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Toddler Talk: How to Play With Your Kid

I often watch my son play, and wish I could crawl inside his brain. He is in his own little imaginary play world, whispering dialogue to himself, and I want to be a part of it! This is why I am thankful that I have a career that allows me to participate in children’s play. However, many adults do not feel comfortable playing with kids, for several reasons.

Most commonly, parents tell me that they have a hard time knowing “how” to play with their kids. This is especially true for moms playing with sons, and dads playing with daughters. Moms don’t understand how to play with army men and build a bunker, and dads don’t know how to set up a tea party with stuffed animals.

However, lack of experience with opposite gender play does not have to prevent parents from engaging in play with their children. In fact, with a few simple skills, you can enjoy playing and allowing your child to teach you how to play. Here are some tips for future playtimes.

1. Assume the role of the assistant. When you enter into your child’s world of play, it is important to respect her stories. When she plays, she invents and imagines elements to create something. Be careful not to take over. Let her direct your involvement, with statements like: “How do you want me to play?” or “What should I do?”

2. Let your child identify and name the toys. It is easy to watch a child playing, and assume you know what he is doing or why. Your child is wrapping a doll in a blanket, and it seems logical to say, “The baby must be cold.” But, these types of statements actually influence and direct kids away from their original ideas, since it might have been a caterpillar making a cocoon to emerge as a butterfly. Make sure you let your child explain and tell you what he is doing, with statements like, “I wonder what that is.”

3. Allow your child to struggle or figure things out. It is in the very nature of parents to want to do things for children to make things easier and avoid hardships. In the context of play, though, this is counterproductive. When kids are forced to overcome a challenge or have to work to figure something out, they are building self-esteem, self-confidence, and mastery. It also develops imagination and critical thinking. So, when your child cannot open the play-dough container, resist the urge to take over and do it. Encourage her efforts, with statements like: “You keep trying to get that off” or “You aren’t giving up, even though it is hard.”

With these simple techniques in mind, you will discover that kids love to be in charge and will gladly show you how they want you to participate in their play. What’s more, you will know that your children are gaining valuable competencies as they play with you, and you can witness their exploration and discovery as a fellow playmate!

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