Sunday 18 February 2018

How important is playing with your child?

If you feel guilty for not playing with your child every time you are asked, don't be so hard on yourself. Regular parent-child play is important, but so is the independent, unstructured variety.

Mother And Father Pulling Children On Sledge
Mother And Father Pulling Children On Sledge

Andrea Mara

Do you play with your children? I do, but I confess I'm a sub-par performer. I love spending time with them: drawing pictures, taking them out for cake, or braving some baking. But when it comes to getting down on the floor to join a teddy-bear tea party or build a Lego tower, I barely merit a passing grade.

Speaking to friends, I know I'm not the only one. During the week, we're mired in school and work and homework, with after-school activities and playdates thrown in. At the weekend, we make up for it with day trips and playground trips, getting that all important fresh air and exercise. And when we do finally have free time, Facebook and Pinterest tell us that we should be doing "activities" with our children: baking perfect banana bread or making snow globes.

So in those moments when the kids are happy to play independently, it's not surprising that we sometimes leave them to it. We know the importance of play, but it's hard to fit it in. And we tell ourselves that when we were kids, our parents weren't constantly playing with us; we were left to our own devices (or Tiny Tears and Sindy dolls as was the case back then).

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But the niggling doubt creeps in: does this argument have validity, or is it a handy get-out clause?

Well, both really.

There's no question that play is important. It's the child's way of making sense of the world. "Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and in fact play has been recognised by the United Nations as a right of every child. Clearly, play in itself has huge value, but what about parental involvement? Is it a nice-to-have or is it critical?

"Playing with your child allows you to connect with them at their developmental level," says clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, director of Solamh Parent Child Relationship Clinic. "Children need this in a day that is otherwise very adult driven, with daycare, school, extra-curricular activities. In parent-child play, your child gets to express themselves in their own language and means of expression, and be witnessed by you. This sense of feeling understood at their own level is a contributing factor to their developing capacity for regulation and creativity."

Time

For working parents in particular, finding time to fit in some truly engaged play can be difficult. "Fifteen minutes of parent-child play a day is good enough, and remember good enough is good enough," says Fortune.

But assuming we had endless hours of free time, should we be devoting all of this to playing with our children? Or is there a value to letting them play independently?

"Children's lives are much more structured than they have ever been, and there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that this can be detrimental," said Dr David Whitbread, senior lecturer in psychology and education at Cambridge University. He was responding to a recent survey carried out by MadeForMums.com in conjunction with Fisher Price, in which 66pc of respondents said they felt they weren't spending enough time with their children.

"Parents can certainly be given guidelines about productive ways of playing with their children, but it's important that play is not structured all the time," said Whitbread.

Fortune agrees.

"Sometimes the best parenting tool you can have at your disposal is the ability to think like your child and consider situations from their perspective. Playing with your children is how you learn this," she says.

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"But this does not mean your child cannot play alone; indeed they must be afforded the opportunity to play alone as well. They need access to unstructured free play to develop social independence, get comfortable with downtime and develop self-reliance for when they will be apart from you."

It's clear that, as with almost every element of parenting, balance is key. Children need focused play time with their parents, but they also need to learn to play independently.

So try to fit in at least 15 minutes a day, but if after that you need to make dinner or reply to emails, don't let guilt set in. If your children are playing happily, and you are present and responsive when they need you, you're doing a good job. And that's good enough.

Irish Independent

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