Who doesn’t love playing with an infant? We all love peek-a-boo, tickle, and chase games accompanied by bursts of giggles and laughter. When they are preschoolers we love finger plays, songs, and tea parties. But as children move into school age, they can often entertain themselves, playing alone or with siblings or peers. While this independence is frequently welcomed, something valuable may also be lost.
Playing with your child allows you to discover their interests and passions. Follow your child’s lead and play with them with whatever they choose. If they want to play school, be the student. If they want to build with construction materials, work together to create something. If they want to play chess, learn together. Watch what motivates them. What toys do they examine in the toy store? What board or card games do they select and play repeatedly? Children’s choices reflect their motivations, their interests, and their thinking style.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother saw that he loved building structures and provided many different construction possibilities for her child. A friend of mine’s daughter loved to dress in wild costumes and makeup and create her own plays. She became a fashion designer. When my own son was young he dressed as a paramedic for Halloween and asked for a CPR training dummy for Christmas. (He was thrilled when I severely cut my finger and he got to bandage me up for real!) He is now an EMT. Children’s passions and strengths emerge early and are often evident in their play.
Participation in the child’s play allows parents to learn about more than their child’s special talents and interests. It also provides a fun arena for addressing areas that need encouragement or assistance. For example, you may see that your child has difficulty sharing or being a good sport about losing during play. By joining in the play you can demonstrate how to be resilient, how to rebound from loss with a smile and congratulate the winner on a “nice game”. You can provide encouragement, model problem-solving strategies, and reinforce sharing or positive social interactions.
Another key benefit of playing with your child is to nurture creativity. As children move into academic programs at five and six-years of age, focus shifts to more structured learning, memory, and testing. The wonderful creativity shown in children’s art, dramatic play, and movement activities can be dampened as learning becomes more formalized. Creative thinking, or thinking and doing things in unique ways, is a valuable trait that should be cultivated. Generate ongoing opportunities for your child to express their creativity by making up stories, dramas, art work, structures, dance and music.
Some of my favorite activities with my granddaughters involve creating plays to put on for their parents, with me as the master of ceremonies. While these activities can be done with just kids, the mutual pleasure, expansion of ideas, and pure delight of all family members participating create strong family bonds and treasured memories for all to share.
Dr. Toni Linder is a leader in the field of early childhood development and early childhood special education. She works with children of diverse backgrounds and ability levels, including gifted and talented and the marginalized.