Why should I play with my child? - Family Time

There is a widespread belief in our society that academic achievement, economic success and work are considered to be fundamental to an individual's wellbeing and that the time parents and children spend playing together is frivolous and unproductive. This conviction is reflected in comments such as “she is only playing around”, “why bother send them to preschool?”, “all they do is play”. 

We should try to break loose from these premeditated concepts because the time that parents spend playing with their children reaps benefits in many ways. Us parents have an essential role in play and providing children with time, and the chance to play is critical for their development. 

Play provides children with opportunities to learn about who they are, what they can do and how to relate to the world around them. Play encourages creativity, and when I say play, I do not mean spending time in front of the TV or a Tablet, however playing with some good old toys. Unfortunately, when a parent does not play with their child, creative play gradually fades within that child, as they are no longer stimulated to be imaginative. 

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Play enables children to enhance warm relationships and build experiences between family members, and this creates a bank of positive feelings which can be drawn upon in time of conflict. Through play, children improve their vocabulary skills to communicate their thoughts and learn to socialise, to think, to solve problems, and most importantly, to have fun. As a result, this heightens their emotional wellbeing and promotes feelings of self-worth and competence which lead to positive self-esteem. 

How should we play with our children?

 It is advised that we spend around 15 minutes a day playing with each of our children. Some parents try to structure their children's play by giving lessons on what to do. Unfortunately, this results in an emphasis on the product of play and in a string of commands which is unrewarding for both the adult and child. Parents can support their child’s development and learn by encouraging various forms of play. 

The first step in playing with your children is to follow their lead, ideas and imaginations, rather than imposing your own. Do not try to teach them anything, instead imitate their actions and do what they ask you to do, you will soon notice that when you do this, your child will become more involved and interested in playing. Children need various forms of play to develop emotional, physical, social, and cognitive skills.

It is essential to play at a pace which suits your child. Younger children tend to play repetitively with the same object. Children need to rehearse and practice a skill to feel comfortable and confident about their abilities. If they are pushed into a new activity they will feel incompetent and get frustrated, then give up. Be sensitive to your children’s cues. 

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Encourage your child’s independent problem-solving. Sometimes parents are trying to be too helpful, for example, a boy is trying to put a lid to close a box, and his mother responds by saying “here, let me do it for you”. The child then gets upset because he did not want the mother to take over and do it for him. Another example is a child who gets frustrated cause his father finishes off the last pieces of his puzzle. Giving too much help or taking over the activity decreases a child’s sense of accomplishment and self-esteem, and fosters dependence on adults.  During play, parents could encourage their children to think, solve problems and play independently, instead of doing the puzzle for them, suggesting they do them together. 

Praise in Play

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Use praise freely during play, around every 2 to 3 minutes to encourage your child’s ideas and creativity. Try not to judge or contradict your children when playing with them. Creating and experimenting are what’s important, not the finished product. However, for praise to work, it must be realistic, rather than the same repetitive stock phrase we use with our children for all occasions, such as “that is great” and ”you are great”. 

For praise to be effective, it is essential to be realistic about their skills and talents, for instance,  rather than saying “your painting is best”,  say "I like the way that you coloured inside the line" or "the red giraffe looks good".  Such praise will encourage your child to continue drawing in future and would also constructively teach the child that colouring within the lines is something to do. Otherwise, they may grow up to be disappointed that they are not the next Leonardo da Vinci and have feelings of incompetence and failure. 

Occasionally, parents tend to ask a string of questions while playing “what animal is that?”, “what colour is that”, “ what shape is that?”, This too often has the reverse effect, causing them to become defensive, silent and reluctant to talk. Parents can show interest in their children’s play by simply describing and providing supportive comments about what they are doing. This approach actively encourages language development. For example, a parent may say “you are putting the car in the garage” and so forth. 

Encourage your child’s independent problem-solving. Sometimes parents are trying to be too helpful, for example, a boy is trying to put a lid to close a box, and his mother responds by saying “here, let me do it for you”. The child then gets upset because he did not want the mother to take over and do it for him. Another example is a child who gets frustrated cause his father finishes off the last pieces of his puzzle. Giving too much help or taking over the activity decreases a child’s sense of accomplishment and self-esteem, and fosters dependence on adults.  During play, parents could encourage their children to think, solve problems and play independently, instead of doing the puzzle for them, suggesting they do them together. 

Tangible rewards can be used to reinforce the achievement of a specific goal. For instance, if a parent notices that every-time the brothers play together they end up fighting, the goal is to reduce fighting and increase sharing between them, while playing quietly. To achieve this goal, a tangible reward program with both children could be set up. This can be used to motivate them to share and play quietly. The rewards need to be discussed with the children beforehand and the list of treats written down. The rewards can be inexpensive material items such as markers, cards, a special lunch treat or new toy (cost limited). Rewards can also include appropriate privileges at home, such as choosing a dessert for the family, having a friend over to play or specific outdoor activities such as going for a picnic or to the swings or special time with parents, such as an extra bedtime story, baking cookies, doing a puzzle together. Tangible rewards will only work as long as you choose effective rewards, make the program fun and simple, monitor the charts carefully, immediately follow through with rewards when they deserve them. The rewards may be revised and changed over time. However, it is important to be consistent with setting limits on behaviours. 

It is essential for parents to value play and set time aside to spend with their children. Playing with your children fosters positive self-esteem, improves their social, emotional and cognitive development. Play also encourages children to try out their imaginations, explore the impossible, test out new ideas, make mistakes, solve problems and gain confidence in their thoughts and ideas. Good play can reduce their feelings of anger, fear and inadequacy, and provide feelings of being in control and success. Playing with your children enables each child to develop into a unique, creative and self- confident individual. Play is one of the most critical foundations for successful parenting. 

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Nigel Camilleri 

Consultant in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 

Chair for the Malta Branch of the Association of Child and Adolescent Mental Health