6 Obstacles to Playing with Your Kid (And How to Mindfully 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. We don't need to over-complicate it. Yet, as busy parents, knowing what gets in our way (and why) helps us make the most of our limited time and feel more confident in our choices of when and how to engage. Below are the most 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 (even those who recoil from using that word). What are the small changes you could make 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. Viewing play as tiring

We're all busy, as mentioned. Tired too. Of course you need to check out. You can't be 'on' all of the time. But you can pick moments to be fully present. Of course there are times play is tiring due to its repetitive nature or the fact that we aren't enamored with the Smurfs. But we find that the more authentically playful a parent is, the more opportunities there are to actually re-charge through play. Especially as your child grows more sophisticated physically, intellectually and emotionally.

3. Re-framing play time.

It's common to think of play time as a distinct period of the day, separate from other activities. 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, as it will connect you with your kids and help ease some of the tensions inherent in these agenda-filled moments. 

4. Noticing when you control play. 

It's okay to have an agenda sometimes - structured play and games can connect and facilitate teaching values and skills. But it's also important to enter play without an agenda. The easiest way to let go of your agenda is to truly follow your child. Start by positioning yourself in the same posture and go from there. 

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.

- Rachel White, Professor of Psychology

5. Knowing when to set boundaries.

A component of play is taking risks and experimenting. From this perspective it's easy to understand why limits get tested. Try to see yourself as an ally from within the play context. You can still be authoritative and clear without completely stopping play. You may have to take a group time-out if safety is a concern. Be clear about what was unsafe and why it doesn't work for you. Then resume play to demonstrate your confidence in your child's ability to self-regulate. 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/listen to your limits. 

6. Feeling vulnerable.

One litmus test for feeling vulnerable is controlling play or wanting to stop 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). Start noticing when you get uncomfortable or when you want to control, and decide consciously what to do. 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 a new opportunity to talk about physical strength, checking in with another's experience, and discussing what it feels like to feel overpowered. 

We hope you'll take yourself seriously as an important play-er in your child's life. It's not only important to your relationship and her growth, it can also be actually, 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.

- David Elkind, Psychologist