When was the last time you played with your child? Were you multitasking? Were you holding your PHD (preferred handheld device)? Can you remember the last time you “simply” waited, watched, and wondered? When our babies are newly born, we tend to naturally do a lot of watching and waiting and wondering. But very often, as time progresses, we create new and efficient routines. Our babies and children become more independent. We tend to focus our energy on doing – making money, making food, cleaning, packing, planning – family maintenance. We live in an extraordinarily fast-paced, highly purposeful and demanding culture. It is easy to consider it superfluous to play. But consider this: it is as important for you to play with your children without judgment, agenda, or distraction as it is for them to have clean clothes on their backs.
I would like to present a challenge. Let’s set aside some time every day engaging in focused, child-led, non-judgmental play with our children. Countless developmental theories and establishments (The American Academy of Pediatrics; Stanley Greenspan’s Floortime model; Serena Weider’s DIR model; the Zero to Three movement; mindful parenting philosophies; psychoanalytic child therapies; etc.) encourage us to let go of our agendas and allow our children to guide us in age-appropriate play alongside them. It may feel silly at first, but it will undoubtedly boost your child’s confidence, teach them how to communicate and think emotionally, help develop their ability to solve problems, exercise their imaginations, and facilitate their capacity for warmth and attachment.
If you’re not sure what I mean, consider the following suggestions (Drs. Greenspan & Weider’s theories expanded):
1. Follow your child’s lead. Make calm and encouraging remarks and ask questions.
Younger child example: “You’re shaking the rattle. Shake, shake, shake!”
Older child example: “You’re interested in that book. Which page is your favorite?”
2. Treat whatever your child is doing as intentional and purposeful
Younger child example: “You’re looking at mommy’s eyes. Big, brown eyes!”
Older child example: “I hear you singing to your doll. I bet she likes that.”
3. Encourage your child’s exploration and choices.
Younger child example: “I see you touching your toes. Now Daddy is touching your toes too!”
Older child example: “You want to look inside the cabinet. Let’s look together.”
4. Open the door to symbolic play.
Younger child example: “The car goes vroom!”
Older child example: “I see you holding the teapot. Are you making some tea or hot chocolate?”
5. Be a player, not just a helper.
Younger child example: Crawl through the play tunnel with them. Shake a rattle with them.
Older child example: Get alongside your child and mimic their behaviors. If they’re hammering with their play tools, grab a toy saw and join the fun. If they don’t want help, find other objects for them to hammer. The more engaged in the play you are, the more thrilled they will become.
I know you have a million things to do. I’m a mom too. I know firsthand how challenging it can be to find time for fun. But this is as important as everything else on our To Do list. It will be good for us and good for our children. And, really, isn’t that what life is all about?
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Danielle Vorzimer, Psy.D. teaches Mothers' Gathering class at A Mother's Haven. She earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University in 2010. Danielle received her B.A. in psychology from Indiana University in 2004 and her M.A. in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University in 2006. Danielle has several years of experience working with adults and children of all ages, including parents & infants, at the Child Development Institute in Woodland Hills, The Help Group in Sherman Oaks, and The Maple Counseling Center in Beverly Hills. Danielle has received a year of training facilitating Mindful Parenting groups with mothers and their babies, and has a special interest in Mindful Parenting theories. She also has experience researching parent-child interactions in the field of third party reproduction.