How to Play With Your Kids (and Why It Might Be Hard Work)

Krissy Dieruf

Playing is fun. At least that is what parents think when we see our kids amongst piles of Legos and Littlest Pet Shop pets. Play is also something adults cease doing at some obscure point in time, replaced with responsibility, obligation and work. Of course, these things are necessary and appropriate to be functioning members of society past a certain age, but when we no longer desire to explore our worlds through our own imaginations, we no longer understand the delicate nature of play that is actually hard work. Assigning life and energy to objects, running wild through trees with best friends on a nonexistent adventure that ends the minute we get hungry or tired or bored, or taking the role of a puppy, a baby, a super hero or villain on the make to rule the world, is all very hard work that just happens to be fun. In reality, it is children’s job to play. Play allows children to explore thoughts, feelings and experiences they encounter every day and incorporate them into a framework of understanding and mastery.

As a marriage and family therapist who has done play therapy and family play therapy for many years, I have seen children work through very complex, confusing and even traumatic life events with a sand table and plastic figurines. Kids conquer fears, gain confidence and test the limits of their own strengths and skills in a safe and comfortable space through play. It is amazing to witness. But it is even more incredible to be invited in.

Of course, it is OK if you loathe sitting on the floor with Barbie Dolls and monster trucks. Sometimes for adults, play really can feel like work! Even as someone who has played with kids for a living doing Play Therapy, I often find it difficult to play tag or hide ‘n seek with my kids for more than a few rounds before I am exhausted and bored from running in circles looking under the couch 18 times! But they keep asking. They keep inviting me in. So, I keep joining them. I use these three tips and tricks to truly enjoy playing with my children while joining them in discovering and mastering their worlds. You can too.

  1. They are in charge. We often want to direct the story to make sure Barbie and her friends are all being nice, or the colors in the Play-Doh rainbow are all even and don’t mix. I know I am particular about those Magnatiles and how to build the biggest tower. But none of that matters when you are playing with your kid. Let them take the lead, then hang back and see what they can do. You might be surprised at how much more you enjoy just being with them and watching them learn through play.
  2. You don’t have to add anything extra. Play inherently is fun. That is why kids do it. You don’t have to be creative or exciting or come up with extravagant ideas or expensive toys. Kids are surprisingly good at knowing what they enjoy and seeking it out. Be present, and (here is the key) be quiet. Kids don’t want to answer your questions or worry about making you feel good about playing with them. They want to explore with you. Close your mouth and open your eyes. Do what they do. If your five year old starts crashing trucks, crash some trucks! Watch your kids face light up as they realize you are not correcting them or telling them how to do it. They will be thrilled!
  3. Set limits around timing, not around themes, mess or toys. Playing with your child doesn’t have to take up the whole afternoon. No one is making you embark on a daylong journey of make-believe. It is perfectly OK to tell your child that you can play for 15 minutes and set a timer, just make sure you are engaged with them the whole 15 minutes and not checking your text messages or watching a TV show out of the corner of your eye. Kids know when you are with them, or not. Let go of your need to pick up during play. Small distractions can disrupt the flow of play and your attention, along with the connection you are creating with your child. The theme is important to the child also, they are working on what they know and what they are thinking about. Explore it with them, again avoiding your desire to ask questions. Their world will unfold before you and it will be a beautiful thing.

Every child wants their parents to play with them. If your kid has stopped asking you, try asking them if you can join in and see what they say. I’m certain you will love the hard work just as much as they do!

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Krissy Dieruf is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has always loved working with kids, especially the ones with crazy hair and a rebellious streak. She often finds herself singing and dancing around the house and tries not to embarrass her three children too much.