5 Tips for Effective, Connection Building Play With Your Child

As a counselor, I often talk with parents about the importance of play with their child. The (easier said than done) task of playing with a child, and truly playing with them on their level, how they want, can increase the bond between parent and child in ways that conversation simply cannot. Play is a child's natural medium for connection and communication, and I often recommend that play is increased at home. Parents are very open but often confused: "She does play," they respond or "How do I play with him?" They ask. Below are five simple but effective tips for play with your child. Use these tips to help increase the amount of play and connection in your home: 

1. Make the time: The most important but sometimes most difficult step to take is the first step: Make the time to play with your child! Play is one of the most important parts of childhood. It is not just a break from chores or homework but it is the way children communicate and learn. Schedule a time to play with your child and stick to the schedule as you would a responsibility like work or the gym.

2. Turn it off: Be fully present! Turn off the cell phone, the work computer, the TV. Except for gentle music or white noise in the background if you cannot stand the silence, turn it all off and direct your attention to your child! Turn off the need to check anything off of your to-do list including teaching your child anything (just for these few minutes), correcting behavior (within reasonable limits) and the desire to ask them about their day/week/plans in the future/etc. Let this be time for your child to be a child and to play. Let this be time for them to connect! Unless they are doing something that is unsafe or is causing you to feel uncomfortable, let them play and save the correcting for the other 23 hours in the day. Turn off your expectations of yourself, too! You don't have to be so serious with yourself. Let go and have fun!

3. Make it special: Find a way to make this time special and separate from the child's other play. If you have the space in your home, designate a set space that you use for this play time. Maybe it is the child's playroom or in the living room or even just a blanket on the floor in a common space. If it is within your budget, you may even buy special toys that you only play with during this special time. If you are picking special toys, pick toys that invigorate the imagination. Keep all other siblings preoccupied and out of the special area during this time. This is about you and your child, and they can have their own special play time later. To make it extra special, announce the special play time by telling your child: "This is our special play time. During this time, you can play with whatever you would like in this area. If there is something you can't do, I will tell you."  

4. Let the child lead: This is one of the most important steps of the process! Lose any agenda you have for this play time and let your child be the guide and leader. Let the child pick the toys he or she wants to play with, the role you take on in the play and the intensity of the play. When your child leads the play time, he or she learns that you are willing to accept them and that sometimes, just sometimes, the child can make his or her own decisions. Along with these benefits, the child also learns to work out his or her own problems and find solutions in his or her own time. This gives the child back some of the control that children often feel that they are losing.

Since your child is leading, you do not need to ask any questions except "What do I do?" --and use your whisper voice, like you are taking cues from a director. Refrain from asking your child "What are you doing?" Or "Do you need help?" Let the child lead the play and trust that the child will ask you if he or she needs help, and if you become confused or feel like you aren't active in the play, trust that the child will definitely tell you what he or she wants you to do if you ask (in your whisper voice). There will be times when in play, your child corrects you and that is okay, too! As long as your child is within the limits of safety, allow the child to be the leader. 

5. Be a mirror for your child: As you play, mirror (do not mimic) the play for the child. If the child is laughing, reflect that feeling back to the child by saying "You think [that] is funny" or "You are really laughing hard!" This lets your child know that you are in tune with what he or she is feeling. They will start to feel like you get it and you get them. Along with mirroring, share in the same intensity and level of play that the child is in without trying to guide them one way or another. These reflective statements do not have to occur many times during play, but they are a signal to your child that you understand their emotions and you are right there with them, seeing them go through these feelings and understanding them. This is where the connection is deepened! These statements may feel forced or come out as questions at first. Don't worry! This is part of the process and will feel more comfortable as you go along. 

BONUS TIP: Trust the process! This will feel awkward and silly at first. You will feel uncomfortable and like you are biting your tongue just to not ask how school was or if the child finished his homework. It is OKAY! Be present, be open to the experience and be authentic in your play and interactions with your child. Let your child see that you can play too, that you can connect with her and that you understand and can reflect back the feelings and intensity that arise in your child's play. 

Adding play into your routine with your child may seem confusing and difficult at first but trust that this will add connection and bring joy into your life! If you have questions about this process or feel like you need more support and guidance, contact a local play therapist to help guide you through this process and answer any questions that may arise.

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Take these tips and try them out at home, seek guidance when you need it, and check back soon for more articles regarding play and children!

These tips are adapted from the Child Centered Play Therapy training that I have received as a clinician and skills taught to parents in Filial Therapy.