“Mama, will you play on the train with me?” my daughter asked, lining up the dining chairs to form a line of seats.
“Sure! Where’s my seat on the train?” I responded, thinking we were about to engage in some good, old-fashioned pretend play together. This is what childhood is supposed to be all about, right?
“You can sit riiiight here!” she responded, “Just give me your ticket first!” I found a scrap of paper and folded it into a makeshift ticket. “Here you go!”
We enjoyed a couple more minutes of happily playing before things started to head south.
“All abooooooard!” I announced, getting into the game. “NOOOOOO! I’M supposed to say that.”
I got up from the train. “NOOOOOO! The train is still moving!”
I got back on board and gave her another ticket. “NOOOOOO! You already GAVE me a ticket.”
This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for us playing together. It probably wasn’t what my daughter had in mind either. I wanted to me the type of mom who enjoyed playing with her kids. Who had fun with them. Was I not cut out for this?
Why weren’t we having fun?
We weren’t having fun because I was not actually playing. The definition of playing is to engage in an activity for enjoyment or recreation. It’s doing something out of joy, not out of obligation. Not long after this scenario, I came across a thought-provoking article by developmental psychologist Peter Gray. He points out that playing serves an important purpose for children. They learn through play. Pretend play gives them a chance to try on adult roles like preparing food, driving or using public transportation, doing yard work, or taking care of babies. As adults, we already have these skills, so pretend play often bores us. Human brains are captivated by novelty and rehearsing new skills we know will come in handy. For adults, sitting down to role-play driving a car or making dinner is like sitting down to learn the alphabet. Boring as all get out.
Whew. I’m not the only parent who hates pretend play. Now what?
What do I do now? How should I spend time with my kids if not for playing? Isn’t playing together an important part of bonding and having quality time together?
Yes and no. Playing together is important, but again, the definition of play is having fun. Enjoying our time with our kids is what makes memories. Think about your own life. How many of your favorite moments involve someone else begrudgingly going through the motions to humor you? There is not much joy in that. Playing should be a joy, not a duty. In other words, if you aren’t enjoying yourself, you aren’t really playing. The key to having fun playing together is to find a mutually enjoyable activity. I realized the reason we weren’t having fun together is that I wasn’t having fun.
Simple, but life changing. There are some things I know I cannot do with joy. I will decline to participate without guilt. Pretending we are cats? Nope. Driving toy cars or trains around. Can’t do it. An elaborate mommy and baby scenario? Bored to tears.
Instead, I try to fill our time together with things I enjoy that are also kid-friendly. For example:
- Nature walks
- Bike rides
- Reading books
- Building Lego creations
- Playing board games
So what can we do when our children ask us play with them?
First, it’s helpful to remember that asking us to play is a plea for connection. They want to hang out with us. They want to involve us in their worlds. They need us. We can often meet that need by finding another way to connect.
- Hold them tight in a big hug until they are ready to let go
- Turn on some music and dance
- Chase them around the living room and roughhouse
- Offer to do another activity that you find enjoyable
Have fun together in a way that’s fun for you too. That’s where true connection comes from. If our hearts are not in it, it usually shows.
We’d love to hear your ideas for playing with kids. What activities do you find mutually enjoyable?
My favorite pretend play game is Putting Mommy to Bed. They pretend to brush my teeth, change me into pjs, get a blanket and lay me on the couch. Then they read me a few books and sing a goodnight song. Then they let me sleep. Sometimes I get a real nap! They go off and pretend to wash dishes and watch tv (guess you can hear a lot from the bedroom even with the door closed at night).
I used to say that I don`t have tim efor sport. But I discovered on youtube some mom and daughter workouts that make us feel so good together.
I also enjoy writing stories so I make puppet shows for my daughter.
<3 I love this article!
This article encourages pretend play, it’s just that pretend play is not something many parents care to do. I very much encourage pretend play and my children have wild imaginations and engage in a lot of pretend play with their peers but I do not like doing pretend play. I like building things, coloring, drawing, sports and similar outdoor games, board game and card games, reading, and the occasional dance/tickle/wrestle-fest. I think it is important for children to direct their own play instead of having parents being constantly involved. They need to discover, explore and problem solve on their own. It’s important for kids to feel connected to parents but it doesn’t need to be through pretend play.
Fun…..different for everyone. No boundaries……and unlimited imagination.
I have a home daycare. 5-6 children a day, different ages and personalities. A favourite fun time for us is playing restaurant, where they get to be a waiter/waitress at lunch time or snack time.
All that’s need is apron, notepad and pencil.
I’m the chef and I ask them to ask the person at table one (first spot at table) if they would like the special ex. Hamburger veggie sticks and yogurt.
They get to scribble down what they want on burger and what veggies and flavour of yogurt. Where they are 2-4 years they use first letter. Ex. K- ketchup. B- blueberry yogurt . Then they take it to them.
You get help at lunch… you play and laugh and they also learn. I love this time. I add some fun things to it. Such as— Can you ask table number one if I can take a bite of their sandwich… or if they would like to have grasshopper legs on their hamburger. The expression on their face or laughter is priceless.
I often play with my son when the activity itself is not fun for me. I find the fun in interacting with him and enjoying his company and his imagination and actions and enjoyment. Sometimes I find the fun by complaining dramatically in a way that keeps me occupied and amuses him. You can find ways to play within an activity even if the activity is not fun in its own right.
I don’t think every parent HAS to play with her kids, but I think it is worth it to find ways to enjoy play, if possible. It’s valuable to a child to have a role model in play at least sometimes. A parent can influence a child’s play to help him learn in ways that other children or inanimate object cannot. It is worthwhile for a child to interact with a parent in play at least some of the time.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article. I have to admit sometimes I think I am the only parent that does not enjoy this kind of play, and I feel like a horrible mother. I wish I did, I know how very important it is to my son, but I just hate it. Just can’t do it. And I am a therapist, and I know how crucial pretend play is. But I think that it is best done with someone else who loves it, like, say another child! I remember some of the most blissful experiences of my childhood were playing pretend with other children. These days I call that “high play”. When I see my son involved in high play with another child it brings me great joy. Honestly, when I was a child I remember that this kind of play was only done with other children. I never played like this with my parents. I don’t remember anyone else who did either. I’m sure some people did, but I never saw that, and certainly didn’t miss it. I loved being read to, wrestled with, being taken to museums, the playground, etc. by my parents. I know some adults do this kind of plant naturally, and that’s great. But I wonder why we feel that we are obligated take the place of other children/playmates for our children.
Well, the difference for me is that I *can* pretend and enjoy it. But I was a theater major and I like improv, so it’s all fun and games to be. Is my kid sometimes bossy about it? Heh, yes. “Mommy, you’re doing it all wrong!” And it makes me laugh. But I think about how much of his life he has to be at the mercy of adults, even gentle parenting adults who try to say “yes” to everything possible, and I enjoy his direction along with him.
I don’t play with my children, either. But they pretend play pretty much all day long, alone or with one another. Kids don’t need adults to know how to play!
I’m sorry but I hate this article! Pretend play is how kids explore the world and their role in it. If we don’t engage in pretend play with them, how will they understand how their actions cause reactions from others? How will be they be able to test out their different emotions in a safe place? Pretending to be someone else helps build their self-esteem as they explore different possibilities. Pretend play helps kids learn how to problem-solve and improves their vocabulary. Play is how kids learn and if parents don’t engage in pretend play, then kids are missing out on an important part of childhood. While pretend play might not be fun for the parent, a lot of the things we do for our kids would not be considered “fun” ( changing diapers cooking dinner, enforcing good behavior), but that doesn’t mean they’re not important and we shouldn’t do them. Our children look to us as models for how to behave in the world and what better way to show them this than through pretend play. I’m always amazed at the number of kids I see at work that don’t know how to play because no one showed them how. I will bring them a toy and they will look at me and ask, “what does it do?” The joy on their face when I give them a few possibilities and ask them to explore their own, while I sit and play with them, is priceless
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