a tower, a roadway, an entire town.  Adults should build what the children are building to encourage their creativity and decision making skills.

Once you have been invited, ask questions.  Ask who you are in their dramatic play or how you can help with their construction project.  Asking rather than telling enables the children to keep the power in their imaginary world.  Children spend most of their day without power.  Adults tell them when to awake, set the schedule of the day, and determine their meals and more.  The one time that children really control their world is when they are pretending.  Letting them be the leaders gives them the gift of self-confidence.  They can make decisions that others will abide by and encourage.  There is no greater lesson they can learn about their abilities.

When I watch young children play and participate in their imaginary world, I am in awe.  They are so much more capable than we often give them credit for being.  They think of things I could not possibly have added.   They show us exactly who they are and how they see the world around them.  Play is the hard work of their development and our window into their thoughts.

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Copyright 2013 © Cindy Terebush
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  1. This is so true, some adults can readily enter a child's world and for others is is very hard.


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