6 Obstacles to Parent Play (and How to Overcome Them)

Free play for kids is essential. Adults too

Playing with your child is also important, at every age. Generally it's a clear-cut win to connect and be present, no need to over-complicate it.

Yet knowing what gets in the way of parent-child play helps us make the most of our limited time and feel more confident in our choices. 

Below are 6 common barriers to quality play with our kids and what to do about them.

1. Not making play a priority.

Your child isn't playing as much in school. And we're all busy with work, chores, scheduled activities, homework, all of it. 

Solution: Try to make small changes to your family schedule or routines. Even the most play-committed parents I know struggle to maintain open, unscheduled windows of time. We need to advocate for our kids by unscheduling our family, too. 

2. Play = Tiring.

We're all tired. Of course you can't be on all of the time. And play can feel tiring due to its repetitive nature or because you aren't enamored with the Smurfs. But you can select moments to be fully present.

Solution: The more authentically playful you are, the more opportunities there are for you to actually re-charge from within the context of play. Use your imagination and really get into the openness of the moment - your child will respond and you'll make those deeper connections. And focusing on quality over quantity ultimately helps you disengage mindfully.

3. Play as separate from the rest of life.

It's common to think of play time as a distinct period of the day, separate from other activities.

Solution: Try to see beyond a strict division between play time vs. rest of life. Consider transitional or goal-oriented moments as opportunities for play. What about during dinner time? What about when you're trying to get out the door? Find ways to embrace playfulness as a character trait you can tap into (rather than a transitory state of being). Playfulness will connect you with your kids, ease tension inherent in agenda-filled moments, and model for your children how to live a balanced life full of flexibility, humor and joy.

play rest of life.jpg

4. Controlling play. 

It's okay to have an agenda sometimes. Play can facilitate teaching family values or new skills. Research on guided play shows that a child playing with someone more experienced provides important learning benefits. But it's also important to enter play without an agenda. Children learn more by exploring themselves than by watching an adult do something for them, and they explore more if parents don’t gives instructions about how to use a new toy (LoBue 2017).

Solution: The easiest way to let go of your agenda is to truly follow your child. Start by positioning yourself in the same physical posture. Say yes, and. Let facts about the world be malleable, let yourself be a gifted back-up singer, just for that moment. In play, anything is possible and flourishing lives inside those possibilities.

Children will differ on the level of adult involvement they want or need on a particular day, or in a particular space...research on adults’ various roles in play suggests that they need to be sensitive to the child’s needs in the moment, flexible in choosing the way they intervene, and willing to follow the child’s lead.
- Professor Rachel White

5. Not setting boundaries.

A component of play is taking risks and experimenting. From this perspective it's easy to understand why limits get tested during play (as they should!).

Solution: See yourself as an ally from within the play context. You can still be authoritative and clear without stopping play. You may take a group time-out if safety is a concern. Be clear about what was unsafe and why it doesn't work for you. Resume play to demonstrate confidence in your child's ability to self-regulate and learn through mistakes. If a boundary is continually tested, you can express your desire to move onto something else or take a break until your child is feeling ready to be safe and listen to your limits. 

6. Feeling vulnerable.

One litmus test for vulnerability is trying to control play or stopping it. It's okay to feel vulnerable! And you can choose how you want to act from within that experience. In some cases feeling vulnerable will be a healthy sign that the play has gotten unsafe. In other cases vulnerability may signal a discomfort with a strong emotion, or an uncertainty about when or how to set a boundary (e.g. your child is wrestling you too aggressively or calling you names).

Solution: Start noticing when you get uncomfortable or want to control. In some cases you may be able to stretch your own comfort zone in a healthy way. For example, maybe an overly-aggressive wrestle session provides you with the opportunity to talk about physical strength, checking in with another's experience, and discussing what it feels like to feel overpowered. Or telling your child that you don't like being called 'Poopy Pants' but you are open to being called 'Toilet Face' is a great way to set a clear boundary while respecting the ' playful 'rules' of that particular exchange. 

You are a key player in your child's life.

Play is important to your relationship, her growth, your growth, and it can be truly fun for you. 

When we adults unite play, love, and work in our lives, we set an example that our children can follow. That just might be the best way to bring play back into the lives of our children—and build a more playful culture. Children do as we do, not as we say. That gives us incentive to bring play back into our adult lives.

- Psychologist David Elkind