I’ve always been a big advocate of play. This is part of a series we’re writing in partnership with Genius of Play. We have been compensated for our work on their behalf, and while we make use of the wealth of ideas and research on their site, all the conclusions are our own.
As parents, we often find it difficult to play with our kids. While there are many reasons for this, I believe the biggest obstacle that gets in our way is ourselves. We simply don’t give ourselves permission to play. By saying “yes” to playing with our children, we not only help them learn values and skills, but we also reduce our own stress and increase our creativity. By saying “yes” to play, we are showing our kids that play is important for the whole family.
Will You Play With Me?
It was after dinner. I was procrastinating from cleaning the table and the kitchen by checking notifications on my phone. Jackson had brought some of his toys into the living room and he popped the question: “Daddy, will you play with me?” It was getting late. I was tired. I had things that needed to be done. But spending a little time playing with my son wasn’t going to kill me. My to-do list would still be waiting for me. So instead of saying “no”, I told him I’d play with him after I cleaned up.
Imagine my surprise when he stopped playing and helped me clean up. Yeah, he had an agenda, but it was cool to have him help without my even asking. Once we were done cleaning, it was playtime!
He called this game “Booby Trap Tower”. His Shopkins were trying to rescue their friends being held captive by Chuggington trains inside the Octopod, which was booby-trapped. It was cute, and while some of the “rules” didn’t make sense to me, I just went along with it.
We had been playing for a bit when Bella noticed us and joined in. You’ll have to take my word for it that this was a big deal. She’s at that age where she tries to distance herself from her little brother. I am pretty sure that she got involved only because I was playing too.
This gave me an opportunity to watch them play together. I wondered what would have happened if I had said “no.”
What Stops Us From Playing
I said yes in the story I just shared with you (I also said yes the next night and grabbed my camera for the pictures). But I will admit that I don’t say yes as often as I probably should. Why? Thinking about it, I’ve probably used many of the same excuses that you have.
Here are some of the reasons parents gave in a survey conducted by Genius of Play.
73% of parents said they are stopped from playing with their child for various reasons, with “being busy” being the number one culprit. You can also see that parents spent less than an hour at a time playing with their kids. The other reasons were being tired, being unsure what to do, finding play to be boring, and feeling uncomfortable.
Let’s look at each reason one at a time.
1. I Don’t Have Time to Play
The most common reason we give for not being able to play with our kids is that we’re too busy. We’re adults and we’ve got responsibilities. We’d actually love to just play all day, but we can’t.
The problem with that reasoning is that we don’t even consider putting “play with kids” on our to-do list. Adults don’t think play is productive, even though we know it’s important for our kids. For us, it’s a distraction. So we leave it up to them to handle it.
How to Make Time to Play
When your child asks you to play with them and you are in the middle of doing something or several somethings, don’t just say “no”. It’s perfectly understandable that you can’t put down what you might be doing to play whenever they ask. Instead, find an opportunity to take a break from your to-do list and make a deal to play with them at a specific time. An I.O.U. for play is 100% than saying “no”, and it harder to forget than if you just say “not now’ or that you’ll play with them “later”.
Remember, play can happen anytime, anywhere, for any length of time! If you’ve got 5 minutes, you’ve got time to play! Using time in the car to play games instead of listening to the radio counts! Walking around the grocery store… that counts too! Kids are play experts. They know when they want someone to play with. Using these moments throughout the day can help the co-play add up and they’ll be less likely to ask you at other times.
2. I’m Too Tired to Play
The next most common excuse is that we’re too tired to play. We’ve spent all day doing all of those more important things and our energy is just sapped. We’re done. I can especially relate to this on the weekends when I come home from working an overnight shift and the kids are just waking up. They are ready to go and I’m ready to pass out.
Other times, we’re more mentally exhausted than physically tired, and play is the perfect thing to take our minds off those concerns and re-energize ourselves. We don’t necessarily have to get up and run around or bounce up and down on the bed. We just have to be engaged. Sometimes that means being a supervisor/referee or a prop in their play.
Low-Energy Ways to Play
- Restaurant – have a seat, order some food and pretend to eat it.
- Story Time – Pick out some books, get comfortable, and enjoy some stories.
- Show Time – Grab a snack, sit back, and enjoy as your kids model clothes, perform magic, play music, dance, etc.!
3. I Don’t Know How To Play
Times have changed, and perhaps kids today don’t play in exactly the same way that we used to. That makes us unsure of ourselves.
I can understand that, but maybe we’re over-thinking it. Play shouldn’t be hard.
I think the problem is that as parents, we tend to think that everything we do must serve a purpose. We are always trying to look at the big picture. But play is the opposite. Play is about being in the moment and just enjoying yourself. Play is actually defined as doing something simply for the sake of itself. Once we add a goal or measure of effectiveness or efficiency, it’s no longer play… it’s work.
Remember What’s Important
The most important thing about playing with your kids is being involved. So don’t complicate it. It doesn’t have to be tied to teaching a lesson, it doesn’t have to be reinforcing values, and it doesn’t have to be practicing a life skill. Those things happen on their own. So when they ask, say “yes”, and just go with it.
4. I Don’t Want to Play
It was only 2% of the parents in the Genius of Play study that listed this as a reason, but I made the mistake of googling the terms “playing with kids boring”. A number of results from parents came up confessing how they hate playing with their kids. (I guess they aren’t going to enjoy my thoughts on the subject)
One of those parents actually theorized that the child asking her to play was a revenge thing. The kids get to turn the tables and boss the parents around. Seriously?
Another parent cited a psychology professor’s thoughts about children’s need for unstructured play as her excuse because it was better for them if she didn’t “stifle” their development.
Both these parents missed the point. To borrow a quote from that same psychology professor:
“Research shows development of self-regulation abilities, which are predictive of academic achievement and emotional well-being in children, has a very strong link to the amount of time spent in child-led play” (my emphasis)
“Unstructured”, “free” and “child-led” play do not mean “parents not allowed”. They mean stop forcing your ideas, rules, and structure on them. They mean to let your children lead the play and collaborate with them instead of being in control.
Rediscover Your Playful Side
Thankfully, I also found a mom who admits to being bored at times when playing with her son. But, as she discovered, “it isn’t what my son wants to play that matters, it’s who he’s playing with…me.” Instead of looking for ways to opt-out, she advises that we discover how we like to play and find that common ground with our kids. I think that is great advice.
When your kids ask you to play something you find boring, suggest playing something else that is more to your liking. You’ll often find that they will go along with it just to have you involved. If not, you can set a time limit so you don’t have to endure it for too long.
5. I Feel Uncomfortable Playing
I think this response is a bit vague because there are so many ways to feel uncomfortable. Maybe the parents who responded aren’t even exactly sure why. But that doesn’t make the feeling any less real, or any less an obstacle to playing with our kids. My best guesses as to why we might feel uncomfortable:
- We’re doing something new (I found it weird to play dolls and dress-up with my daughter)
- We’re doing something we think is wrong
- We worry about being judged
Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Stepping outside your comfort zone can often be a good thing. Doing new things can stimulate your brain and who knows, you might learn something. But don’t be afraid to suggest changing things up and playing in a way that’s more comfortable for you.
- Be honest – admit when you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone. It’s a great example to set for your children.
- Play for Play’s sake – Don’t worry about the impact of play, just have fun!
- Focus on you and your child – The interaction is what matters most.
Now, you don’t have to play with your children all the time. It just shouldn’t be that way all the time. Every family is different. Find the balance that works for you. It all starts by giving yourself permission to say “Yes”! You can use this handy chart as a reference:
Ready to play? You can check out: 10 Ways to Put More Play in Your Day!
This post was written in partnership with The Genius of Play. Genius of Play aims “to provide families with the information and inspiration they need to make play an important part of their child’s day.” You can see the entire parent study, as well as expert advice and play ideas on their website.