How Much Should You Play with Your Kids?

How to find the balance between supporting kids' play and doing too much.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
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Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
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With busy schedules, concerns about child safety and the loss of the traditional neighborhood, many kids are left playing by themselves, in front of a screen or with parents as their primary playmates. The result is young children who have fewer opportunities to engage in the unstructured, social and cooperative play that is crucial to development of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills.

Childhood experts have expressed concern that 21st-century parents have become too involved in children’s play, stifling the playfulness, spontaneity and creativity that are observed in unstructured play. Not only do parents keep their kids indoors more often, but outdoor play has become adult-directed, with near constant supervision from the soccer team to the  after-school program to the playground. While kids can benefit from all types of play, there appears to have been a shift from free, unstructured, peer-led play to play that is structured by adults.

Play with your kids: It’s fun, and much more

So, should you play with your kids? Of course, if for no other reason than just to have fun. Be it a dad playing basketball with his 2-year-old with a mini-hoop and a plush ball, or an adult child playing bridge with her mother in a nursing home, play is enjoyable, builds connections and strengthens relationships. For children especially, it indicates an interest in one’s playmates.

  • Playing with infants. Parents need to be the primary playmates of infants, involving them, making eye contact, teaching them to make sounds and to communicate, and providing them with a sense of security that enables them to explore their worlds. Infants who have older siblings and other family members as playmates have even more opportunities to explore and get different reactions from others. There are compelling data that show available, loving, involved and supportive parents have happier and better-adjusted kids. Research also shows that the quality of infants’ playful exchanges with others positively influences cooperative play activities with siblings and peers. So play with your kids!
  • Playing with toddlers and preschoolers. As children move into toddlerhood and preschool years, parental play contributes to the capacity for make-believe play, understanding rule-based play and sharing interests with others. The emerging cognitive capacities in young children may make parents want to add some form of “lessons” during playtime, reducing the free and unstructured nature of children’s play. Obviously, preschoolers frequently need parents to supervise their play, but not necessarily to be their primary playmates. Providing preschoolers with materials for artistic and creative play such as paper, crayons, markers and clay can be done without parents actually directing the play itself. Encouraging free and unstructured play where children interact with others, get dirty, play roughly or take some risks is often better done with peers rather than parents. It is healthy for kids to get a few physical and emotional scrapes and bruises in order to learn from their successes and failures.

Teaching lessons through play: How much is too much?

It is with good reason that parents get involved and structure their children’s play to teach them skills. After all, we are doing what any good teacher would do, catching kids where they are and using those experiences in a meaningful way. We want to teach them right from wrong, manners, how to treat other people and about their world. When we structure the use of play as an opportunity to teach kids about issues such as being a “good sport” or cooperating with their peers, we are helping them apply what they do in play to the real world. But are we doing this too much? Do we leave enough time and space for kids to learn these skills on their own?

It’s an easy, perhaps obvious answer: Kids need both forms of play. They need structured play through which parents can teach them about rules, appropriate behavior and cultural expectations. They also need opportunities for less structured play, where exploration, spontaneity, creativity and a lack of goals enhance their recreation.

There are some recent studies suggesting that unstructured play is one of the best ways for children to learn self-management, or executive functioning skills. Executive functions are what help them problem-solve, make good decisions, and regulate their emotions and behaviors, and both unstructured and directed play contribute to developing these executive functions. But while parents and educators can teach these skills in part through structure, modeling, and challenging children, unstructured play is integral to developing executive functions and other life skills.

Supporting kids with digital play

One area in which parental direction is important is in children’s digital play. This is not to say that parents should model and play video games for their children. In fact, many 21st-century kids find that they need to teach their parents how to play with video games, apps and technology. Especially for toddlers and preschoolers, however, parental monitoring of technology use is strongly recommended. Recent recommendations by the National Academy for the Education Young Children (NAEYC) and by the Joan Ganz Cooney Foundation support strategies like joint media engagement and parental supervision of video games and technology.

Once parents learn about and understand the technologies children are using and determine that they are safe and appropriate, they can encourage discussion about what their children are doing in their digital play and allow them to engage in digital play more independently. Fortunately, there are fun and wholesome apps that will spur a kid’s imagination and creativity and help parents to become playful observers to their kid’s fun.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids

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