“Play is the work of childhood.” – Jean Piaget
My name is Guadalupe Navarro, a therapist at The Guidance Center. I am here to write about the importance of play and how we can encourage parents to explore their own inner child during playtime with their children. My experience with play came from my own childhood, using toys to help restore justice in a world riddled with evildoers, who looked cooler. I had an admiration for their resiliency of coming back for more after being pummeled by the “good guys”, but I digress. I loved playing with action figures and most, if not all children, have a love of play. Playing is something we all share in common with one another; at one point in our lives, there was nothing more important than playing with toys. Bringing awareness to playtime will help parents appreciate and utilize this time wisely. Below are a few ways in which we as therapists can help parents understand how playtime can be utilized as a developmental tool.
Play equates to learning. We’ve all heard the adage that playing is a child’s way of communicating. It is important to make playtime a habitual, daily exercise but first, we need parents to invest into this method of communication and improving relationships. I hear most of our parents exhale reasons why they can’t, won’t, or don’t play with their babies, toddlers, or young children. The reasons generally include being busy due to time constraints, work, other children in the home, endless chores, and the list goes on. We understand how busy life gets, but even a short amount of quality play time can go a long way.
It is my belief in some cases that playtime with a child is a daunting task for parents. Parents lack the confidence to engage with their children on a basic level as they themselves were not accustomed to spending time with their parents. They have their own complex traumas, and other barriers, that prevent them from being present with their child. Exploring some of these issues while validating and normalizing their experiences will help parents ease into the preparation of rehearsing play. As a reminder, play does not need to be arduous nor do parents need to have the “know how” as children can lead and teach them to play.
Young children have an innate desire to make their parents happy, and this is where parents can begin to assimilate their child to follow directions. As parents, we can provide simple instructions to our toddlers that can help them learn and grow. Even a four-year-old can follow a two to four-step direction, like “Put the doll in the playhouse and bring me the stuffed animal.” When we engage our children in play, they become familiar with our voices and learn to follow our directions outside of playtime. Let’s take this opportunity to inspire little ones to listen and learn and watch them flourish before our eyes.
Setting limits and rewards: Parents are often unfamiliar with setting limits in play. Sure, part of playtime is playing, but it can also help set limits and decrease unwanted behaviors. When an unwanted behavior occurs, parents must obtain the child’s attention and, with the simplest and shortest explanation possible, verbalize their disapproval “I (mommy/daddy) do not like that you throw your toy.” Add a warning that if it continues there will be a limit set, such as your time playing with your child is over. If the unwanted behavior persists, parents should calmly tell the child that playtime is over because they continued to do said unwanted behavior. During this time, parents should simply walk away from the play area, and engage in another activity, actively ignoring the child for a couple of minutes or when the child’s upset feelings of the parent ending play time ceases. It’s important to be consistent with this practice and scheduling of playtime in order for the child to learn about the consequences of their behaviors. Parents don’t need to turn playtime into a production. Even just 5-10 minutes of quality time can make a great impact. Quality over quantity is key, so don’t let time constraints hold you back.
Parents should allow playtime to be a daily highlight for their children and make playtime an integral part of their daily routine and should not take away playtime as a way of punishment for behaviors engaged outside of playtime. Denying them this could lead to negative attention-seeking. Giving children the opportunity to foster a healthy understanding of play with their parents can lead to a positive and fulfilling relationship between each other.
Now, quite the reverse when the child displays a positive behavior such as following directions or asking for a toy instead of grabbing it, we will then apply a reward in order to increase the likelihood of that behavior to repeat. The rewards in these instances could include praise, happy acknowledgment, and high fives explaining why we are happy in the shortest, simplest way.
Playing with your children can be a truly rewarding experience that not only strengthens the parent-child bond, but also helps children learn important skills such as following directions, setting limits, and understanding appropriate consequences. By creating a safe and positive environment at home, parents can teach their children valuable life lessons while having fun and building memories that will last a lifetime. It’s a beautiful win-win-win situation that benefits both parents and children alike.
Most importantly, let us keep in mind the profound impact of play on a child’s development. Let us encourage parents to view play as an essential part of their child’s growth, and to prioritize quality over quantity. By embracing the benefits of play and making it a regular part of their child’s routine, parents can help their children thrive and reach their full potential.
Guadalupe Navarro is a licensed clinical social worker at The Guidance Center where he is a practitioner of the healing arts helping individuals self-actualize to their true potential. Navarro earned a Bachelor’s of Arts in Sociology from University of California at Santa Barbara and completed a Master’s in Social Work, with a specialization in forensic social work, from California State University, Los Angeles.