I recently asked a friend what she had been up to and she answered, “Not much. I’ve just been playing with my kids.”
I asked her to restate her answer without “Not much” and without the word “just.” With a quizzical look, she obliged. I then asked her, “Didn’t that feel better?” She agreed that it did.
You might be surprised at the power of play. Even when we’re busy—and who isn’t busy—play can be a priority for our children and us. “I’ve been playing with my kids” is a goal to set and meet.
What do you think of when you think back to your childhood? Many of us think of the many “little” things that made up quality family time. Some big things will make the list. For me, being shocked with the gift of a viola when I was 12 is on my list. After renting one for a while, my parents knew I was serious about learning how to play and improving my skill. Buying me my own viola communicated their belief in me. That was more valuable to me than the gift itself.
But it’s the consistency of “little” things that are actually “big.” These experiences, like playing with siblings and parents, school performances, family dinners, and holiday traditions, define childhood for most of us.
Children Should Play Now
Many children, regardless of age, haven’t been able to live as children during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve had to learn online, isolated from friends. They’ve had to work at home, rather than play at home. In addition to typical chores, many cared for siblings and helped their parents, who were distracted and extra busy working from home. Having parents close-at-hand but unavailable can be confusing for a child.
This summer, let’s give them back their childhood. We can’t allow children to be defined by what they lost during the COVID crisis. Let’s give them a summer to remember, one that they’ll want to look back on. Lately, Fred Rogers’ statement, “Play is the work of childhood” hasn’t been true. Let’s change that going forward.
Play With Children
One of my saddest encounters with a child occurred when I researched how children believe parents’ phones affect them. At a park play area, a young boy’s countenance changed from happy-go-lucky to sad as he shared, “I wish my mom played with me instead of taking pictures of me playing.” I’ve heard this echoed by many, many children throughout the years.
Some people have said, “Love is spelled T-I-M-E.” To a large extent, that’s true. “Like” is also spelled T-I-M-E. Children frequently tell me, “My parents have to love me. I wish they liked me.” They follow this with, “My dad sometimes plays with me, but I don’t think he wants to play my game with me. I wish he wanted to,” and, “My mom tells me to ‘go play,’ but I like playing best with her. She’s always busy. If she liked me more, maybe she’d want to spend time with me.”
I respect that you’re busy. I fully recognize you had to think about whether you had the time to read this article. Every minute matters to busy parents. That’s why saying “yes” to our children encourages them deeply. Playing with them communicates both love and like!
When children invite us to play with them, they notice when we stop working, reading our book, or visiting with a friend to say “yes.” When we initiate play without them asking, they notice. When we prioritize them, they feel loved. They know they’re loved. But it goes deeper than that. They also feel liked.
What’s the value of your children knowing you like them? They’ll feel known, which is the heart’s desire for everyone. They’ll feel wanted, which meets a need we all have. Because they’re known and wanted, they’ll feel safe with you. This makes everything more positive. Children’s behavior will be more consistent. Security also increases cooperation, confidence, and obedience. But there’s still more.
When we prioritize liking children, we’ll have meaningful and personal conversations instead of interrogations. Thoughts and feelings tend to merge during conversations stimulated by play, and both are strengthened. They get to know us just as we get to know them a bit better. Because we’ve gotten to know each other beyond “mom, dad, and child,” children will discover what they have in common with us. “Mom, you liked games like this when you were my age? Cool! And your mom played with you? We’re like you and your mom except now you’re the mom!” or “Dad, I liked playing catch today and hearing your great baseball story. I didn’t know you weren’t a very good player at the beginning either. Now I can believe you when you say I can improve.”
Play for the Heart
Through play, parent-child relationships can again be defined by joy and togetherness rather than disappointment and separation. In addition, by simply prioritizing play, frustration, fatigue, and anger can decrease. The mental health benefits are real.
Playing to take a break from technology and the intensity of work is good for everyone. It leads to more rest. Stress lifts and confusion dies out. Contentment and clarity result. Loneliness and isolation are replaced by renewed relationships and fellowship.
Character can grow. When children only play games by themselves on their devices, they can quit games they might lose, develop pride when they win, and get angry when they don’t.
When children play with others, they’re more likely to develop self-control and learn humility when they win and patience and teachability when they lose. They can learn sacrifice, selflessness, and respect for others as they let siblings choose what outdoor game to play, help younger siblings learn new board games, and celebrate someone else’s victory.
Learning resiliency, helping children to bounce back quickly from disappointment and defeat, might be among the best reasons to prioritize play this summer and beyond. Our children have experienced a lot of loss. Negativity and fear are common. We can’t allow children to be so overwhelmed by it all that they’re defined by loss.
When children aren’t chosen first, or a sibling knows more than they do at a museum, or they accidentally knock over their carefully built tower, our presence helps them mature. We can encourage them to try again, play again, ask again, and show up again. They can develop resilience.
Play for the Mind
All kinds of play are good for the mind. Children—and adults—are smart in eight different ways. Through a variety of play, each intelligence can be awakened and strengthened. Knowing and planning for this adds value to our play. Remember, no one “just plays with their kids.” When you play with them and plan various rich play experiences for them, you’re increasing their intelligence. Tell your friends that the next time they ask you what you did all day. For example:
The word-smart part of the brain uses words. Play word games, talk and listen, read together, enjoy learning and using new words, write and produce plays and skits, read and listen for enjoyment and to learn from different websites, and more. Go to the library and bookstore.
The logic-smart part of the brain uses questions. Play games that require factual recall, cause-and-effect thinking, and predicting; enjoy nonfiction books and presentations on sites like YouTube; read mysteries, building things and asking questions while you do; enjoy inventing a solution for something; and more. Go to museums.
The picture-smart part of the brain uses your eyes and pictures. Color, create, play games that require visual recall, read picture books and talk about the illustrations, build and design everything from the doll’s bedroom to an organizational system for the laundry room, and more. Go to art museums and craft stores.
The music-smart part of the brain uses rhythms and melodies. Make noise, sing songs, write and perform funny musicals for relatives, play instruments, compare ringtones and alarms, and more. Go to musicals, concerts, and music stores.
The body-smart part of the brain uses movement and touch. Make designs with sidewalk chalk, play old-fashioned tag, play catch, ride bikes, “wrestle” with dad, build tall towers, join a sports team, create dance movements, and more. Go to sporting events and the playground.
The nature-smart part of the brain uses patterns. Hike, fish, go camping, walk around the neighborhood, garden, read books about animals, spend time outside, play games that use patterns, collect things according to their designs, and more. Go to the zoo, park, pet stores, and animal shelters.
The people-smart part of the brain uses talking with other people. Invent something together; tell people why you like the music, art, and games you do and learn what they like; teach someone to play one of your favorite games; spend time with people; and more. Go listen to speeches and debates.
The self-smart part of the brain uses reflection. Play by yourself, make choices, do quiet activities, write poems and songs that express how you’re feeling, and more. Go where they want to go—a museum, park, store, etc.
Play On Purpose
Some children and families have done better than others during the past year. No matter your situation, remember that play has purpose. Relationships, the heart, and the mind can all be strengthened. Don’t “just” play with your kids. Play!
Dr. Kathy Koch (“cook”) is the founder of Celebrate Kids and Ignite the Family, a faculty member at Summit Ministries, and the author of five books including “8 Great Smarts” and “Start with the Heart.” Dr. Koch earned a Ph.D. in reading and educational psychology from Purdue University.