Tips for Playful Parenting

playful parenting image family playing
playful parenting mother and child playing

Q: What does it mean that children learn through play?
Children play to learn about their world. Peek-a-boo, for instance, teaches them that people might go away, but they also come back. Children learn about gravity by dropping food off their high chair (sadly, adults don’t think this is such an exciting discovery!) Children learn about their bodies through active rough and tumble play that shows how strong and coordinated they are. And they learn to be a friend by playing with other kids--and with us--practicing sharing, for example, or seeing what happens when they don’t share.

Q: Why is playfulness an important aspect of parenting?
For parent and child, play is a bridge back to a close, warm connection, after they--or we--become frustrated or upset. What better way to have a reunion (after coming home from work or school, for example) than to get down on the floor and play horsie, or dress up as pirates and run whooping around the house together, or have your children show you the wonderful world they created from their toy farm set or dollhouse.

Q: Why is learning through play important?
We all know that lectures don’t work with young children, and they don’t learn by reading question and answers on a website! But they learn every minute of every day--look how rapidly a two-year-old learns language, look how much a three-year-old can know about dump trucks or dinosaurs. They learn best when they are just “learning by accident,” soaking in knowledge while they have fun playing. After all, they didn’t need flash cards to learn to speak or walk. But sitting in a swing, enjoying the feeling of flying through the breeze, helps them practice balance so they can walk without toppling over. And taking care of a baby doll helps them get ready for anew baby brother or sister.

playful parenting photo of a family playing together mom dad and two children

Q: What is the role of toys in playful learning?
Toys can be a great tool for children’s learning through play, as long as we remember that it is the playing and the fun that do the teaching, not the toy. So look for toys that don’t do all the work for the child, but leave lots of room for creativity and imagination. Great toys give the child a starting point for their exploration of the world. And toys bring the big outside world to the child--a child can’t drive, and they can’t be a real doctor, but they can zoom around a toy ambulance and bring it to the toy hospital.

Q: How important is imaginative play for children?
Imaginative play is the heart and soul of children’s play and children’s learning, especially when they are three to six (but it starts earlier and continues later than that). That’s why I love toys and games that let children make up and tell their own stories (instead of just passively absorbing the stories told on screens). A big pile of dress up clothes--in child and adult sizes--should be part of every child’s life.

Q: What is cognitive learning, and how is that different from a child learning their ABC’s or their numbers?
Cognitive learning means exploring the most important and basic questions of life—who am I, what can my body do, what happens when I pour water from this cup into that cup, why does my sister cry when I pinch her, why do I have to wait sometimes to get what I want? Of course, young children don’t use words such as cause and effect, rhythm and melody, or discovery and problem-solving. But they practice these concepts all day long. Cognitive learning is the foundation on which the more specific scholastic learning is based, such as numbers, letters, colors, and facts.

playful parenting image of father and daughter playing

Q: Would you say that there's been a shift from cognitive learning to scholastic learning among parents today? If so, what's the impact on a child's development?
Absolutely yes. I think that once parents, educators, and toy companies “discovered” that children learn through play, they decided that all toys--and all play--should be educational. But that misses the point. By simply playing--through the kinds of fun and creative games that kids love--they will learn all that they need to know at this age. If we focus too much on learning to read (or getting into the ‘right’ school) when a child is two or three, they will miss out on what they really need to be learning at that age--namely, who they are, what they can do, and the worlds they can imagine. They’ll miss out on lots of fun, too--and so will you.

Q: Is it ok to be competitive when playing with my child? Should I let him/her win?
For very young children, focus on play where everyone wins, or where there is no such thing as winning or losing--it’s just all about fun. But when children first start to play games that have a winner and a loser, they need to build up their confidence and their feelings of accomplishment. So let them win most of the time at first, until they ask you questions such as, “Are you playing your hardest?” Then you can ask them if they want you to play harder so that they can test themselves and see how well they can play. This brings confidence and security that will help them handle competition once they leave the safety of your living room. Finally, when building things side by side with your child, don’t make yours bigger and better--that just makes them feel small and inadequate. Instead, be their trusty assistant.

playful parenting image of two children playing

Q: What's the role of playful parenting and learning in discipline?
Families who share lots of happy fun playing time will have fewer power struggles. Setting aside some time each week to get on the floor and play whatever your child wants to play, without watching the clock or worrying about making dinner, will make your child more cooperative and prevent a lot of misbehavior. Also, when they spend lots of time playing what they love to play, they feel more confident, which means that you don’t end up fussing and nagging at them nearly as much.

Q: What do you think of toy guns and aggressive play?
All children naturally use fantasy play to work through feelings of aggression, and to deal with the images (or reality) of violence that they see around them. But they do this best with toys that are more symbolic or fantasy-related, like a paper-towel roll, or a toy sword or magic wand, than with realistic looking toy guns. With a realistic looking toy gun, all you can do is pretend to shoot at someone, but with a superhero cape and a stick, you can be anything and do anything.

tips for playful parenting two kids

Q: What's the role of roughhousing with kids? Is it good or bad?
It’s great, as long as you follow a few simple rules. I call these Larry’s Rules of Wrestling, and they include: pay attention to basic safety, but don’t worry too much; take every opportunity to connect with your child (if they say “bang bang you’re dead,” fall over right on top of them in a silly way); remember that you are there to foster their confidence, not to compete with them or show them who is stronger; no holding kids down and tickling them--even though they laugh they may really feel helpless and powerless; and put up just enough resistance so that they can wrestle hard and then win. If you don’t like the idea of wrestling, try the sock game--everyone takes off their shoes and gets down on the rug and the goal is to take off the other people’s socks while keeping your own on. It’s a guaranteed giggle-fest.

Q: How can playful learning build confidence in my child?
Any time a child masters a new skill, builds something really cool, or figures something out, they get a wave of confidence. They may laugh out loud, or they may have a serious expression of intense concentration as they practice their new skill. I was playing once with a five year old boy, who was jumping up and down on his bed. He was a bit aggressive, and trying to punch me, so I made up a game where I moved my hands and he had to hit them as he jumped up and down. It was pretty challenging, and he said, “What will I get if I do it?” Obviously he had been bribed a lot in his life! I told him he would get “the satisfaction of accomplishing something really challenging.” He thought about that for a minute, and then he tried it, and he did, indeed, get a great satisfaction from practicing until he got it right. Then he wanted me to make the game harder and harder, and he alternated between intense concentration and wild laughter as he mastered the challenge.

tips for playful parenting two kids and a tablet

Q: Do you offer different playful parenting tip for boys vs. girls?
I think that in general in our culture we do a better job with girls of helping them feel connected and safe, while with boys we do a better job of helping them be adventurous and confident. But all children need both roots and wings--they need to feel that they have a secure home base and they need to be able to explore the world safely and confidently. So I try to make sure to connect with boys, like always having a handshake or a hug before and after a game, and with girls I encourage physical strength and adventure. With toys, however, I think that there has been too much of a trend to have distinct girl toys and boy toys. All children, especially young ones, have the same developmental and cognitive needs, so look for universal toys.

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