Playing with your young child can have many different purposes. It can be purely for fun. It can be educational. It can also be used to strengthen the parent-child relationship. All of these purposes and others can overlap.
The following tips can help you to use play intentionally as a way to strengthen your relationship with your child. They are focused towards children ages 2 – 6. Try them out when you can give your child 5 minutes of your uninterrupted attention.
• Let your child lead the play. Whether you ask your child if you can join their play or whether you ask your child to play with you, follow along with how they are playing with the toys and what story they are using the toys to develop. Let them act or talk first and then you respond to that. (Note: If your child is playing in aggressive, destructive, or unsafe ways, you would intervene, not follow that lead. Depending on the situation, you might decide to ignore, distract, give the toy a time-out, or end the play.) Avoid asking questions, criticizing, and giving directions. These take the lead away from your child.
• Use encouragement and specific praise as one of the ways you respond. Avoid general praise. For example, specific praise sounds like this: “I like the way you handed me the toy gently.” Encouragement acknowledges effort: “You are really thinking about how to use the blocks.” In contrast, general praise, such as “You are a very good boy,” actually encourages a child to be dependent on the viewpoint of others instead of developing their own inner sense of self-worth.
• Another way to respond is to reflect what the child says. A reflection includes key words of what the child just said. If your child says, “Nice doggy,” you can repeat “Nice doggy,” or expand, “That is a nice doggy.” Repeating verbatim tends to work best with the younger children. As the child’s verbal skills increase, expanding the reflection increases the communication. The response could be, “Your farmer (toy) likes the nice doggy.” By using reflection, you support your child to develop the back-and-forth flow of communication. You assure them that you are really listening to what they have to say.
• Description is another way to comment on and respond to your child’s behavior. When you say, “You are stacking the red block on the blue block,” you are again letting your child know that you are really attending to their play. Description also gives you a way to actively respond if your child doesn’t tend to say much.
These tips for play are not intended to be rules for the only way to play with your child. Asking questions, taking the lead, or giving directions can all be valid depending on the purpose of the play. If you decide to try these tips, 5 minutes of play more days than not can be enough to make a difference. Maybe you will pick 1 or 2 tips to start with. As you become comfortable with them, you can add more.
If you are concerned that your relationship with your child has more on the negative side of the scales than the positive, and your efforts to change that don’t seem to be paying off, it may be time to consider some professional help. A child play therapist can help parents and children to heal hurting relationships.