Summer is here! As a parent of school age children, I (not so secretly) look forward to summer months that are less encumbered by homework, extracurricular endeavors, and their associated logistics. Children's lives are full of activities, requirements, and deadlines in a way that often prevents them from doing the one thing that helps them develop best...playing.
Play is often relegated to a lower spot on the "to do" list for all kinds of practical reasons. It does not seem to have a deadline in the way a school project does, but children are often better able to focus in school after taking a break to play. Play does not always render some end product to justify the time spent playing, but the process of playing is so very constructive to children's social emotional functioning and cognitive development. Play does not always make sense (to adults), but it always makes sense in some way to children. Play sometimes looks like it lacks a plan, but I can promise you that children have a natural ability to take their play where it needs to go.
Summer is considered by many to be a restorative time that is filled with special outings, family vacations, and planned events. As an alternative, try to cross a couple of the plans off the list and replace it with the opportunity to connect with your children through unstructured play. Here are five suggestions for how to spend playful time with your children this summer:
1. Choose a weekly special playtime that is protected from interruption by electronics or work/household tasks. My younger child "owns" Saturday mornings because his sibling likes to sleep in and he knows it. You would be amazed at the power of 30 minutes of undivided parental attention.
2. Let your child decide how to spend special playtime. Believe it or not, being able to lead the play is a powerful way to help your child find his voice or practice her decision making skills. They love to hear adults say "You can decide," or "I think you can figure that out." When in doubt, let them lead unless there is a safety issue.
3. Connect at your child's level with your entire body facing your child. If they are playing on the floor, move to the floor. If they are sitting in a chair, sit in a similar sized chair. This helps immensely with eye contact and being able to offer undivided attention during special playtimes. If the phone rings, say "This is our special time, I will call them back later." It also helps to leave your phone in another room.
4. Make statements about what you see your child doing or hear him saying. When adults paraphrase what they hear a child say (You're telling me what you're making) or acknowledge what she is doing (You're stacking those blocks one on top of the other), children feel heard and appreciated. These statements honor their play and presence.
5. Make statements that address pleasant and unpleasant feelings that come up in the play. This not only validates the range of emotions experienced by children, but it helps children learn a feeling word vocabulary and says "I can handle your feelings." Building a foundation of parent-child emotional connection will become differently important during adolescence. You can say, "That dinosaur looks frustrated that the others aren't doing what it wants" or "You are so excited to get that picture how you want it to be."
I forgot to mention that most toys are okay, but try to avoid toys that require batteries or electricity during special playtime. Thirty minutes once per week. Follow the five suggestions. Our children need to play more than ever…with us. Play on!
Lauren Wynne, PhD, LPC, NCC, Registered Play Therapist & Supervisor
Dr. Wynne keeps clinical office hours on Mondays in our Midlothian office. Please call 804- 743-0960 or view our website to learn more about her experience and practice with children and families.
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