There’s no aspect of childhood development that the simple act of playing doesn’t shape. Tinkering with a toy promotes dexterity and abstract thought. Dress-up and role play improve language and social skills. Rough-and-tumble games hone motor skills. In a 2018 clinical report, the American Academy of Pediatrics said play—more than school—develops the brain’s capacity to learn. But today’s overscheduled kids get less of the former and more of the latter.
What’s more, parents should get in on the action. “The mutual joy and shared communication and attunement . . . that parents and children can experience during play regulate the body’s stress response,” said the report. But before you go plugging “play with kid” into your jam-packed calendar, consider that the report used words like “spontaneous” and “joyful” to define the act. Play shouldn’t be a chore, and you’re probably already doing more of it than you know. All you’re missing is a little intentionality.
- Think small. If you’re too tired to transform the couch into a fort, or if the thought of getting out the Play-Doh makes you die a little inside, go easy on yourself. That’s “Play” with a capital P, and we’ll call it extra credit. At its core, play “helps us get to know each other,” says Jennifer Walker, co-author of the popular Moms On Call parenting guides and a mother of three. It’s taking a walk together and stopping to blow dandelion seeds. It’s a dance party after dinner or “This Little Piggy” after a diaper change. In short, it’s any activity where there’s no agenda except to enjoy one another.
- Work it in into your schedule. On hectic weekdays, pick a part of your routine—even if it’s just a few minutes—that’s all about fun. Get silly (and maybe a little wet) at bath time. Belt out Raffi or Hamilton together in the car. Seize the bedtime regimen: read stories, play airplane, cuddle, chat. He’s running from his PJs anyway; you might as well chase him.
- Technology can be your friend. You’ve seen the studies and know from experience: screen time is a sap on mental health and relationships. But just as technology can sometimes facilitate stress relief (as with those handy meditation apps), so too can it broker bonding. Let your kid teach you Minecraft. Cue up “Tooty Ta” with your preschooler (if you know what that is, solidarity, friend). Get excited about whatever the heck is going to come out of that surprise egg. Be like this awesome dad (or this one) and make home viral videos.
- But for Pete’s sake put down your phone. Ever glance around the playground and notice how most of the parents are completely checked out? We’re all guilty of parenting while scrolling, but studies have shown that parental phone usage hampers kids’ language development and strains the relationship dynamic. If bath time doubles as playtime, great, but put your device away and be present. Monitoring your screen time also sets an example for your child. “We all use that ‘I’ve got to check emails for work’ line,” says Walker. “I want to see how my balance is going to affect [my kids’] balance later in life. Can I go to my office and answer emails at certain times?” Moms in particular, she notes, try to juggle working from home or managing a side hustle with parenting (“easier said than done”).
- Play to your strengths. Maybe you’re not crafty, but you can build an epic tower out of magnet tiles. You can’t juggle a soccer ball, but you’re down for a game of chess. Hate tea parties, love mud pies—you get the idea. Seek out activities you and your child both enjoy; kids can tell when mom and dad are dialed in. “When you’re having fun, they will be invited into that very authentic moment,” Walker says.