Play is essential for children to develop into healthy, empathetic, resilient adults.
And yet, so many parents do not enjoy playing with their kids. And there are many valid reasons for this.
Let’s face it: Playing with your kids can feel boring, overly demanding, and exhausting.
Or worse, play can feel very triggering for some parents.
Some parents never got to play with their parents when they were little, so the activity can feel foreign, anxiety-inducing, or depressing. Our kids just want to have fun, while we get flooded with reminders of what was missing in our own childhood.
Regardless of what you experience as a parent while playing with your kids, I believe it’s imperative for ALL adults to re-learn the joy of play.
Play is the language of children. It’s how they form bonds and connect with the people around them.
So if you don’t enjoy playing with your kids (but you really want to!), here are a few tips that have worked well for me.
1. Let them beat you up.
Rough-and-tumble play is one of the healthiest ways to connect with your kids.
Pretending to wrestle each other is fun for all parties, but the key is to LET THEM WIN.
You don’t have to pretend you’re weak; just pretend they are strong.
Kids are DELIGHTED to feel like they can overpower you. And it’s a lot of fun to pretend they’re powerful.
2. “Yes, and” all of their suggestions.
One of the most common mistakes I see parents making is shutting down their kids invitations to play.
You see it all the time. A kid will come up to their parent, barking and panting (pretending to be a dog).
How does the parent react? By shutting them down: “Umm what are you doing?”
Rejecting your kids invitations for play is like driving with the emergency brake on.
Whenever you notice they are playing, you follow it with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and then build on their suggestion with an idea of your own.
For example, if your kid comes up to you pretending they are a dog, you can say “Good doggie! You ready to play fetch? Okay, go get the ball!” And then pretend to throw a ball. Easy :)
3. Tell them a story you’re making up on the spot.
Making up a story is one of the most fun ways to play with your kids. And it’s really easy.
First, you ask them who the story should be about and what their name is.
Then, once you have the character’s name, tell them a story following this structure:
Once upon a time…
And every day…
Until one day…
And because of that…
And because of that…
And because of that…
And ever since that day…
Trust me, they will be ENRAPTURED.
I once told my daughter a story about a cupcake named ‘Coopaloo’ (her suggestion), who managed to get lost in a sewer, where he encountered a dog that became his best friend. For a solid week, she continued to ask me to tell more of the story. The adventures of this cupcake were totally absurd, but she loved every second of it.
4. Make their game into a story.
One of the simplest ways to make imaginative games more fun is to turn them into stories.
For instance, your kid might ask you to play with an action figure or a doll with them.
Instead of going through the motions or waiting for suggestions, put your character through an “Unfortunately” scenario, and then follow it up with a “Fortunately.”
In other words: Have a (slightly) bad thing happen, and then come up with a positive turn of events that fixes the problem.
Good games have drama. So don’t be afraid to turn your game into an emotional roller coaster.
5. Ask them to teach you.
Kids are happy to show you what they know.
Pretend you are their pupil, who doesn’t know how to play, and just let them guide you.
6. Do the activities YOU love to do, and invite them along.
Your kids are truly happy to be doing anything alongside you where YOU are happy.
Set yourself up for enjoyment! If you don’t enjoy kid games, then bring them into your world of fun.
7. Draw / Paint / Create at their level.
Imagine sitting down to paint next to Leonardo Da Vinci.
Or trying to shoot hoops with LeBron James.
You’d be intimidated, right?
Well, that’s how your kid feels when they play with you, and see that you’re 100X better than them.
Don’t show your kid up. Meet them where they are.
When I was 13 years old, I went to the weightroom with my dad to lift weights for the first time.
I could barely lift, and I felt embarrassed that I was the weakest person in the room.
You know what my dad did? He pretended that he was struggling with the weights I was lifting too, despite being much stronger than me.
That made me feel okay with where I was, and I’ve never forgotten that he did that.
Tone your skills down, so your kid can enjoy the activity with you.
8. Coach them through challenges.
Instead of letting your kid say “I can’t do it” or “This is too hard,” encourage them to say “I’m still learning.”
Struggle is part of the game. It’s what makes play fun.
So if you hear them verbally stopping themselves during play by judging their own abilities, coach them through it so they recognize that struggle is good!
9. SLOW DOWN.
Relax! Instead of living life 1 hour at a time, carve out four hours just to hang out at a park, with no agenda and no cell phone.
Let the play slowly unfold.
10. Never underestimate how simple play can be.
You can go for hours just hitting a balloon back-and-forth.
No need to make it complicated. No need to force anything fancy on them.
Remember: Take care of yourself!
Get good sleep, don’t drink much alcohol, don’t work too much, etc.
Basically, set yourself up to feel happy and healthy around your family.
Because if you’re not able to have fun, neither will they.
. . .
What tips have helped you play with your kids?
Let me know in the comments below.