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How to Play with your Child to Decrease Stress and Increase Connection by Tara McDonnell

It seems that in the midst of a pandemic, we are being reminded of the power of play. In fact, play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child (American Academy of Pediatrics). Teachers, Play Therapists (and grandparents) around the world have known this for eons, of course, but somewhere along the line, academic achievement eclipsed our focus on play, even for preschoolers, and this has consequences. Research by the American Academy of Pediatrics tells us that decreased free-play can have implications for children’s ability to store new information. It can affect impulse control, attention capacity, frustration tolerance, as well as increasing stress and anxiety, which may lead to depression.

According to Garry Landreth, internationally-known counselor and author, toys are like a child’s words and play is their language. When children can play freely, they are able to release negative feelings, feel better about themselves, and experience less stress. Perhaps the most important point, however, is that play offers parents and caregivers the opportunity to fully engage and be present with their children.

In a world that is digitally-obsessed, always on the go, and continually blurring the line between work life and family, some of us may have forgotten how to play, or at least how to play in a way that helps our children thrive. So, in the midst of this global crisis, when life has been turned upside down and there doesn’t seem to be any consistency in sight, let’s take the opportunity to enjoy our kids and PLAY. And in case you’re in need of a refresher course in play, here you go.

If it’s play time with your child, it’s time to relax! Take off your parent hat, leave the guilt behind, and connect with your child.

Schedule Play Time

  • Carve out 20 to 30 minutes per day to commit to one-on-one play time and don’t let anything interrupt this time.

  • Sit at your child’s level (yes, get down on the floor), make eye contact, and use a gentle, loving touch.

Let them be in charge.

  • Allow your child to direct the play and your part in their play. Follow their lead and let them feel in control. Remember, they often don’t have control in any other environment.

Set Limits when Needed, but Avoid Disciplining

  • Refrain from teaching or correcting. Children learn in so many different ways and they’ll gain more confidence discovering things on their own, rather than being by an adult.

Go Offline

  • Play time is a great chance to strengthen your relationship, so it should be a cell phone-free zone.

Bite Your Tongue

  • Stay away from questions or commands. When your child takes the lead, you won’t have to tell them what to do, so commands and questions aren’t necessary. Letting them lead and figure things out as they go is empowering.

  • Be ok with silence. You don’t always have to be having a conversation to connect. Your presence means more than you know.

Be Positive

  • Try to catch your child doing something positive, and let them know you appreciate it. Research has revealed that criticism doesn’t help kids (or adults for that matter), so whatever they do during this time is ok.

Lastly, express delight in your child. Let them know you’re happy to be their parent no matter what, and rest assured that this time is helping them understand the world around them, develop communication skills, experiment with new ideas, prime their brain for higher-level learning, and feel connected and loved.

Tara McDonnell, LCSW, RPT

Center for Mindful Families

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