How important is play and how exactly do you play with babies and children?
Play is an essential part of a child’s life and their learning about themselves, others and the world; it fosters brain development, speech and motor skills, contributes to secure relationships between children and their caregivers, and it creates a positive space for children to develop prosocial skills such as problem solving, sharing, and self-regulation. Playing with our infants provides opportunities to simply "be with" our children, in their play space - promoting a strong and attuned parent-child relationship.
Playing with our children in a mindful way is something that can sometimes get neglected in our busy lives and while there will be times when your babies and children are happy to play on their own while you watch over them, knowing that you are there if you need them, there are also times where children need their parents to get involved with their play (and not just in that distracted way we can all do at times!).
As a psychologist working with parents and their infants and toddlers, parents often admit that they don’t know how to play with their babies, for several different reasons. Parents who struggle with perfectionism may feel like they’re not playing how they “should”, other parents who have little experience with children might feel awkward, and parents may also carry the grief of knowing that their caregivers were unable or unwilling to play with them as children.
Play with infants looks different to play with toddlers and may involve things such as mirroring their facial expressions and vocalisations, tickling, blowing raspberries, and singing. It may also involve tummy time and watching over your baby as they explore their environment. Play with toddlers may involve more imaginative play, for example pretending that a broom is a horse, or might involve role playing.
So how do you play with infants or toddlers? There are a few things that may be helpful to consider.
First, follow your child’s lead. Following your child’s lead involves seeing where they take you with their play rather than imposing your own rules, agenda or expectations. If your child wants to play with their dolls, you play with the dolls, if your child decides to move on to building a block tower, you play with the blocks. You allow your child to stay in the lead by always being one step behind. Don't try to direct a child's play - they may not want to build a tower with those blocks, they might have something else in mind.
Secondly, show delight in your child for who they are and however they want to play. This feels good for both parents and their children. There may also be opportunities to encourage toddlers development of prosocial skills. If your child shares with you, this is an opportunity to acknowledge their sharing. If they’re gentle with the toys, take turns with you, smile at you, or make attempts at problem solving, these are all opportunities to acknowledge that behaviour and increase the warmth in your relationship. You may even like to simply express delight in your child, which may look like telling your child how much you love playing with them, smiling at or laughing with them, or sharing physical affection when they come in close to you. Verbal acknowledgement as well as showing delight in your child increases your child’s self-worth and is important for a secure parent-child relationship.
Thirdly, talk to your child about what they are doing. This applies to both infants and toddlers. Describe what your children are doing, for example, “you’re picking up that car” and reflect back what they say to you. This might feel strange at first but not only does it help your child learn words and concepts, it also allows them to feel heard and connected and it helps you follow your child’s lead by making sure that you stay in the present moment.
Watch what your babies, infants or children are doing. Be close enough that your child knows you are present and there for them. Wait - don't step in and intrude in their play. Wait to be invited into their play experience. Just be present and Wonder what is happening in their world right now- be curious about what they might be imagining or thinking and feeling. Watch, Wait & Wonder - these are words to hold in mind when being with your child in the play space. In fact Watch, Wait and Wonder is "a child led psychotherapeutic approach that specifically and directly uses the infant’s spontaneous activity in a free play format to enhance maternal sensitivity and responsiveness, the child’s sense of self and self-efficacy, emotion regulation, and the child-parent attachment relationship". *
Play is a vital part of childhood but it’s also important throughout life. When we can’t play, it affects our relationships, our sense of self, and our mood.
Muir, E., Lojkasek, M., Cohen, N. (1999). Watch, Wait and Wonder: A manual describing a dyadic infant-led approach to problems in infancy and early childhood.