Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2023 08 16t100954.155

Discover The Role of Play in Parent-Child Relationships

It can often be hard to fit parent–child playtime in amongst the chaos of work and a never-ending to-do list. But playtime for kids is important – particularly play between parent and child. Find out why.

For many parents it’s an all too familiar scenario. As you push your child on the swing for the umpteenth time, they joyfully call out, “Higher, Daddy, higher.” You’ve had a stressful day at work, and all you want to do is put your feet up with an ice-cold drink.

Sometimes it’s hard to fit parent–child playtime in with the chaos of often competing demands of work, and the never-ending things that seem to pop up around the house to be done. However, play is crucial to optimal child development — so much so that it’s been touted by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a birthright for every child. And rightly so.

Close your eyes and think back to your own childhood — do you remember the heady freedom of playtime? I do. Naming and dressing up the chickens in doll’s clothes, and wondering why your dad laughed so hard he was crying, making Lego towers so high with your mum, that when they crashed unceremoniously to earth, everyone had to RUN.

Freedom of expression through playtime is important to a child’s wellbeing. It builds resilience; it helps with cognitive skills to problem-solve and improves language development. Play also increases a child’s confidence, and an overwhelming array of research confirms it helps them to develop a plethora of essential life skills.

Dr Maria Montessori, Italian physician and founder of the Montessori School mindset that advocates natural play, says “Play is children’s work.”
So where do parents fit into the equation? As a parent your role is to champion, to encourage and to nurture play, at times to direct it, but mostly to follow your child’s lead — to open your child’s eyes to a world of wonder that exists so they can learn and grow.

If you’ve let playtime with your kids slide, there are a host of reasons why it’s a good time to rethink your priorities.

Dr Emily Freeman, senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at University of Newcastle says offering playtime opportunities for parent and child is something that is critically important. “I’d go so far as to say a parent has the most important role when it comes to children’s play, particularly in those preschool years — it’s their job to encourage play, but also to teach children how to play,” she says.

Dr Freeman’s studies focus on the numerous benefits of play, particularly parent involvement. “A lot of research we’ve been doing recently shows how play benefits social maturity; it increases a child’s ability to control their emotions, to develop appropriate responses and to improve their cognitive development,” she explains.

Rough and tumble play

Getting back to basics with play can be fun for both parent and child. It’s something that Dr Freeman advocates, and there are many games parents and kids can play that are rewarding for everyone. Her work in particular focuses on father and child active play. “In high-quality play we see lots of fun, laughter and warmth — and we see sharing of wins and losses, which has to be navigated by the parent; sometimes he wins and sometimes he doesn’t; this helps the child deal with emotions.”

Go with the flow

The timing of play with your child is key for optimal enjoyment for all concerned. If your child is feeling tired or overwhelmed, they are less likely to be receptive to your playtime suggestions. Dr Kimberley O’Brien, child psychologist from the Quirky Kid clinic, says planning playtime around your child’s needs can be something that is inadvertently overlooked. “Move with the rhythms of the day and the child,” she says. “If they’ve just eaten, they’re more likely to be receptive to quiet activities like floor time, or watercolour painting. Save more active play for first thing in the morning, when the child is more energised.”

If your child is unwilling to engage in playtime with you, gently ask questions to discover why. Dr O’Brien says they might be feeling unwell, or even overwhelmed by something you know nothing about. “This may feel like they are not listening to the game or even being disrespectful towards you, but there is really something else going on,” she explains.

Navigating sibling rivalry and playtime

“It’s mine, you can’t play with it, Mummy and I are playing the game.” “No, Daddy and I are the princesses, not you.” Animosity between siblings can rear its ugly head at any time, and when a parent is involved in playtime that ups the odds considerably as kids vie for a parent’s attention.
It’s also one reason some parents might hesitate to get as involved in playtime with two or more kids, as sibling rivalry can rapidly escalate when parents are around. Who wants to referee fights after a busy day at work?

Dr O’Brien says if siblings continue to squabble, rethink your playtime activity. “If it’s not working, give each child a separate role in separate play spaces. For example, you can be the shopkeeper in the bedroom and we will get our shopping basket and do the shopping,” she says.
If you have more than one child, each needs some precious one-on-one time with their parent or parents. Giving them some kid-centred and undivided attention, where they can share what’s on their mind, shows them that they are important; it lets them know their interests are a priority to you, and that they matter.

Who’s the boss?

Child-led play allows your child to tap into their imagination, to be creative and to learn and develop new ways of doing things. It encourages them to explore their environment. As parents you’ll see their world through their eyes, which can lead to a deeper level of understanding with your child and strengthen the bond that you share.

Dr O’Brien says there’s another good reason to allow your child the freedom to lead play. “It can give you valuable insight into any frustrations or worries that they may have,” she says.

Praise your child when they are engaging in positive play. “That tower you have built looks amazing,” or “I love the very cool track for your cars you’ve made.” Sincere and honest praise not only helps them to develop confidence; it shows that you are watching and paying attention to what they do.

By joining in your child’s playtime activities, you can model positive behaviours when things go awry. “No, cupcake icing smeared on the wall does not count as art.” Or “Taking your shoes off and running through a bindi-eye patch is probably going to hurt a lot.”

But it’s more than that. Parental involvement can encourage kids to share and take turns, to learn the gentle art of conflict resolution, and it can help to instil empathy. “Oh, I see Daddy can’t quite keep up on the obstacle course in the loungeroom — I’d better be kind.”

Playtime is also good for your emotional and physiological wellbeing. Did you know that when parents play with their child, a hormone, oxytocin, is released? It helps to reduce stress and anxiety and can lower blood pressure.

Be a kid again

Encouraging playtime can mean loosening up a little and joining in with your child’s games, even just for a few minutes as you follow their lead. When you catch your child playing a game, ask them if you can play too — and watch their face light up with joy.

Do things with your child that you enjoy. Dr O’Brien says by making it fun for you too, you’ll bring more energy and authenticity to the playtime activity. “With imaginary play, for example, you can make a few twists and turns that could pique your own interest, inject some humour and lead the way,” she says.

Playtime can be fun for both parents and children. Connecting with your child through play is giving yourself permission to wear a tiara and gumboots and sing nursery rhymes at the top of your voice. It’s OK to laugh until your belly hurts, and to cover your child with kisses from head to toe as you sit under the stars on a clear summer night and try to find the Milky Way.

But many parents have to overcome the notion that playtime is just for kids. As we get older, many forgo what feels like the guilty pleasure of play. Authors Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan, who penned Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, have offered some valuable insight. As adults, “we’re told play is unproductive, a waste of time, even sinful.” The authors note that “it’s paradoxical that a little bit of non-productive activity can make one enormously more productive and invigorated in other aspects of life.” So it can benefit you as an adult in other ways too!

Professor Jeffrey Goldstein, a psychologist from Utrecht University, has been studying play for four decades. He says research has overwhelmingly shown that play during early childhood is necessary if humans are to reach their full potential. “Parents, teachers and government bodies all recognise the value of play,” he notes. “Yet opportunities for play continue to diminish, with fewer play spaces, less freedom to roam outdoors, and decreasing school time for free play.”

With more before- or after-school activities packed into already busy schedules, that only adds to the playtime dilemma. Coupled with the continued need for both parents to work to keep abreast of the crippling cost of living, this can mean parents are struggling to find time to play with their kids.

Making space in your day for play

“But I don’t have time to play with the kids!” you cry. If you are time-poor, aim for quality play that doesn’t take a huge chunk out of your day. When you do commit, it’s important to be in the moment and not stressing over a work report that’s due, or mentally running through ways to wriggle out of a lunch date with your mother-in-law. Try some of these:

  • Have a family dance party. Put on your favourite music and turn the lounge room or back deck into a dance floor. It’s a great way for everyone to de-stress after a busy day.
  • Have a pillow fight while making the beds. Set a timer for a few minutes, then once it’s done, beds need to me made and order restored before the day begins.
  • Ramp up the fun factor in everyday routines. Who says bath time needs to be boring? Have plenty of bubbles and bath toys on hand. Or when cleaning up toys in the playroom, grab a couple of big plastic buckets. Whoever fills one first, wins the game.
  • Fold washing together, and separate into piles. Warning: this could lead to impromptu dress-ups.
  • Take your dog for a stroll in the park with the kids. Find an off-leash park and let them run free (both kids and dogs). Work on some obstacle training or obedience training (yes, both kids and dogs).
  • Invite neighbourhood families together for a family fun day. It builds a sense of community and connectedness between kids and families in the street.
  • Go for a hike in nature. Buy a book on birds and flowers and point them out along the way.
  • Next time you decide to go for a drive with kids, ditch the car and take your bikes for a spin instead — along a bike path, to the beach or bush or wherever you fancy. Stop for an ice-cream along the way.

If you are finding playtime challenging, know this: playing with your child feels good; it gets your happy hormones kicking along in high gear. Your kids are connecting with you in a very real and honest way, and you with them. You are learning more about each other, and making special memories you can share. Playtime with your kids really is a game where everybody wins.

Article Featured in WellBeing 205

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

You May Also Like

power of play

The language of play

Mothers Day For Those Also With Mums In Heaven

Mothers Day – for those also with mums in Heaven

Toddler To Teenager And Giving Them Room To Grow

Toddler to teenager and giving them room to grow

Baby And You Preparing For Great Health For You Both

Baby and you! Preparing for great health for you both