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How to play well with your child

14 July 2022

Some people make playing look easy. Learn how to be one of them here. 

It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s because its always mentioned in opposition to work – you know, the REALLY hard stuff – that we all think play’s easy.  But any parent or carer who’s ever stood in their front room surrounded by toys in the early morning in a state of nervous paralysis will tell you differently.  Here we talk about our odd relationship with play and provide some top tips for how to get in the spirit.

Nobody likes to admit they don’t like having fun. But regardless of whether you’re the “fun one” or the “un-fun one” in your relationship, family or friendship group it’s still the case that letting go is deceptively hard for adults and children alike.  In conversations we’ve had with staff and families it seems like this is, oddly, because people find it hard to switch off and accept play for what it is, and instead worry about doing it “wrong”.

Dad Sam said: “This is going to sound ridiculous, but I didn’t play five a side football for years as an adult because I worried that I wasn’t a good enough player and everyone would laugh. Spoiler alert. When I finally plucked up the courage to go I was as bad a player as I feared… and NO-ONE noticed”.

But this fear isn’t limited to adults, and it seems like this anxiety is either natural or something we learn early, as mum Nicki highlighted in a conversation with us. She said: ““When my daughter was around five years old she was a bit of a perfectionist and she struggled with making the “wrong” marks when writing or drawing. The teacher gave her a whiteboard, so it didn’t matter if she does, but the fact she needs it shows that It’s really hard to play… That’s why we all get it wrong. But it’s important to go with the flow and realise there’s no right or wrong way to play”.

Anyone reading this who’s worried about their own ability to play should take heart – you may still worry, but it’s clear that these fears are universal, and from that you can draw some strength. But there’s another reason to be brave and soldier on with the difficult task of playing. Our Early Years Manager Karen highlights that, in some cases, the awkwardness some adults feel has been learnt from their parents or carers and breaking this cycle is the only way to help their children see all the benefits of play in their own lives. She said: “A lot of parents haven’t had the experience of being free and exploring the “worst-case scenarios” that occur in play (which are never that bad).  “If they don’t have those experiences they can lack that innate sense of wonder and awe that’s so important, so they need to be brave and break that cycle so their child can have the experiences they might never have had”.

“I would advise adults to get down to their child’s level and mimic their actions. Follow what they’re doing and you’ll increase their confidence and show that you’re interested in what they’re doing… and then they will respond to you”

Of course, despite our concerns, children are naturally gifted at playing easily and effectively, which presents us with another good strategy for parents and carers wishing to sidestep their own fears and inhibitions – learn from the professionals. Our Child and Family Worker Gemma says: “I see a lot of parents standing above their child looking down and wondering why they’re not engaged with them.
“I would advise adults to get down to their child’s level and mimic their actions. Follow what they’re doing and you’ll increase their confidence and show that you’re interested in what they’re doing… and then they will respond to you”. There will be some creative parents who don’t struggle with the idea of play as such, but the tedium of repetitive play that can crop up – particularly in the early years. 

For these parents our advice would be to make use of their creative or dramatic skills… you are allowed to enjoy yourself too!  Child and Family Support Worker Sarah said: “The reason for play is to have fun and build relationships, and we’re always encouraging parents to show that they can enjoy themselves and be silly.  “Kids love it when you do little voices or sing songs and we need to show them that we expect them to do those things; that it’s completely normal. “How will they know if they’ve never been shown?”  Finally, it’s worth noting that it’s best when you’re not just “putting on your play hat” around the children, and instead learn to play in your own time.

As we noted in ourhow play helps wellbeing article, play benefits us at all stages of life and doesn’t need to look childish or silly – it’s simply whatever you find nourishing and rewarding.  The benefits of doing so can be transformative, as one parent told us. She said: “I’ve joined a netball team recently… I haven’t had time until now as my daughter needed a lot of support but I’m really looking forward to getting back out there. “For me ,it’s mainly about that link to my sense of individuality. When I’m playing netball I’m not just “mum”. “Now, I like being “mum” but doing so means you’re often staying home – it’s exciting to get a bit of independence”.

We hope all the above has convinced you that play needn’t be a source of anxiety and can enrich your life as an adult as well as a parent or carer. But what if all else fails and you still can’t see play as  different from work?  Well, we’ve told you the benefits of play, how it’s good for family bonding and why it’s worth your time to play… so why not try treating it in the same way you would other important aspects of life?  Schedule the time for play like you would with any important work or home task and, hopefully, as you “fake it until you make it” you might find yourself coming to play more spontaneously. 

If you really want to improve your play then you’ve come to the right place. Over the summer we’re sharing practical guidance from our child development experts on creating engaging play spaces and fun, simple, low-cost activities that the whole family can enjoy. Check out our Creating Happy Memories hubpage to find out more.