Is it good for your children’s development to play with them? In what ways is it good for them? In what ways can it interfere with their development? What can children learn from you, and what can you learn from them? In what ways can playing with your child be fun and effective for both parties? When is it okay to say no?
In his article, “Playing with Children: Should You, and If So, How?” Peter Gray discusses whether or not parents should play with their child, and the different ways in which a parent can engage in play. Gray touches on difficulties such as one party dominating the play, repetitive play, and feeling guilted into playing with your child. Gray identifies the importance of play and its role in children’s social development, and why parents participating in this play may not be the best way to encourage that growth. Gray also lists some ways that parents can enjoy playing with their children without encountering the difficulties listed above.
This article made me think about my own experience playing with, and deciding when it is appropriate to play with, children. I agree with many of the ideas that Peter Gray presents, and I want to delve deeper into the idea of engaging in socio-dramatic play with children, and why it is difficult and often unproductive for adult-child relationships.
My lens for this article is 2-5-year-olds. With this age, allowing them to play, unsupervised, with other kids their age doesn’t work as well as it does with older kids; younger kids need more emotional and social support. However, children do need other children to play with. A couple interesting questions to consider are these: How much interaction with other young children does a child need? What can they learn from their parents, and what can they learn from their peers?
My job is to monitor and encourage play between children. I play with children, occasionally. I playfully wrestle with them, build with them, tell them stories, and listen to their stories. Sometimes, in order to engage a child in an activity, I will sit down and do it myself. They notice and come over to ask me what I’m doing. Some of them join, and they may copy me, ask if they can do it with me, or engage with the material alongside me. Children like to imitate what adults are doing. However, the majority of my time is spent observing children’s play, facilitating play between children when they need help navigating situations, and scaffolding their play. On the other hand, my job is also to balance both of these ideas: being involved enough to scaffold, but not being so involved that I take over. This plays out differently when I am an educator monitoring play than when I am a grown-up taking part in the play, but in both situations balance is important.
What can children learn from you, and what can you learn from them? Play should provide a chance for adults to learn about their children, take notice of their talents and their strengths, their struggles, their personality quirks and how they handle difficult problems or situations, as well as how their socio-dramatic play relates to their lives and what they are currently working through or trying to understand. Play should provide a chance for children to share what is important to them with the close adults in their lives, deepen their relationships, and continue to build their understanding of the world.
There are many ways to engage with your child. Some of these options include observing, asking them questions, playfully wrestling with them, doing a simple activity such as playing ball together, or taking part in a building, construction, lego, or block project. Some of these activities are play, some of them not, and the most important aspect is that you are learning more about your child and their world. If you approach play and interactions with your child in this way, as an opportunity to learn more about them, then it will be interesting for both of you. In this situation no one is taking over, and the parent and child get the chance to have fun experiences with one another.
Whether or not parents should engage in socio-dramatic play with their child is a difficult question. Adults are no longer drawn to play that way, and, unlike children, adults don’t use this type of play as a way to build our understanding of the culture, relationships, expectations, and interactions around us. Because of this, I find myself struggling every time I engage in dramatic play with a child, and the result is usually a takeover either by the child or me. This type of play is something a parent could engage in sparingly. However, it is important to always keep in mind that this play is not designed to have one person be the boss, so stand up for your contributions.
It is okay to say no. If you don’t feel like playing a game for any reason, or engaging in a specific type of play, then tell your child you aren’t in the mood for it. Be honest and candid with them. You can give them an option of playing that game by them-self, or choosing something else to play with you. Kids say no to each other when it comes to play, adults say no to each other about certain activities, and saying no to your child teaches them that everyone, even you, has feelings, desires, and needs. It’s okay to be a human with emotions and preferences, and it’s okay to share those with your child. In fact, it is good to share them; it helps your child relate to you and understand you better, and it deepens your relationship. You don’t have to cater to your child’s every desire to be a perfect parent. In fact, that can be detrimental to children’s growth.
Playing together is an important piece of an adult-child relationship. Children are always trying to find ways to make connections with adults. While it’s not necessary (or especially effective) for you to be your child’s main playmate, it is important to make those connections with your child, be involved in their life, spend time learning more about them, and spend a lot of time interacting with them. This time together helps them to build their understanding of the world, and develop their values, expectations, and knowledge with your influence.