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Connecting with Your Child Through Play

by Ann Barbour

Ann Barbour

Dr. Ann Barbour is Professor of Early Childhood Education at California State University, Los Angeles, (CSULA) and Series Content Advisor for the Peabody Award winning daily television series A Place of Our Own and Los NiƱos en Su Casa. Read more »

Sorry, Ann Barbour is no longer taking questions.

When you think about your own childhood, do you recall times when you and your parents played together? Maybe it was hide-and-seek, or Monopoly or rock-paper-scissors. I remember pretending to be circus performers with my mom and dad, and playing gin rummy with my grandmother.

We used to think of family games like these as inexpensive entertainment or simple ways to pass the time. Now, with competing demands on everyone's time, the excess of toys marketed to kids, and so many electronic diversions, these kinds of activities can seem a bit dated. But they are the stuff memories are made of. They were fun, and they allowed us a chance to feel close to people we love. That's reason enough to play together as a family! But there are also many other benefits of play--and research showing its role in children's development.

Play is both a catalyst and context for learning. Through play, children make sense of their experiences, and express their ideas and emotions. Play helps them develop and practice skills underlying success in school and beyond: self-control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, persistence, and following rules among others. Playing with others also helps children build relationships.

We also know that despite evidence of the benefits of play, opportunities to play have diminished. Kids are more likely to be involved in scheduled and structured activities, and plugged into digital devises. To make matters worse, play has largely disappeared from the school day, even in the earliest grades.

So what does this mean for parents? And how does playing with your child fit into the picture?

  1. It is important that your child has uninterrupted playtime every day with simple materials that can be used in many different ways.
  2. Resist interrupting or taking over when he's contentedly playing alone or with other kids. But remember that he also loves and needs to be with you.
  3. When you're busy, you can take advantage of daily routines to play together. You might play peek-a-boo when you're changing your toddler’s diaper, a guessing game when you're making breakfast for your preschooler, pretend when you're doing chores with your kindergartner, or a license plate game when you're taking your older child to school.
  4. When there's more time, your child will thrive on your undivided attention as you play together. In the process, you'll have many opportunities to tune into his interests, concerns and needs and to support his development and learning.

While you'll find many opportunities to capitalize on teachable moments during play, the key is to do what comes naturally to you. Playing together shouldn't be a chore or something you feel pressure to do. Enjoy the time you spend with your child. It will pass all too soon! If you don't like card games, ride bikes or dance together. Take cues from what interests your child and follow his lead. Playing together will help you build strong connections that he will rely on as he grows and quite possibly memories that will last a

Here are a few more simple activities you and your child or family might enjoy:

  • What's missing?: Take turns lining up several items. One player covers his eyes and the others remove one or more items. The guesser tries to figure out what's missing. This is a great game to play while you're waiting at a restaurant.
  • Surprise Jar: On slips of paper, write messages of things for family members to do. For example, wiggle like a worm, do 20 jumping jacks, empty the trash, or try to touch your tongue to your nose. Put these in a jar, and take turns drawing a message from the jar.
  • Sidewalk Games: Use sidewalk chalk to draw paths to follow. For example, draw a long line to make a "tightrope" to walk on or take turns drawing an obstacle course to navigate.
  • Earth Day Play: Go on a scavenger hunt to find interesting leaves or stones, follow ant trails, watch pigeons, or collect and release insects. Make a bird feeder or create something beautiful together from discarded materials.

What are some of your favorite family activities?

Sorry, Ann Barbour is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Rhonda writes...

Play is so important in order for children to learn to think critically and creatively. Thank you for the post. It saddens me to see parents accompany my class on trips and use that time to talk on their cell phones rather than interact with their children.

Mary writes...

Museums are great places to get unplugged and reconnect with your children through play. Most museum's have children's activities but if they don't create your own! I Spy with my Little Eye (a seek and find game) works well with all museum collections.

Shilpa writes...

How true... although parents with their busy schedules try to do the best they can... by putting their kids in the best schools, looking for best extra-curricular activities for their kids, juggling from 1 activity to another, playing the role of soccer mom... but quite often forget that amidst all this, they are missing out on the most important aspect of parenting... the quality time spent with their kids... which are memories that will be treasured forever... both by parents & kids!!

Gina writes...

When my kids were little, we started "Dance Party USA." We plug in a little disco light and play all our favorite dance tunes and dance until we're exhausted. My children are now 14 and 8 and still ask to do this once every few weeks. It's been fun to watch the dance styles develop over the years!

Ann? writes...

Dear Rhonda, Mary, Shilpa and Gina,

Thanks for sharing your comments about the power of play and the possibilities it creates for meaningful and fun family interactions. Great ideas to use museum visits and disco music as contexts for parent-child play. Let the dance begin!

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