Families That Play Together Grow Together: Part Three – How Do I Play With My Child?

What if I’ve forgotten how to play?

On TheGuardian.com website I found an article called – “Parents are forgetting how to play with their children, study shows” and it reported:

“The State of Play, Back to Basics report interviewed 2,000 parents and 2,000 children aged five to 15 about their play habits. It concludes that play is in danger of becoming a “lost art” for British families, with 21% of parents admitting they no longer remember how to play and struggle to engage their children in creative and imaginative activities that will help their development.”


“A lack of clear advice and direction generally on how to engage children in effective play and deal with problems they encounter is a clear issue for parents”


You are not alone if playing with your kids feels unnatural to you.  Many parents are in the same boat.  The best source for me on learning how to play and interact with kids is The Hanen Centre.  Hanen is an organization, established in Ontario about 35 years ago, that develops training programs and learning resources geared at teaching parents and caregivers how to interact and communicate effectively with children who are at risk for or have language delays.  I’ve benefited so much from their programs I became certified in three of them.

The aim of each program is to improve a child’s language skills through play-based interaction strategies.  I have internalized this approach so well that I use  the skills intuitively with all children that I interact with.  They are as effective with toddlers as they are with school-aged kids, no matter if they have language difficulties or not.  I encourage all parents to use them when they play with their kids.  Here are some of the fundamental skills Hanen Programs teach adults:

Follow the Child’s Lead:

Let your child lead the play. Wait for them to initiate, your job is to respond. Resist taking over and changing the direction of the play because you think it is somehow wrong or inefficient. Kids need to use their imaginations and parents need to have an open-mind when it comes to play ideas.  The interaction will always be more motivating, engaging and meaningful to your child if they have led the interaction.  Think of yourself as a supporting actor in a play, and your child as the playwright, director, and starring role.

OWL: Observe, Wait and Listen:

Before you begin to play with your child, Observe what he or she is interested in. Stand back and let them choose the toy or game.  Wait for your child to initiate the playing.  Refrain from asking questions.  Count silently to 10 and look excited and expectant.  Listen to what your child says.  Don’t belittle your child’s ideas, praise them and give them a chance. Games don’t always need to be played by the written rules, allow your child to make them up.  Don’t accept only the conventional way of playing, embrace your child’s creativity and see where it takes you.

 Be Face To Face:

Play on the floor, or wherever your child decides to play.  Face them with your head at the same level as theirs.  This gives you a great opportunity to see the world from their eyes.  It also helps to develop non-verbal skills as you will both be able to see the other person’s facial expressions. This also sends the message that your child is at the same level of importance as you are, that you are going to take them seriously, which gives them the confidence to be themselves and take control of the interaction.

Imitate, Interpret, and Comment:

If you aren’t sure how to play the game, do as your child does.  Imitate them…monkey see, monkey do! They will find this empowering and funny at the same time.  Interpret when you are unsure what your child is saying – this is important when your child is very young or has limited language skills.  Comment on what your child is doing, don’t ask too many questions.  Questions can be intimidating because they require an answer. Questions also tend to interfere with the playing instead of adding to it.  Commenting allows you to acknowledge what your child is doing, praise their ideas, and narrate what is happening.  This shows your child that you value what they are doing and builds their self-esteem.

Join In and Play:

Finally, once you have allowed your child to lead and acknowledged that you value what they are doing, you join in and play with them.  Be sure to add to what your child is already doing. Get your own toy (e.g. with a toy garage – get your own car, with a Little People house – get your own person). Remember to imitate your child’s actions if you don’t know what to do. If you don’t know what to say, imitate your child’s words, comment on what is happening, and narrate what your child is doing. If you want to make changes to the play do so gently and subtly.  If the child rejects the change, accept it and follow their lead again.  You will be amazed at the adventures and worlds your child will take you, if you let yourself go so you can get lost in their imagination, and allow the playing happen.


The most important thing to remember when playing with your child is that they are the star (and the writer and the director).  It will take practice
before you can completely let go of your ego and let your child control the playing.  I promise that doing so will lead to more enjoyable, rewarding, and enriching playtime with your kids.  Your family will be more motivated to play together and will benefit from all the new skills interactive playing will teach.

Here is a great infographic I found that gives you more information about types of play:

9 Types of Play and Why They Matter Infographic
Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics

For ideas on best toys and games stay tuned for Part Four – Toys for the Holidays That Inspire Interactive Play in Families

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