The Power of Play

By Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW

Play is the first language your child speaks. It’s one that can be sustained and enjoyed for life if it is nurtured. When we tune in and play with children—really connect and play—we offer them a mirror of worthiness. Babies and kids receive that loving attention and get the feeling that they are seen and that they MATTER. The good news is that this is a foundational connection that parents have the opportunity to make and then foster over and over and over again. The great news is that many, many parents DO play with their children—a lot. We know that play is good for kids, but it’s great grown-ups too. Here are three ways that play can help US out as parents:

  1. Preventative play can help children behave better. If you set aside just ten minutes a day to engage with your child around something they are interested in, and follow their lead in play, you will fill their connection cup. This is a stress-buster and helps them learn to better regulate their easily-tipped emotional equilibrium. This can be your number one meltdown-prevention strategy. Time-in, Special Time, or whatever you want to call it—it works. Four rules: No distractions (phones, etc.), Follow the child’s lead, Play at their level, and Don’t have a plan or agenda. It’s harder than it sounds—simple, but not easy.
  2. Play and humor can help diffuse difficult situations. When your kids push your buttons (potty talk or a defiant attitude) you can take the high road and respond with a playful approach. If your kid says he’s shooting farts at you, duck and run for cover. Yell, “Oh no, the farts are after me—engaging fart protection mode!” I guarantee your child will laugh, which is likely all that’s needed to break the tension of disconnection. (And honestly, what good does, “We don’t say fart,” do in this situation?) If, for example, she gets defiant and refuses to move toward bedtime, pretend you are her servant and you will be fired if she doesn’t comply: “Oh dear, oh dear! My boss is coming back soon and she said that if you were not in you PJs in the next 60 seconds, I was going to lose my job, oh please, PLEASE put your PJs on!” A short period of begging should yield the result you want.
  3. We can use a playful approach as discipline. (Yes, discipline!) If you wrap the “no” in a silly accent or deliver the message from a funny character, you can use humor to set effective limits. When my son got demanding recently, I rang him from the North Pole to have an elf with a strange accent take down his holiday request list (yes, in September). He happily engaged in the game for a few minutes and then dropped his whiny routine. I didn’t need to moralize or lecture about ingratitude. I simply sidestepped the power-struggle and played a game that he found fun. (If you don’t get an engaged response to a playful approach, your child may need the opportunity to express some strong feelings about the “no,” and that’s OK too.)

So PLAY MORE! And learn new ways to play. There really can’t be too much playing in one’s home. It will make everything and everyone feel better. Try it!

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