The Power of Play

Sometimes our days as parents are overflowing with the daily chores of feeding, disciplining and caring for our children. But is “play” on your list of things to do everyday for your child?

> Read “The Power of Play” Fact Sheet in English
> Read the “El Poder Del Jugar” Fact Sheet in Spanish
> LISTEN TO PARENTING TODAY: Family Rec Time (mp3, 2015)
> LISTEN TO PARENTING TODAY: The Power of Play (mp3, 2009)

Why do parents need to “play”?

It’s been said that “play is the business of childhood.” When a child—even a baby—plays, they are problem solving, building motor skills, and overcoming physical and mental challenges. Play is how children learn about everything from sharing a toy with another child to mastering the fine motor skills it takes to build with blocks.

So we know why it’s important for children to play, but what about for parents? Playing with your child is a wonderful way to have positive interaction with them. It can also make an incredible impact on your child’s self esteem. Much of your time with your child—especially in today’s busy lifestyles—is spent feeding, bathing or disciplining. Your child ALSO needs you to spend quality time interacting with them on their level and reinforcing to them that their thoughts, wishes and actions are important to you. When you take the time to play along with your children, they are learning that you accept their imagination and creativity, and that what they want to do is fun and important to you as well.

I don’t really know how to interact with my child.

Many parents are at a loss when it comes to actually figuring out just how to interact with their child. This is normal! No one teaches us how to do this! We spend a lot of time—and are usually more confident—when we’re making dinner, driving a child to school or scheduling doctor appointments for our children, but when it comes to positive interaction or play we often need suggestions!

The first and most important step is simply devoting the time to your child. Then let him take the lead! It’s the time and attention that’s really the goal here; depending on your child’s age, ask him what he’d like to do. Your willingness to give him the lead strengthens his self esteem and puts you in a positive, more supporting role. Play also supports your child’s growing independence and can actually result in less power struggles over time by allowing him to assert himself in meaningful and positive ways.

There are no hard and fast rules about play.

It can be hard to sit back and follow the lead of a child. It can mean moving at a very slow or very fast pace. It can mean doing the same thing over 20 times. Trust that these focused, repetitive activities are valuable in the early years for developing cognitive and communication skills. This can be hard, but the point of play is to allow your child to direct, whether it’s choosing the activity, deciding how long to do one thing or how to do it. The only rule for parents is to not direct and not rush. Your goal should be to let your child make the decisions, such as picking out a book, asking you to color a specific page, or deciding when a tower of blocks is done and ready to be toppled. It can be a challenge, but try to focus on these opportunities as a chance to learn more about your child, what they enjoy and how they see the world.

Different play for different ages:

When we talk about “play”, we’re really talking about positively interacting with your child through a fun activity. Different children enjoy playing in different ways, and that’s okay. Sometimes siblings even have very different styles of play, which makes it important for parents to spend quality time with each child, so they can each take on that “lead role” in the action.

Play also means different things at different ages:

For infants, play can simply begin with listening to your baby coo and speaking back to her. Even eye-to-eye contact is positive interaction at this stage, along with things as simple as rocking and singing a song. Other simple ways to play with an infant include:

  • Playing peekaboo or pat-a-cake.
  • Holding your baby so she can reach a rattle or mobile, and showing her how they make noise.
  • Rolling balls back and forth, or rolling her on her tummy on a beach ball.
  • Touching games like “this little piggy”.
  • Looking in a mirror with you and pointing to parts of the face.

For toddlers, play begins to get more active! It can be fun to see where a mobile child chooses to go. Interact with him by:

  • Following him around—allowing him to wander (safely) around your house and yard while you “narrate” what you see.
  • Giving him pots and utensils from the kitchen and making noise.
  • Reading books, allowing him to select. Offer books where you can ask him to make animal noises or point out objects he knows, “Where is the cat? Where is the ball?”
  • Playing physical games such as chase, or riding on a parent’s shoulders.
  • Asking him where his nose, eyes and ears are and having him point to them.
  • Letting him stand on a stool at the sink with you to play with water, or “help” you wash dishes.
  • Coloring with him; parallel play is common at this age, which means they “play together” (whether it’s with a parent or another child) simply by doing the same activity at the same time.

For school-agers, play is an important way to connect with your child when they begin to spend a lot more time away from you, interacting with others—like teachers, friends and coaches. Your special time with them reinforces your positive attention and is a great time for you to learn more about your child when they are developing personal preferences and honing social skills. You can play by:

  • Asking her to pick out a board game to play as a family
  • Playing with action figures, doll houses, legos, etc. and narrating to encourage her explanation and imagination. If you say, “I see you built the house next to the lake…” they are more likely to explain or expand on what they are doing and feel like they are in control—and you are paying attention!
  • Going outside with her and playing—whether it’s kicking a soccer ball, pushing her on the swings or planting a flowerbed together.
  • Inviting your child to “help” you with an activity, such as writing cards to family members or cooking dinner. This type of “play” makes your work more fun; just be sure to keep the focus on your child and not perfect penmanship or a five-course meal.

For “tweens” and teens, play is quickly being replaced by a more mature (but hopefully still positive) interaction. It also gets tougher. Although options like tossing a ball around outside or gathering around a board game are still great options, parents can also connect by:

  • Asking your child to take the lead on planning a trip or outing for you to do together, such as a museum or sports game. Ask them to select the destination and general time, then support their choice and enjoy it together.
  • Having movie night—let your child pick the movie, make popcorn together and allow time to talk before and after.
  • Creating a book club for two, letting your child select the book.
  • Tackling a home improvement project together, but let your child choose…perhaps they want to repaint their room or build something.

Commit to play.

Parents today are busy. Period. Planning time for play and special interaction can seem like just another task on your to-do list, and one that sometimes doesn’t seem as important as “mow the lawn” or “do the laundry,” but as parents we need to make the commitment to really make it happen. Accept that playing with your child is an important task—both for the educational and emotional benefits it has for your child and your relationship.

Just think—you get to have fun while doing something incredibly important for your family! Not to mention the fact that spending quality time with your child each day can dramatically improve their behavior, strengthen communication skills and build your family’s cohesiveness.


Every day, parents are checking things off a seemingly never-ending to do list. Making lunches, signing permission slips, paying the bills. There is something parents should add to their list, and it’s not just another boring chore.

For some reason, we parents often feel guilty if we’re not doing a million things at once, as if sitting still and interacting with our children can’t possibly be “allowed” because we’re enjoying it! Not true. It is one of the great rewards of parenting—it’s an incredible amount of work but part of that work is achieved by connecting with and simply enjoying your child.

Playing with your child—devoting that special, focused time—is an important responsibility that comes along with parenting, and it’s one we actually get to have fun doing!