The Power & Importance of Play

Some adults think of play as something unimportant and even trivial, but it is so important to the life and development of young children that play has often been called the “work” of childhood. Not only is play powerful on its own, but playing with your young child is a great way of teaching many valuable lessons and helping them grow as a person.

A little known fact: Research studies show that, on average, the more parents of pre-schoolers play with their children, the more compliant the children are with their parents. This is because if there is a strong, warm parent-child relationship, children are more invested in pleasing their parents and in doing what they say. Psychologists have also discovered that there are certain ways of playing with young children that can increase these benefits to children and the parent-child relationship, improve behavior, boost academic and social skills, help children sustain attention, and develop creativity.

Here are some tips based on how to play with your child to foster their cognitive, social and emotional development.

Set Aside Time to Play With Your Child 

Set aside at least a short time each day (a minimum of 10-15 minutes) of “special play time” with your child. During this time, engage in open-ended play, such as building with blocks, legos, drawing, or other open-ended creative play., i.e. not board games, or games with rules or “right answers”. During this time, put your cell phone away and attend only to your child. And, very importantly, follow your child’s lead in the play. Don’t give commands, ask questions, or try to teach them anything or show him how to do something “the right way”. Let them lead the play. While you’re playing along with your child, do describe and comment on what they are doing. For example, you can narrate: “You’re building a tower….now you’re adding blue legos…and now you’re putting on another color….” reflect what they are saying, and praise them for good behavior and good ideas.

Your goal in this special, unstructured play time is to give them a lot of positive one-on-one uninterrupted positive attention. The rationale for this is that children want attention from their parents more than most other things in life. If they get a lot of positive attention from their parents, they’ll be less motivated to seek attention in negative ways. Also, allowing them to lead the play fosters self-confidence and a feeling of autonomy. If you think of a young child’s life, they are always needing to do what others tell them, such as getting up at a certain time, taking a bath, going to sleep at bedtime, obeying adults. This leaves them with very little feeling of control. Playtime is an excellent time to let them be in control and it can cut down on their demanding control at other times.

Most importantly, this type of special play time really nurtures a positive parent-child relationship, which all parents want with their children and a positive relationship cuts down on power struggles and conflict.

Play at Your Child’s Level and Pace

While playing with your young child, allow him or her to decide how long to do one activity and when to move on to the next. If you’re building a lego construction or drawing a picture alongside your child, play at your child’s level. Don’t outshine him or her by building a bigger tower or much more elaborate drawing. Young children don’t understand the fact that your are grown-up and, therefore, you can draw or build much better than them. Allowing them to shine will help build their self-confidence. Something you can do to enhance your child’s positive feelings about you and himself is to imitate something he is doing in play. For example, if you say, “I’m going to build a house just like yours”, and then do it, your child will feel proud of his or her efforts and work.

Focus on the process of play more than on the final product

When playing with your child, let them be creative, and let them experiment and engage in fantasy. Also, focus on what they are doing, perhaps the fact that they are persisting despite challenges or that they’re trying something new or that they come up with an original idea (such as drawing flying houses or a horse with two heads). This is the time to compliment them on their creativity or originality rather than teaching them that in the real world, houses do not fly and horses have only one head each.

Promote Positive Behavior and Social Development Through Play

Playing with your young child provides an opportunity to reinforce positive behavior, such as playing gently and nicely with toys, sharing with others, taking turns, and sustaining attention. If you see your child engaging in a positive behavior such as these during play, you can give them very specific, labeled praise to reinforce this behavior. For example, for a child who usually plays in a very loud and boisterous way, you can say, “I really like the way you’re playing quietly and nicely with your toys”. This kind of praise will motivate your child to repeat this positive behavior. You can also praise your child for sharing with you or talking kindly during play.

Show Enthusiasm and Enjoy Playing with Your Child

When playing with your child, let him or her know that you enjoy spending time with them and playing with them. Smile, praise your child with an enthusiastic tone of voice and enjoy yourself. Even if you’re having to endure your child’s oppositional behavior outside of play time, use play as an opportunity to engage with your child in a positive way! And, let yourself enjoy that wonderful little adorable creature who is your son or daughter.

-- Dr. Angela Seracini
Dr. Angela Seracini is School Psychologist at The Caedmon School. She is a licensed clinical psychologist with 20 years’ experience working with children and families in private practice and in clinical settings. Her specialty areas include Parent Guidance and Support and therapeutic work with young children.