You and your family have been cooped up together for what seems like a year (but has really only been a couple of weeks). You’re trying to work and learn from home, and a simple trip to the grocery store – practically the only place you’re now allowed to go – has become a gloved and masked epic quest. Play might be the last thing on your mind.
However, it probably is top of mind for your kids. Play is critical to kids’ physical and emotional wellbeing. It can comfort them during stressful times. It also helps shape the person they will become.
“We have to think about raising our kids not just through education in schools,” says psychologist Erik Fisher, an emotional dynamics expert and author of “The Art of Empowered Parenting.” “We’re really setting their education through play. That’s going to help prepare them in life for other activities.”
According to The Genius of Play, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the benefits of play, what adults consider fun and games actually builds children’s physical, emotional, social, cognitive, creative and communication skills. And while play shouldn’t always be guided by adults, Fisher suggests that when you’re playing with your kids, you try to incorporate as many of these areas as you can. In a recent game of darts with a boy he is working with, physical, social and communication skills were part of the fun. They had to use creativity because, due to safer-at-home guidelines, their game was virtual.
Sit and watch or play along?
Fisher says that play, by definition, is pleasurable, freely chosen and intrinsically motivated, “meaning that kids are engaging in play to bring some sense of self-satisfaction.” This means we want to let our kids choose what, when and how to play to some degree, and sometimes find ways to be part of that. Directing play helps kids learn in a variety of areas.
“When we’re looking at play being freely chosen versus directing it, we have to look at how we are helping our kids learn to socialize,” says Fisher. A child who is allowed to always direct games, for instance, gets used to the idea that when they play with others, they get to call the shots. “That is something that doesn’t necessarily teach kids how to share in the process through give-and-take,” he explains. Instead, consider negotiating with your child. You might offer to play Legos or their favorite video game for 20 minutes, but ask them to play a game you’ve chosen (maybe checkers) after that. “You’re working on expanding and broadening their horizons,” Fisher says.
When playing games with your child, you should also notice how they react to winning or losing. “We want to be aware of our kids’ temperament in play,” says Fisher, whose daughter, who is now 14, did not like to lose from the beginning. “I taught her that the object of a game isn’t necessarily to win,” he says. “It’s to learn.”
Fisher definitely does not recommend letting kids win. “I tell kids from the beginning, whenever I play a game with you, you’re going to get my best,” he says. “Because I want you to know that when you win, you won fair and square and you can feel really proud of that. If I play down to them, I don’t feel I’m doing them a favor.” He will, however, stop and give them tips and ideas. “When we play checkers, I might say, ‘What are all the moves that you have? Are there any moves where you can jump me?’”
With this approach, you’re more likely to be able to convince your child to keep trying, which helps build competence and confidence.
Taking a look at free play
Young kids, before they learn about emotions, don’t really understand how to answer the question: How are you feeling? But by hanging back and watching them free play, you can learn a lot about what’s going on with your kids – especially at a time like this. “Often, their anxiety will come out through their play, their anxiety will come out through their characters and how those characters are interacting,” says Fisher.
Pick up on the words they’re using, the characters they’re playing. “Watch for the conflicts as they come up, because this is how you start to understand how your kids see the world,” Fisher says.
You’ll learn the most if you resist the urge to intervene. “When you watch your kids play, do it from a distance,” advises Fisher. “Don’t necessarily let kids know you’re watching. Just watch quietly and don’t critique. Just listen.” You can watch your child’s problem-solving skills at work by observing how they are playing. You can also see their social skills, empathy, compassion, sharing or maybe lack of ability to stand up for themselves.
Where play fits
Please don’t think of this as one more task you need to perform. As important as it is, it’s supposed to be fun. “Sometimes, we play just to play,” Fisher insists. “We play for play’s sake. I don’t play to make everything a lesson.”
If you can, find ways to incorporate play in little bits throughout the day, bringing in a little structure. You can even use play as part of a reward system. For instance, as a reward for focusing on school tasks (and letting you get some work done) in the morning, you might promise your child a few minutes of fun time together after lunch (you might need to set a timer). You can also schedule in joke time, story time or a nightly puppet show.
If you’re isolated from family, bring them into the fun with a game of virtual Monopoly (or board game of your choice) through Zoom or social media. “The memories you’re going to create from this time are going to be positive,” Fisher says. “It won’t be that time that we were all cooped up and couldn’t spend time with anybody, but that time we really spent time together and found creative ways to be a family.”
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.