I have a confession. I sometimes get mom guilt when I am not playing with M. Now, as an early childhood educator, I know that children need time to play independently. Playing independently is important for their development. It builds imagination, teaches them how to express themselves, to problem solve, helps them learn their likes and dislikes, helps to form a sense of self and cope with new situations.
But, I know if I am cleaning the house, working, or doing other chores when I could be down on the floor playing with M, I get major mom guilt. I know part of this mom guilt stems from the fact that time is fleeting. He is getting bigger and bigger every day, and I want to cherish every moment with him.
And as an early childhood educator, I also know that playing with your child helps build a strong, warm, loving relationship. Playing together also supports the development of essential skills like sharing, taking turns, language skills, labeling objects, making requests, thinking skills, and problem-solving.
So, knowing that independent play and playing together are both so important I want to write a two-part series. Why Playing with Your Child is Important and Why Independent Play is Important. It is important to know that for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers play is their “work.” Play is how they learn about the world around them. You often see young children (babies-preschoolers) playing, repeating, trying, and mastering new skills.
Through play, young children (I would argue all children) learn cause and effect of an action, explore their imagination and creativity, learn to communicate, and learn about relationships with other people. Something I really want to stress is all types of play help young kids learn and practice new skills. Also, you can make any activity playful. It could be a game of peek-a-boo, helping clean the table, folding clothes, building blocks, etc.
You as the parent(s) are your child’s very first and most favorite playmate. Think about the newborn stage… your child watched your face, listened to your voice, and learned your reactions. You are essential to your baby’s ability to learn to play and develop social skills that will later help them connect and build friendships with others. The skills to have fun, enjoy and play with other children along with what is appropriate to play with and what is not comes from you, the parents.
Playtime is so so important, whether it is an independent play or playing with your child. I know playing with your kids every day can be hard. We live very busy lives, between work, taking care of the house, feeding the family, etc. Being a parent is such a hard job. But if you set aside a brief period of time every day to play together it will do wonders for building a strong, happy, loving relationship and can even help to reduce challenging behaviors.
Here are a few things to think about to help make the most out of your playtime together.
Follow Your Child’s Lead: When the child gets to make the decisions about who gets to be what character when you play make-believe, they are gaining so many skills. They are exploring their imagination and creativity, learning to communicate, making requests, etc. There will be an urge to take over the play and help your child tell the story or use the toy in what you think is the “correct” way. But I urge you to take your child’s lead.
Provide an object, toy, or activity for your child and see what they come up with. It’s okay if it isn’t the “right” way, maybe they have a “new way.” For example: if you’re playing house and you give your child a cup, don’t make them pretend to drink from it, maybe they want to make it into a hat and wear it on their head. Support the creativity and join the party.
Play, Play It Again, Again, and Again: Do your children make you read the same book a million times? Or do they make you play with the same toy or game over and over again? There is a reason, and when you think to yourself “if I have to read this book again/play this game again I am going to go crazy” I urge you to read it again or play it again, remembering how important it is for your child’s development.
Your child is practicing skills and challenges to master them. When your child can do it by themselves they earn a little internal reward. They now have a powerful sense of their own skills and abilities, giving them the confidence of becoming smarter and successful.
The more they practice and master new skills the more likely they will want to take on new challenges and learn new things (have you heard of the Growth Mindset?).
Let Them Figure it Out: (this tip is one of the hardest for me to follow, hopefully, you have better luck than me.) Your child got a new toy and you want to show them how it works so they can play with it the right way, right? Well, try to hold off on doing it for them every time. Start slowly, maybe show them how to start something, like stacking one block on top of another, then encourage the child to try it, on their own.
It is a fine line between doing it for them and keeping them from getting frustrated and give up. If you notice they are getting frustrated only give them enough help to keep them from getting frustrated and keep them motivated to learn the new skill. Like I said this is an area I still struggle with. But it does make a huge difference when your child completes something on their own with the littlest amount of help.
Read Their Signals: This tip is so important! Children have a hard time expressing their emotions from babies who can’t talk all the way up to preschoolers who are learning to label emotions. But, even if your child can’t tell you with their words that they are frustrated, they tell you in other ways (sounds, facial expressions, and etc.). Your child will also use signals to tell you what activities they like. Reading signals that come before a tantrum can also help you know when it’s time to change to a new activity or offer a little more help, etc.
Look at the Play Space: All children learn through play, this is one of the best ways for your children to learn. All play activities can be adapted to meet a child’s unique needs, whether the child has special needs or you just want to make playtime more enjoyable and age appropriate for their skills, preferences, and abilities. Looking at the play space you will be in beforehand can prevent an accident, broken lamp, or tantrum.
Checking out the sapce you want to play beforehand can help prevent accidents, tantrums, or broken/ruined things. A few things to think about when looking at the play space:
- How do things like sound and/or light affect your child?
- Is the area child-friendly/safe?
- Is it a good space for the activity you’ve chosen (running, painting, building blocks, playing dress up, throwing balls etc)?
- What is the background noise like? Is there a TV or Radio on? Are there any other children around?
- Does your child seem distressed during play time? (You may need to try a quieter, less stimulating area to play)
- How does your child respond to new things? (If your child is easily overstimulated try starting playtime slowly, with one toy or object then gradually add others.)
- Involve peers. It is important for children to establish relationships with other children their own age. Encourage sibling play, arrange times to play with other children/family members. Check out opportunities to play with other kids at the park or library.
Children need to play, it is how they learn and master skills. They need to play with you because it helps them build a strong, warm, loving relationship along with many other skills. You are your child’s first and most favorite playmate. Spending time playing with your child will not be wasted, even if it is as little as 10 minutes. When you play with your child remember to let them be in charge, let them try new things with little help from you, read what your child is telling you (both verbal and nonverbal, and make sure the place you play meets everyone’s needs. But most importantly, just enjoy this time with your kids, they are only this age for a little while.