Playing with children: easy, isn't it? You just sit there, pick up some wooden bricks and build your own tower next to theirs...
That might be how our parents did it – if they did it at all – but actually, no, there's a lot more to playing with your child than you might think.
Our children's lives are full of instructions, expectations and structure. What happens if we follow their lead in play? Tessa Hardingham, parent educator, play therapist and volunteer at MOLO, a charity set up to help mums connect with their little ones through play, explains that play encompasses many different aspects of a child's development. "Unlike adults who can run things over in their minds, children need to show their thoughts through play."
So, if play forms such an important role, how can we be sure we're doing it right?
Take a step back
"Sometimes the way children play doesn't look like we might expect it to, for instance a child who lines up toy cars or crayons", explains Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of ToddlerCalm: A Guide for Calmer Toddlers and Happier Parents. "It's important to take a step back and allow your child to play in their own way though. This will be far more valuable to them than any play you can construct".
Remember all children are different
It's not just about boys being different to girls – all children vary in their play preferences. "Some are wildly imaginative and love role play games", Sarah tells us. "Others prefer more methodical tasks such as shape sorting. Let your child find their own preferences wherever possible. And remember, children love repetition: it reassures them and helps them to make sense of the world. This is often reflected in play and your child may want to play the same game over and over again, which is totally normal."
Let them lead
Playing is what your child is an expert at – so let them be the boss. "Letting them direct the play and playing with your child is a way of seeing into their world and 'listening' to them", says Tessa. "Ask what they would like you to play with them, and be attentive and interested in what they are doing (without your phone or computer nearby!)".
Don't ask questions
It's tempting to ask questions, just like we would at work or with our adult peers, but, as Sarah explains, questions can be more about our agenda. "Try just being alongside them as they play and letting them direct and lead the play allows them to feel that their ideas are valuable", she suggests.
Try not to worry
If your toddler or preschooler doesn't play or share with others, don't let it bother you. This is totally normal, Sarah explains. "At this age children will 'parallel play', which means they will play alongside each other, but with each other. At this age they haven't grasped the concept of sharing either: it's simple brain development and something your child will get in time."
Encourage imaginative play
Try having some 'real world' toys available. Tessa suggest things such as: dressing up (hats, bags, medical kit), play money and shop items, toy phone, tea set, dolls house and people, cars, emergency vehicles, animals etc. "Notice what play your child is most drawn to and it may open your eyes to their world."
For sensory play, try a tub of shaving foam squirted into an old washing up bowl, plastic animals frozen in an ice cream tub full of water and a tray full of mud, sticks and stones, Sarah suggests. Or make a 'story sack' by filling a cloth sack full of items from favourite stories, for example, a felt caterpillar, a plastic orange, a wooden slice of cake, a leaf and a picture of a beautiful butterfly to accompany 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' book.
Take ten minutes
Even if you find it boring (and don't worry, many of us do!), try to find just ten minutes each day when you play with your child and allow them to direct the play. "It can literally turn parent-child relationships around and have a dramatically positive effect on a child's behaviour," Sarah tells us.
Try play therapy
Play therapy can help children with worries or more complex issues. Instead of having to explain what the matter is (as you would in an adult therapy session), children are able to use play to communicate at their own level and at their own pace, without feeling interrogated or threatened. For UK-wide info, visit The British Association of Play Therapists or Play Therapy UK. To find out more about Tessa's play therapy sessions in London, email her on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07905 782628.
Charlotte Mulford attended a few play therapy sessions with her son Joshua, six, and saw his confidence grow. "It was exciting to be led by Joshua into his world through play. I have learned how to allow him to lead and held back from making my own suggestions or questions. This has helped him to feel better understood by me and our relationship has really strengthened. He is a naturally quiet boy, but is becoming more assertive through play."
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