Have you ever heard it said that a child doesn’t need lots of toys; they just need you to sit and play with them? This can really hit the guilt chord…we can end up torn between wanting to do what’s best for our children, but needing to balance that against the everyday reality of doing jobs around the house, or working. We start to question whether we might be hindering their development, or missing out on connecting and having fun with them.
In order to get things done, we might try leaving our kids to play by themselves for a bit. Sometimes it seems to work, but as often as not they just don’t seem to be able to get ‘into it’ and play on their own. So what is the right balance? How much should we be playing with our children?
In fact, play psychologists have started to explain what evolution has always shown us – that playing alone, without adults stepping in, is actually better for development. It seems odd doesn’t it? We’re so used to thinking that we need to teach, to show, or to help. Shouldn’t we correct the puzzle so they learn what shape a circle is? Or what about building a tower so they know what to do with bricks?
Or rolling the ball towards them so they can catch it?
Let’s unpick this a bit more…
Play is the way we’ve been designed by evolution to learn. The urge to play is in all of us, we actually don’t need to be shown how to do it. In fact free play (what children do when there is no one telling them what to do), is really much better than adult organised activity and structured play. This is because through free play, children can make their own decisions, rules, problem solve, negotiate roles and take control over their actions. This all builds self-esteem, and this doesn’t happen when an adult is involved because the ‘players’ are not on an equal terms.
The idea that parents should play with their children has only come about in the last fifty years in the
Western world. For most of human history, we would have been part of village communities where children of all ages would have been free to play together all day every day. It is amazing isn’t it, how children of different ages enjoy playing together?
So what do we need to do to support free play?
When you are at home with your child, you could try laying out some open ended toys and then sitting and watching what they get up to. Once they have got into it you never know you might even get some jobs done! If they seem at a loss – by all means regroup the toys or try swopping in a few different play objects. But remember, you needn’t show them how to play with them, whatever they choose to do is perfect. So sit on your hands, when you get that familiar itch to correct, or to show them how to do something!
You might like to link up with other parents with children – the more varied the ages the better. Other children are better suited to playing with your child than adults. Of course siblings are the ultimate play partners too!
So when do we get to connect and have fun with our kids then?
Some of the best times to strengthen relationships, help language formation, and to really connect with your children, then become meal times, bath times, story times and other family times. Really listening, talking and focusing on your child and what they’re telling you is so important for their development. And don’t forget, they don’t need to be verbal to have a chat! Babies are very good at showing you what they mean.
Some days they’ll want to interact with you more than others, and there will be days when they just need more cuddle time – that’s fine. If your child does invite you into their play by all means follow their lead, but let them create the play themselves. For example, “Thank you you’ve brought me your blocks. Oh you’re saying you’d like me to put them in your bucket?” Is very different to, “Thank you, you’ve brought me your blocks. Let’s build a tower – can you put them one on top of the other like this?” If you’ve got a job that needs doing, explain what you’re doing and let them help you if they want to, in the way that they want to. You’ll probably find they’ll help you for a bit and then wander off to play with their toys again.
There might be times when you might want to teach a specific game that the whole family can enjoy.
But on the whole, self-directed, free and independent play will take up the bulk of your child’s days.
Allowing your child to lead the play and offering them them simple open ended toys your child will soon get used to free playing on their own. And then when you do play together, it will be because everyone wants to! So sit back, relax and let your child lead the way in their play.