…and connection with your children? Wondering how you can help them effectively learn new skills for emotional regulation and process difficult events well?
If so, keep reading! Today I’m going to be sharing about one of my favorite parenting tools— it can be used for all that and more. It is one of the most effective and versatile tools I’ve found as a mother seeking to parent through connected guidance instead of through punishment and rewards.
Okay, okay… what is it??
The answer is… play!
Yes, really. Stay with me here.
To be honest, when I first heard about play as a parenting tool, I was skeptical. It sounded to me like just being a pal to your kids and not really guiding them. But, as I’ve read more, and used it with my own two children (Noah is nearly 3.5 and Caleb is 1.5 at the time of this writing), I’ve come to understand that it can absolutely be part of the peaceful, authoritative parent’s tool box, when used well.
Why play? Children primarily learn about the world through play. They also learn best when feeling connected to their caregiver, and play is one of the primary ways humans, especially children, connect.
Sadly, many of us adults have lost touch with our playful side, and may struggle to remember what we found funny as small children, which makes play difficult. The good news is that little kid humor is simple! You will probably feel a bit silly at times, and you may sometimes find that they don’t think your attempts are funny… but that’s okay, just start laughing yourself and they will probably join you. With time and practice it will start to feel more natural, and you may even find you start having more fun yourself!
Here are a few things I’ve observed that most babies and toddlers find hilarious:
Sound effects. Beeps, boops, explosion noises, swoosh noises, dings, robot noises, etc. You can do them during pretty much anything and they will probably find it hilarious! Example of using this in parenting: When wiping the face of a resistant baby or young toddler, try playfully dabbing their face with the cloth while making “boop!” noises.
Exaggeration. Dramatic faces, drawn out words, “Whaaaaaatttt??”, acting really surprised at normal things (like their hands coming through the hole in their shirt), taking giant, playful stomping steps to chase them down, pretending things are really heavy, loud fake sneezes, etc.
Talking objects (like a towel wanting to hug a wet child or a sock hungry for a little foot). And talking toys, especially animals. Squeaky voices make it better, or whatever other voice you come up with. Don’t worry about being good at it—if your child is 3 or under they will most likely appreciate any attempt. And if they don’t, you can laugh and try something else.
Pretending to be clueless and bungling things up in a goofy way almost always makes them laugh. Children are so new that the often make mistakes and things that are easy for us are difficult for them. They appreciate the chance to laugh about this, and see that sometimes things are hard for us too. They also really appreciate getting to correct instead of being corrected. Even if you don’t micromanage, they still get corrected quite a lot.
Surprise and the unexpected. You’ll have to know your little one’s personality and developmental stage to play with them effectively in this way, but fortunately that’s usually pretty easy to do. Keep an eye on how they want to play with you (are they running around the corner to peek out at you? Try surprising them by hiding yourself and peeking out. Are they running away from you? Try spontaneously starting a chasing game with them.)
Roughhousing/physical play. This doesn’t have to mean wrestling, though it can. It can also be things like playfully resting your head on your little one and exclaiming about how bumpy and wiggly your pillow is, or attack kisses (lots of kisses in quick succession), or opening and closing your hands like an alligator and “eating” your child’s hands, or a pillow fight.
Follow the giggles. If you notice something makes your child giggle, keep going with that theme or action.
Here’s a recent example of how I used play in my parenting.
One morning last week, my 3 year old son, Noah, abruptly and adamantly declared he did NOT want to get dressed. He was already stripped down, and I am not comfortable with him going into the main part of the house without at least some clothes on, which he knows.
I was feeling frustrated (we were both hungry, which didn’t help anything!) and considered just putting his clothes on with force. Thankfully, I caught myself—and had an idea. Instead of insisting or demanding he get dressed, I said, playfully, “well then, I’m going to get dressed!”
And I sat down and started trying to put his clothes on. I was acting surprised and confused that they wouldn’t go on all the way, but I kept trying. He, of course, thought this was hilarious and tried to help me put the shirt over my head. We both decided it wasn’t going to work, and since I could tell he was in a calmer state of mind at this point, I said, with a playful tone, “hmmmm… who would this fit??” He said, “me!!” And we put it on. Then, with the underwear, I pretended to try to put them on some other things in the closet, which made him laugh more. After that didn’t work, we tried them on him and—they fit!! I acted really surprised and impressed (in a playful way, where he knew I wasn’t actually surprised.) I asked him if the shorts would fit daddy and he said, “noooo.” We then put them on with no struggle.
The boundary of getting dressed before leaving the room was held. He was brought into regulation (my silliness helped engage the thinking part of his brain). Our relationship was strengthened. He potentially learned that humor is a good tool for gaining cooperation.
Yes, it took time to do it this way… but ultimately it was WAY faster, less draining, and more fun than if I stayed frustrated and tried to command or force him or convince him with logic. Either way, you’re going to spend the time!
He did the same thing again the next day, and because of our experience the day before, I didn’t insist he get dressed or even consider force… I just flipped him upside down in a playful way, and asked him if he wanted to get dressed upside down. He said, “yes!!” And I managed to get the shirt over his head that way, haha. (crouched down over his bed for safety) We then finished with no issues.
Afterwards, the thought popped into my head—am I reinforcing this behavior by using play?? But… the past few mornings, he cheerfully got dressed on his own. So, no, I wasn’t. I was simply helping my struggling son get dressed.
I mention this because I am sure I’m not the only one who has worried about this! It takes time and intention to fully make the shift from thinking in terms of controlling our children’s behavior through rewards and punishments to thinking in terms of teaching skills and coming alongside our children to help and guide them.
Play can also be used to practice new skills through acting things out—with toys or dressing up and doing it. It’s important to keep it really low key. Often you will find that the themes come up automatically as they play, because children tend to use play as a way to process things they are learning or struggling with. When you keep your ears open for this, you can join in the play and, for example, help the frustrated toy duckling learn to be calm down by taking a step back and taking a deep breath. Or, perhaps even more effective, you could be the “child” and have your child be the parent, and have them teach *you*.
What ways have you used play in your parenting? I’d love to hear your stories, and I’m sure they would be helpful to other parents as well!
P. S. If you’d like to read more on this topic, a good place to start is the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. He is a play therapist, and his book is packed with fascinating insights and practical ideas. There is also an excellent section on this in the book “How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen”.