This is a concern that I often get from parents with young children. There are 3 things you should know about how much you should play with your kids.
1. You are probably already playing with them more than you give yourself credit for.
Kids play or try to play as soon as they wake up in the morning until they go to sleep at night; and unfortunately, some wake up in the middle of the night to play too! Have you acted out flying an airplane of food into your baby’s mouth? How many times have you picked something up off the floor that your baby threw there or helped your older child find something that they left behind upon entering the house? You may not realize this, but you are already playing with your kids all the time. You play with them to get them to eat their food, get ready for school or bedtime, and learn to put their shoes on. Some of these things I just mentioned don’t feel very playful and can be quite frustrating to parents, but to children, they are a form of playing. At times, play interactions can feel more like arguing, nagging and even yelling. (How to play effectively will be discussed soon.) If you are worried that you don’t play enough with your kids, you haven’t counted all those little moments happening throughout the day. Count them- they are a big deal! You are helping your child learn to transition from one activity to the next, sit at the table, learn to enjoy new foods, try new skills, and learn the complex rules of life.
2. There are two kinds of child-caretaker interactive play: Moment to Moment and Dedicated Play
Playing while going about day-to-day life is called Moment to Moment Play. The other kind of play- Dedicated Play– is a child’s focused playtime set aside with you –the caregiver. These two types of play are very different and equally important.
Moment to Moment Play is all about helping your child gradually get used to their constantly changing world, bodies and minds. You are helping them get their needs met and learn manners, skills and strategies to fend for themselves, and how to get along with others. Moment to Moment Play is often a mix of the kids’ and the parents’ agenda, and usually has a larger proportion of the parent’s agenda.
Dedicated Play is very different and super important. Dedicated Playtime is when you follow the child’s lead to pursue their agenda. They are in charge (Mostly! There are a lot of things that parents are also in charge of during Dedicated Play, but more on that later.). In Dedicated Play, children pick the activities and they direct the play. This type of play is critical for so many reasons: to raise a confident child with strong relationships, and to support their academic, emotional, and intellectual development. It’s highly beneficial to have focused, one-on-one Dedicated Play.
3. The amount of playtime depends on two things, your needs and your child’s needs.
When parents ask me about how often they should play with their child, they are usually asking about Dedicated Play.
Let’s talk about your child’s Dedicated Playtime needs. A child’s need for Dedicated Play varies greatly depending on many factors. How old is your child? How tired are they? Do they play with siblings? Are they in daycare or school? Do they often play with other adults or kids?
As a parent of a young infant, you will engage in a lot of Moment to Moment Play and ‘micro’ Dedicated Play for short moments throughout the day once their needs are met (fed, rested and comfortable). These micro moments are difficult to schedule. As your child ages, their attention span grows and their need and desire for their parent’s attention shifts and changes. Infants and toddlers will require more Dedicated Playtime than an older child. As children age, their needs for more extended periods of Dedicated Play will begin to be satisfied by peers and other adults. By the time your child becomes an older teenager, they may only need or want a once a week interaction as their life becomes busy with after school activities, friends and homework. At that age, dedicated play will be very different: a conversation, a game of hoops, or keeping busy nearby as your teen ‘hangs’ in the house.
Regardless of their age or unique needs, all children need quality interactions from you, the caregiver. Dedicating your mind and focus on your child’s play can be incredibly challenging for any parent, which leads us to the next important consideration in determining how much time you should play with your child: As Dr. Seuss might say, the “gluppity glup and schloppity schlopp” of your life. Your child is often seeking attention in the midst of so many needs that are also pulling at your attention. While you’re paying attention to your child, you are also thinking of what groceries to buy, thinking about how to respond to a text message, or trying to safely cross the street with two children. This is the messy stuff that gets in the way of a parent’s availability to their child. On a daily basis, there is work to do, dinner to cook, laundry to fold, other family members to attend to and (sometimes at the end of the list) your own physical and emotional needs.
One must also consider that the play your child is engaged in can be boring. Little ones often engage in repetitive play that is not very intellectually stimulating to the average adult no matter how much you love that little person! A toddler can ‘put their baby doll to sleep’ dozens of times before they get bored. Maybe the subject of play your child is engaged in, is a subject you have no interest in. It’s alright at times to feel like you need a break from Dedicated Play with them- like the 18th time they’ve pushed their toy train around the track.
Beyond the basic day to day stressors, there are parents who have big unexpected ‘life stuff’ going on. Did you move or change jobs recently? Is there a sick pet or family member who needs your help? Is your car at the shop? Do you have a toxic relationship or work life? Did you have an argument with a loved one? Do you lack family support? Are you suffering from depression, anxiety, or trauma? Financial stressors? Alcohol or drug abuse? Physical pain or health problems?
If your mental and physical health is pretty solid, you don’t work full time and you don’t have a lot of life stressors, you will be able to schedule more Dedicated Playtime with your kid.
If you have a lot of schloppity schlopp in your life, it’s time to set reasonable goals to how much Dedicated Playtime you can expect from yourself while you are trying to clean up the messiness of life. As caretakers, it’s easy to forget to care for yourself and keep delaying your self-care for your child’s needs. Remember, raising a child is like a marathon, you need to keep caring for them as they age and not just today; so you have to clean up the things that gum up your life, so that you can continue to help them, long-term. Don’t delay making that doctor’s appointment for yourself.
You know your child best, and you must find what is the optimal amount of Dedicated Playtime that your child needs and how much you can provide. –And these needs will change from day to day.
What really matters is that you set a goal for yourself to play! For a parent who is really struggling with a lot of stressors or demands, they might schedule one ten-minute moment a day to focus on their child through play. Another parent might schedule hours! It isn’t about the amount of time, it’s about the quality and your commitment to play with your child on a regular basis. When you’re engaging in Dedicated Playtime, your child needs you present and focused with limited distractions. The stance of the parent might be something like, “I’ve put away the groceries, and for the next 15 minutes, I’m going to join my child, see what they’re interested in, think about what’s on their mind, and engage with their interest and mind while they play.”
Ask yourself, how much time can I truly be present, active and curious about what’s on my child’s mind during play? It’s ok to start small; set a mini goal. Stick to it and be gentle with yourself if you have a lot of schloppity schlopp. Later we’ll talk about ways to reduce schloppity schlopp in order to make room for play. Play is important for everyone: adults and kids!
In the meantime, set a goal of a period of time each day that you can be present and play with that little love.
If you enjoyed this article, please look for my next article addressing the times when you should NOT be playing with your child!
About the author: Stacie Degeneffe is a psychotherapist in private practice in Emeryville, CA.