Are you a playful parent?
This week I am writing about the power of play. My aim when working with parents is always to help them find more ease and joy in their parenting, and play is something that puts a big fat tick in each of those boxes. Play can be a powerful way of connecting with our children and building them up, and it can release stress and emotions for the whole family, making space for more laughter and joy.
The power of play
Play is the way in which children make sense of the world and process experiences and emotions. As a parent, you will have seen that play is hard-wired into our children, wherever they are and whoever they are with. As Maria Montessori so wisely said, “play is the work of the child”. That is what children are built to do; it’s how they learn, how they develop mentally, physically, and emotionally. It’s where they find flow, that magical state of being so absorbed in an activity of your choosing that you forget about everything else.
Play is almost always more meaningful than it first appears. It can be a safe way for children to try out new skills and new ways of being, and it is a powerful way of healing from emotional distress, putting themselves in a position of power (“I will be the doctor / teacher / mummy”) and establishing closeness and connection.
Using play to release emotions
Play is how children communicate; it’s where they show us their feelings.
If you have a child who plays well independently, it can be tempting to leave them to it, but they still us to play with them regularly in order for us to truly “hear” what it is they have to tell us. Making space and time to really play with our children is one of the greatest gifts we can give them; it tells them that we have time for them, they are our priority. When we get down on their level and enter into their world, playing by their rules with them in charge, it makes them feel safe and loved. This is even more important when things are changing in our child’s life – perhaps a new sibling has come along, or they’ve just started school. Playing with you gives them a safe space to work through these emotions and fills up their cup when they need it most.
Play allows children to “try out” different emotions and feelings, play-acting our sadness or laughter in a controlled way. Play can also help children process and recover from instances which they have struggled with (a good example here is playing doctors to process a painful examination or a jab). This allows them to work through that moment, reclaiming the power for themselves, and making sense of the experience. When children are unable to release their emotions through play, they may instead release them through “tantrums” or overwhelm, hitting out or pushing in frustration, or simply shutting down.
Easing tricky moments with play
Behaviour which often presents as challenging is almost always a cry for more love, more connection. Meeting that behaviour, where appropriate, with play can be hugely powerful.
Frida and I have a game we sometimes play when she is feeling cross and frustrated. She will say something like: “I hate this supper”. Then I respond with fake outrage saying, “Yes, this supper is smelly!” She will repeat what I say: “This supper is smelly!”. Then I’ll say: “It is smelly and it’s horrible! It’s the worst supper in the world! This supper is absolutely disgusting!”, all with a big cross frown on my face. We go on like this until we are both laughing, and the tension and annoyance has vanished. It’s a much more effective response than me replying to “I hate this supper” by saying “I know that’s not true, you love this meal, come and sit down and eat it” because it shows that I am listening to her, and allows me to help her with her feelings of frustration. A potentially fraught moment has been turned into an opportunity for connection.
Another idea is to take moments when your child is “misbehaving” and instead of responding with anger or disappointment, provide them with an opportunity to play. I often do this with fake outrage “FRIDA! Did I just see you were about to try and grab the cat’s tail? Well maybe I will grab YOUR tail!” followed by roughhousing / chasing / tickling (always with consent!) and so on. De-escalating situations before they turn into conflicts, again choosing connection and play, is far more powerful and effective for everyone.
Of course, sometimes play will not be an appropriate response to your child’s behaviour. If they hit someone, then a confident “I will not let you hit your sister. Hitting hurts her.” coupled with a physical blocking of any further hitting is what is needed in that exact moment, not play. A child drawing on a wall can be told “I won’t let you draw on the walls. Let’s find paper to draw on.” – redirection or play wouldn’t reinforce the message that it’s only OK to draw on paper. But it doesn’t mean you need to turn cold and distant. Warmth, physical closeness, affection and connection are all still needed, even (especially!) during the most challenging behaviour, and using play afterwards to reconnect and diffuse tension works wonders for everyone.
If your child is feeling overwhelmed by big emotions, then play is not appropriate either, at least not whilst the child is experiencing them. Here are some tips on how to cope with and support your child through tantrums and big feelings.
Fuelling connection through play
In his book Playful Parenting, Lawrence Cohen writes that during times of disconnect “play can be the bridge back to that deep emotional bond between parent and child”. Offering ourselves to our children as truly present companions in play – be it building a tower together, playing catch, or wrestling in the garden – can be one of the best ways of refilling their cups and topping up our connection with them.
As parents, we can use play to connect with our children throughout the day, not just when we’re down on the floor playing trains with them. I strongly believe that play and a sense of playfulness is one of our most useful tools as parents, and that this playfulness not only helps nurture our relationship with our children, diffusing tension and bringing calm, but is also important for our happiness as adults. A joke here, a giggle there, a cheeky grin, and a pillow fight become the foundations of a joyful home for everyone.
Many of the parents I work with say that transition times – moving from one activity to another (getting out of the house, leaving the playground, coming to the table for a meal) – are the times which cause the most conflict and stress.
When Frida doesn’t want to do something or says she can’t do something by herself even when we both know she can, we have come to a solution whereby I pretend to be a dwarf-lantern shark (don’t ask!) who says in a very polite voice “Oh, I don’t think you can get dressed / go and wash your hands / carry your plate to the kitchen! How could you do that when you don’t have fins / a tail / gills?” It may sound very weird to you, but this really works for Frida, and she will often delight in “shocking” the shark by doing the task quickly. If she’s really struggling I might say “I KNOW you won’t be able to do it before I count to ten!” and then start counting in a slow voice, acting so surprised when a giggling child shouts out before I get to eight that she’s finished. Play gets things done!
This is something I think many parents do instinctively at times – how many of us have created elaborate games for enticing our children to brush their teeth? – but for some it may feel like they are not “allowed” to be playful as this undermines their authority as parents. Play allows us to move away from control and towards collaboration and joy, and it has the happy result of actually being far more effective in encouraging children through transition moments too.
Singing songs can also help with transitions, as can establishing strong family rhythms. These provide consistency and predictability, wearing a groove of repetition into family life that says to our children “it’s OK to leave where you are and do something new; you are safe”.
Where can I find out more?
Playful Parenting by Laurence J Cohen is a brilliant book dedicated to play, and how to use it to fuel connection and confidence. I really recommend it.
If you are struggling with peaceful discipline and would like to get some non-judgemental, personalised support I offer one to one mentoring calls. During our call I offer insight into developmentally-appropriate behaviour and expectations, provide suggestions to help you calmly navigate any issues you are experiencing, and help you to see what you need to focus on first. I will leave you with practical ideas and actions to implement so that you can find more ease in your parenting, in a way that suits you and your values. If you’re unsure whether this would be right for you, feel free to get in touch for a no-pressure chat.
This article is part of a mini-series called “The Peaceful Home” where I will be sharing tips help you to increase the ease and joy with which you parent, and reduce the conflict in your home. We’ve already had posts about stepping away from using “no” so much, creating “Yes Spaces” in your home, reducing stress around food and mealtimes , coping with tantrums, and why we don’t use punishments. Next time I’ll be sharing some top tips to keep calm as a parent, so check back soon.
If you want support from other like-minded parents, why not join A Beautiful Childhood? It’s a free Facebook community – a space for us to discuss raising our children and forging for them a childhood that is gentle, slow, and beautiful. Come and join us!