Play time! Forget about being an educator and take a moment to unwind.
Taking time to play with your child has many benefits, both for them and for you, and it doesn’t need to be a really long time or complicated. It can be as simple as doing a puzzle, playing with cars, dolls, or a board game, or even making faces, tickling each other, or having a pillow fight. Keep in mind what’s important is having fun together.
Why should you play with your child?
Playing with your child every day, even as little as 10 to 15 minutes, allows you to get closer to them and helps strengthen your attachment bond. When you participate in their games, your child understands that you value what is important to them.
Discover yourself in a new light
Playing allows you to get to know your child better. When you are playing together, you learn about their interests as well as what they are able to do and what is a challenge. It is also an opportunity for you to observe how they organize their play, their sense of initiative, their reaction in front of a tower of blocks that falls repeatedly, their perseverance in finishing a puzzle, their imagination, etc.
Your child gets to discover your less serious side. They will learn that, just like they do, you like to laugh and have fun, and that you can even have funny ideas.
Meet their need for attention
Your child wants your attention because they need to feel loved and important. By playing regularly with your child, you are fulfilling their need for attention. Therefore, they are less likely to adopt disturbing behaviour to get your attention.
To meet this need, it is better to play with your child for several short periods of time rather than playing for a whole hour, but only from time to time. Your child may also accept your refusal a little easier if they know you will play with them at a specific time of the day.
For more information, check out our fact sheet The need for attention (in French).
Living in the present and relaxing
Laughter is an excellent antidote to stress because it makes your body produce a natural hormone, endorphin, which reduces fatigue and stress.
Playing with your child can help you rediscover the pleasure of being in the present moment. In their play, your child is totally focused on what they are doing (e.g. racing their cars, playing with figurines, drawing). This way you are slowing your usual routine when you follow along with your child in their game and focus on what is happening in the present moment.
Your child is also an excellent teacher when it comes to finding happiness in every moment. Let them guide you. You will have no choice but to have fun, laugh, and temporarily leave all of your concerns aside for the day. The play period becomes a stress-free moment that is entirely centred on enjoyment.
How to play with your child
Follow what your child wants to play
Let your child lead, because playing is the only area where they make all of the decisions (unlike feeding, dressing, bedtime, etc.). When making decisions, your child feels they are in full control, which instills pride and builds self-esteem.
You can suggest small variations to enhance the game, but do not impose them. It is your child’s decision on whether to accept them.
If your child is still young, you can simply demonstrate interest in their game (e.g. “It sounds like your game is fun”), imitate what they are doing (e.g. build a block tower), ask them questions about what they are doing (e.g. “Why are all the cars on one side?”), and talk about what you are both doing (e.g. “Look at the big bridge we made with the cushions!”).
In addition to letting your child take the lead, it is also important that you are fully involved in the game, i.e. not using a tablet or phone, and not preoccupied with what’s for dinner or a to-do list.
Keep in mind that the goal is to have a good time and some fun with your child, not to teach them how to play or to turn the game into an educational activity. If games are always learning-oriented, your child will not feel like they are playing, but rather like they are doing an exercise or completing a task to please you. The enjoyment may fade, and playing is supposed to be fun more than anything else!
Not enough time on your hands?
While your child’s primary activity is playing, it may not necessarily be yours. However, you can definitely spare a few minutes to have fun with your child. Consider this time as your anti-stress therapy, a stress outlet for the day.
Should you play with your child all the time?
If you lack the time or energy after a busy day, or you don’t really feel like playing, that is OK. When your child asks to play, they want your attention. You are already giving them attention in these situations:
Giving your child attention is just as important as playing with them.
- Enjoying time together, i.e. talking during a bath or a meal, singing on car trips, reading a book together, walking in the park, dancing in the living room, etc.;
- Simply watching your child play. Take opportunities to comment on their drawings or provide encouragement while they build a tower with their blocks;
- Introducing your child to household tasks as a game. They will be happy to help daily in setting the table or sorting the laundry, for example.
All these activities give your child a sense of importance, since you are devoting time to them.
Learning to play alone
For a child, learning to play alone is as important as play time with mom or dad. By playing on their own, your child is developing their autonomy, resourcefulness, imagination, and ability to take initiative. In addition, playing alone allows them to make decisions in terms of what to play, how, with what, and for how long.
If your child has difficulty playing without you, avoid sending them to play in their room by themselves, as they will see this as you wanting to get rid of them. Likewise, do not say that you don’t understand how they could be bored with so many toys.
Instead, show empathy (e.g. “I know it’s challenging to choose something to play”). Tell them you trust their creativity (e.g. “I know you will come up with a great idea”). If necessary, you can give them suggestions (e.g. “If I were your age and had so much talent, I would want to build something with my blocks right now”).
Need some ideas to encourage your child to play alone? Check out our fact sheet Playing alone (in French).
Things to keep in mind
Playing with your child allows you to develop a closer relationship with them, strengthen your attachment bond, and show them that they are important to you.
It is important to let your child lead the game without trying to make the activity educational.
Even though playing with your child is important, you don’t have to play with them all the time, as they also have to learn to play alone.
Scientific review: Josiane Caron Santha, occupational therapist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: March 2020
Useful links and resources
FERLAND, Francine. Et si on jouait? Le jeu au cœur du développement de l’enfant. 3rd ed., Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 240 pp.