The Power of Play: A Parent’s Guide to Engaging your Children

By: Kristin O’Connor, M.S., LMFT-A
Supervised by: Judy DeTrude, PhD, LPC-S, LMFT-S
Play comes very naturally for children as they are innately imaginative and creative; however, it wasn’t until relatively recently that therapists and researchers started to view a child’s play as a form of emotional communication, rather than just a creative outlet. Researchers and therapists have found that children often use play to sort through their past experiences, learn about future possibilities, and most importantly, express their emotions. Play is the language of children.
This new understanding of a child’s play has many implications for parents. Learning to engage your child in play correctly could open lines of communication long before communication and emotion regulation skills are fully developed. So what is the right way to play with your child? Are there wrong ways to play? What can result from playing with your child? The following is a list of do’s and don’ts to enable you to enhance the quality of play with your child:
Do: Let your child lead the play
Don’t: Correct your child, or try to teach your child “proper” ways to play 
This can be the hardest skill for parents. Parents tend to naturally lead, direct, and teach their children. While this is important, playtime is not the time for parents to be in charge. The best, and most therapeutic playtime for children is when the child feels that they are totally in control. This type of play empowers children to feel confident about their decisions, accepted by their parents, and proud of their ideas. Try to avoid asking any and all questions during play to eliminate the possibility of your child feeling like they are being judged, or that they are doing something wrong.
Do: Be fully present with your child
Don’t: Get distracted during play, be on the phone, or go in and out of the room 
The best way to remain fully present during play is to designate an amount of time during the day that is dedicated solely for playing with your child (10-15 min.) During this time, try to limit distractions and remain engaged.
Do: Reflect your child’s emotions
Don’t: Tell your child how they should feel about certain toys or play scenarios 
Reflecting your child’s emotions is extremely therapeutic. Examples of reflecting are: “Wow! You are so excited about building that tall tower!” or “You are very frustrated about not getting that block to balance.” Don’t worry if you are unsure about exactly what your child is feeling. Do your best to label your child’s emotions and allow them to correct you if needed. Keep at it! This skill not only allows your child to feel understood, but it also helps them learn how to label their feelings.
Do: Engage in imaginative and creative play with your child’s direction
Don’t: Let creative play feel foreign or awkward, you are speaking your child’s language! 
It is easy for adults to feel uncomfortable while engaging in imaginative play. Sometimes children will ask their parents to play a certain character, act as a figurine, or put on a play, requiring parents to be creative and imaginative. Just go with it! Remember that you are speaking your child’s language, and he/she loves spending this quality time with you. Allow your child to direct your imaginative play. Try not to ask questions, instead, do your best to interpret what you think he or she might want. If you get it wrong, allow them to correct you.
While there is no wrong way to play, using the 4 do’s above can greatly enhance the quality of your play, strengthen your connection with your child, and build their self-confidence and self-esteem. For more information about playtime with children or play therapy, give us a call!