Often, we adults think of ‘play’ as simply having fun, but in reality it is one of the main ways that children learn. Speech and language, motor skills and social skills are all learnt through play but as parents, we can also learn a lot about our children as we play with them.
As we play we are not just teaching our children, but also learning ourselves. It’s a great chance to understand them as a person, learning their likes and dislikes, and most importantly continuing to bond with them. Bonding with a child through play is often very rewarding for parents, as it’s fun, relaxing and gives you the exciting opportunity to really get to know your little one. A survey by Chad Valley shows Dad is actually the new playtime favourite for 27% of families and with 45% of parents regularly ditching a drink with friends in order to play with the kids at home, it’s a great time to get involved.
You probably will have noticed your child role-playing in their games already. You may have seen them pretending to parent a teddy or getting a plastic giraffe to be teacher to the monkeys. Barak (1987) found, among others, that role-playing had a positive effect on how children develop affective and cognitive empathy.
Empathy, the ability to imagine how someone else might feel, is very important in relationships and social situations. If you join in your child’s game, playing with them while they play the father, you can show them how you feel when the father shouts. Equally, they can imagine how the father (you) feels when the child constantly asks for sweets. It can also open your mind to how they see you, though it’s often in an exaggerated form so don’t take it personally if they seem to be playing ‘cross dad’ a lot. It’s their way of exploring feelings and trying to understand how others might feel.
Speech development is naturally vital for children, as it gives them a clear way to communicate and play is the perfect place to start learning. Children begin to pick up speech and language in babyhood, you might notice young babies mimicking the patterns and rhythms of your speech. When you join in their games, they are stimulated and will take in everything from your movements to your facial expressions. As a parent, playing with a baby using lots of verbal description and encouragement helps them grow through language.
When you play with older children, discuss what you are doing, depending on the age reinforce colours (“do you want to use the red block or the yellow block?”) and explain things to increase vocabulary. Word games like children’s scrabble or similar can be great to learn how to spell and remember new words. Parents can really help their children by spending time playing with them in this way.
Imaginations running wild
Although role-play and speech are two of the first things we automatically go to when thinking about parents being involved in play, it also means they can grow further in lots of other ways. If they want to make a spaceship from a cardboard box, or a jungle for their animals then get involved, show them art ideas. You can let them lead, but help by suggesting things like papier-mâché to make the jungle stronger or cling-film over the waterhole to create a water effect. You could even suggest they draw or print out a space picture to put in one of the inside windows of their spaceship, so when they look out they see planets and stars.
Not only can these additions make for exciting toys, but hugely spark the imagination. Chad Valley’s survey also showed that 82% of parents see play as very important in allowing their child’s imagination to grow and this growth is key to learning. If your child can see the planets, they are more likely to ‘visit’ them in their game, resulting in wanting to know more about them. Which is the biggest and which the coldest? Getting involved this way can allow them to build toys; essentially learning new ideas from you and opening up a way to educate them, showing them that in their jungle the elephant showers off the dust by going in the waterhole.
Another area where you can have a very important influence is active play, making physical things fun. With – what the media like to refer to as – the obesity crisis, it’s important to get your children active, but also to help them see it as enjoyable. Playing ‘It’ in the garden, going on the trampoline, even playing on the Xbox Kinect can be great. Get some chalks, draw a hopscotch and hold a competition, play skipping games and football, take them swimming and pretend to be pirates or mer-people or sea lions – it’s virtually endless and affordable.
You’ll find that your children will like to copy you in lots of things, so in active play it’s really good to set an example. If they see you doing a fun workout DVD and want to join in, encourage them. Children often respond well to ‘competition’ type games, so you could try giving them a sticker whenever they do well and get them to give you one back. You don’t want to draw attention to the weight/exercise issue whatever age they are, it’s better to include it as fun in your daily lives equally for yourselves and for your children so it becomes a type of play they choose.
In all areas of play, parents can enjoy themselves with their child, get to know them better and even teach them new things. More and more parents are getting involved with their children’s play and really exploring the world with them. It’s important to feed your child’s imagination and to support them while they grow by being involved in their games. Dust off your imagination and you’ll be amazed at the ideas you come up with, your children may even surprise you too.