In my previous post I discussed play and why it is important to play with your child in order to build a better connection with them. Now let’s dive in to how to play with your child.
I usually refer to this 1-1 quality play time as “special time” because it really is special. It is different than other ways you might play with your child in some really key ways. Special Time is one of the main interventions in several parenting-focused therapies, including Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT). This special play strategy allows your child to be themselves without fear of judgment and it’s a time for you to thoroughly enjoy your child and all the fun things their little mind can come up with.
Follow the tips below on how to play in order to build connection with your child.
"It's the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a difference in our lives." Fred Rogers, American television personality, 1928 - 2003
Daily dose of connection – Set aside 5-10 minutes to get down on your child’s level and play with them, one-on-one, every day (or as often as possible!). The amount of time should be long enough that your child gets to actually play with you, and short enough that it feels manageable in your life and schedule. Note: As children age and their attention spans lengthen, they may benefit from slowly increasing the amount of time spent during play with you.
No distractions! – When you play with your child, be sure to put your phone away and keep away from all other distractions (siblings, pets, TV, etc). Be fully present with your child and be ready to throw yourself into the play with them.
Choose the right toys and activities – The toys you choose should facilitate creative and collaborative play. Toys with set rules should be avoided, and instead activities should be open-ended. Great toys for special time are things like arts and crafts, Lego sets, magnetic tiles, and play sets that include animals, dolls, or food. Try to offer only 2-3 choices of toy to play with during special time. This is a similar strategy used in Montessori approaches, which allows children time for deeper play and can limit you both from feeling overwhelmed by options.
Follow the leader – As you play, follow your child’s lead! This is a time to connect with your child, so take the opportunity play with toys and activities in the way that your child is playing with them. If your child wants to use puzzle pieces as pretend food, then play along with it. This helps them feel as if you value their creativity and imagination.
"It is a happy talent to know how to play." Ralph Waldo Emerson, American writer, 1803 - 1882
Reflect and paraphrase – A therapeutic skill in its own right, reflecting back what your child is saying can help them feel heard and understand. Simply paraphrase what it is you hear your child say during the play, keeping an even tone (watch out for hidden question marks at the end of your sentences!). Even just reflecting one word or part of what they say can let them know that you are focused on them. Reflections let your child know that you are paying attention and can also help with language development.
Be a sports announcer – Observing and describing what your child is doing during play can slow them down and keeps their attention on the task. It helps let your child lead the play, can help them organize their thoughts better, and shows interest.
Praise – Providing your child with specific and genuine praise during the play helps them feel good! You can praise their ideas, creativity, focus, behavior (such as using safe hands), and even their resilience when play tasks become frustrating (like when block towers fall down).
"Play is our brain's favorite way of learning." Diane Ackerman, American poet
Limit questions and off-topic conversation – For your child, play is an immersive experience. Questions and unrelated comments distract from the here and now. They can also take over the lead of the play, sending the message that what your child is doing right now isn’t interesting enough for you.
Keep it positive – Avoid giving commands or criticizing your child during this time. Commands (such as, “put the block over there”) take over the lead of the play and can cause conflict. Criticism and sarcastic comments (such as, “No, it doesn’t go that way” or “Well that’s going to be a joy to clean up later”) can damage your child’s self-esteem, cause angry feelings between yourself and your child, and doesn’t promote positive social behavior. It can also provide negative attention to any undesirable behavior that occurs during play.
Enjoy! – Don’t forget that play is supposed to be fun! Throw yourself into the play and fully enjoy yourself and your child. Your enthusiasm and warmth shows your child that you enjoy spending time with them and can increase closeness and cooperation in the parent-child relationship.
A few final notes about special time and play…
Handling misbehavior: Most kids respond well to special time, but occasionally kids will try to test our limits. Ignore any minor misbehavior, and instead focus your attention on what is going well. For example, if your child is whining but still building a tower, you can focus on their creative use of blocks or how tall they’re making it.
Handling hurtful behavior: If your child becomes aggressive or destructive during play (e.g., hitting or breaking toys on purpose), calmly stop playing. Use a neutral voice to inform them that special time is over for today because they broke the toy (or hit, or kicked, etc.), and let them know that they’ll have more special time tomorrow. Stopping the play for aggressive behavior is a logical consequence and sets the stage for warm and firm limit setting.
Daily dose, no matter what: While this time is supposed to be special, it should never be used as a reward or removed as a punishment (e.g., “We’ll only do special time if you clean your room!”). Even if you or your child have had a crummy day, you both deserve to have time to connect and build positive memories. Think of it as your daily vitamin, but for your relationship with your child.
I hope these tips have provided clarity on how to build connection with your child. Now, get out there and play!
I want to give special acknowledgement to Dr. Sheila Eyberg and Dr. Cheryl McNeil, the developers of PCIT, as their Child-Directed Interaction Skills heavily informed these tips. For more information about PCIT, you can visit PCIT International here.