“Mommy, can you play with me?”
I closed my eyes, partly wishing my daughter’s desire away and partly feeling convicted about doing so. I didn’t really want to play with her, and for no good reason.
Playing with my kids, for me, has been one of those things I’ve had to learn to love, because I haven’t honestly always enjoyed it. But from the get go, between tickling toes and stackable rings, I could tell that playing was a direct inroad into a child’s heart.
With so many distractions and issues our kiddos are facing today, there’s an even more urgent need for connected parenting. That’s why today I want to talk how playing with your kids is a way that you as a mama can become a connected and influential parent.
Years ago, I read a forum discussion on this topic. There were many different viewpoints to it, but the general consensus seemed to be that kids should play with kids and parents aren’t obligated to play with their kids.
Well, while I definitely don’t have all the answers, I wholeheartedly disagree. Here’s why I feel mamas should play with their kids:
It helps you get to know them better
You might be surprised to find out you don’t know your kid as well as you thought. Playing with them helps you get to know them like almost nothing else can. You get to know their tendencies, mannerisms, likes and dislikes, etc. in a more intimate way.
I’ve also found that my older kids volunteer more information about themselves when I play with them. They might tell me about a situation at school (that they otherwise might not), about a concern on their heart, or ask my opinion on something.
It helps curb bad behavior
I really don’t know how this happens, but my suspicion is that kids feel more fulfilled when they’re played with than when they’re not. Either way, I’ve found that my kids make better behavioral choices when I stay connected with them through play.
The Bible says that a child left to himself will become a disgrace (Proverbs 29:15), and while this verse refers to correcting your child, I believe that a child who has a connected relationship with his or her parents makes better decisions in general. Play strengthens this connection.
It’s an opportunity to teach problem-solving and social skills
There are TONS of opportunities for teaching through play, even without you having to be “teacher-y.” Since playing is more done alongside of them, they can get a firsthand glimpse into how you problem-solve, and it’s like giving them life coaching. For free.
Example: I’m doing imaginary play with my youngest daughter. We’re playing stuffed animals.
I say, “Hi, what’s your name?”
Her: “Um, Mia.” (they always choose this name)
Me: “Hi Mia, can I be your friend?”
Her: “Um, yes,”.
Me: “Thank you, you’re so nice. Do you want to go play at the park?”
Her: “Um, yes!”
Me: “Ok! Well why don’t we build a car out of legos so we can drive to the park?”
Her: “Yes, lemme get the legos.”
I spurned her thought process to see that we needed a car, and then she built one on her own. It really is amazing how much you can teach your kids through play!
For more on this, check out this article by The Child Development Institute.
It helps you build strong connections
Building connections, in my book, is the most important thing you can focus on as a mama. It’s the way you transfer things to your kids-character, belief system, skills, etc. Playing, like one author put it, is like “tying many strings of fellowship” with your kids.
Without strong connections, it’s really hard to correct/teach/impart anything to your kids. I’ve tried this many times, and it always seems to end in a power struggle. When there’s not a sense of connectedness, kids just don’t respond well.
Even if you have a newborn or your baby is just a few months old, you’re shaping their little minds by taking the time to engage and play. Don’t underestimate the positive impact this has on their brain development!
It curbs their hunger for media
The kids of today are not the kids of our generation. They’ve grown up accustomed to being able to access screens, and they’ve also grown up seeing us constantly looking at screens.
We all know that our kiddos shouldn’t have too much screen time. But if your kids are anything like mine, they quickly build an appetite for it IF I allow it.
I’ve found that when I spend time playing with my kids, they’re less likely to want to lend their beautiful minds to sitting in front of screens. I believe play is the way that kids begin to understand and process their world, and they’re more prone to start creating things rather than just staring at a screen.
It helps them build creativity
I like to ignite creativity in my kids by making suggestions when we play. For instance, I’ll say, “Oooo, why don’t we pretend that you guys are the cats and I’m your Mommy?” or “Do you think you can make a long coat for that snowman with the pink play doh?”. Playing with them and doing activities with them helps stretch their creativity and effort to a level they may not have attempted on their own.
I’ve seen my kiddos come up with some pretty cool things while playing by themselves after I’ve played with them. There’s really no limit for what they can imagine through play!
It makes them feel special
This obviously goes without saying, but I can’t tell you how many times my girls have hugged me and said, “I love you mama,” when I do something with them that they love.
I can tell my kids feel fulfilled when I spend time playing with them. Not only does it show in their behavior, but they laugh more, smile more, and are generally more congenial.
It increases your influence in their lives
An influential person I know once said, “Whoever plays with the children has the most influence in their lives.” I totally agree.
This is why I believe that kids are very often prone to listening to their peers over their parents by the time they’re teens. Their peers get them, understand them, and do things they enjoy doing together.
My firm belief is that if you don’t take time to play with your kids, they’ll see you as their parents, but you may not get access to their hearts. You don’t want this to happen, especially in today’s world, so get playing!
It frees up more time for you
No mama likes to spend all day on conflict management. But if you have more than one little one, that’s what normally happens!
I’ve found, however, that if I dedicate the first part of the day (after breakfast) to just fully engaging with my kids in play, since it helps them make better behavioral choices in general, they are quite content to spend a great portion of the day in creative, imaginary play. This, in turn, helps free up time for me to get home managing and other things done without the constant interruptiveness of continuous bickering.
It helps keep you from being too punitive
Because you’re working on building good connections through play, it has a way of softening your heart toward your kids. In turn, you’re less likely to become overly irritated, annoyed, or punitive with them because you become more focused on preserving the relational bridge you’re building.
I can always tell when I’ve not spent time tending to connecting with my kids. They’re a lot more prone to fighting and being difficult, and I’m a lot more prone to punishing rather than teaching and training. Taking regular time to connect through play helps alleviate these things.
It’s a creative way to correct behavior
You can use play situations to model correct behavior and thus address behavioral issues with your kids. For instance, you can use figurines or dolls and have one of them act in a way that mirrors a poor behavior you’re seeing in your child. Then you or your child can be the friend or mom in the situation and correct the doll or figurine’s behavior.
You can’t correct your kids at a relational distance and expect to see the relational fruit you’re looking for. Playing with your kids gives you a great opportunity to address these things.
How to do it
You don’t have to spend all day playing with your kids to see the benefits of it. But as a busy stay-at-home mom, my suggestion is to actually schedule some playing time into your day so it doesn’t get forgotten.
If you need to get some order to your home life so that you can make this a consistent reality, check out Every Mom’s Guide to Peacefully Productive Home Management.
A good 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted (meaning no phones and other distractions) play can go a long way. You can do anything you think your child would enjoy, such as:
- Imaginary play (limitless possiblities here!)
- Table activities, such as coloring books, watercolors, finger paint, play doh, kinetic sand, cutting and pasting, etc.
- Outdoor play
- Being silly (tickling, chasing each other, etc)
- Doing a board game (check out Peaceable Kingdom’s Stack Up and Race to the Treasure.)
But what if I don’t like playing?
Does the thought of playing with your child bore you? Well, here’s my kind of kick-in-the-yoga pants answer (that I would have given to my younger mom self): our lives are not about us.
Love unselfishly seeks the best for others. The most unfulfilled life is the one lived for self.
We as mamas have a great calling and responsibility unto the Lord. We are shaping tomorrow’s leaders and influencers, so we need to think beyond our own comfort zones.
At the same time, I will say that playing is genuinely something I struggled with. When my oldest was a toddler, I’d rather have done anything else than spend time playing with her. Playing made me so bored I would actually yawn the entire time.
But don’t ever try to approach any situation in your own strength. I sought God about this through prayer and He changed my heart, little by little.
Also, I would suggest trying to find a happy medium. For me, that was reading. I really liked reading to my daughter, so I’d spend quite a bit of time doing that and just a little time in imaginary play until I got better at it.
Don’t compare yourself to people who are really good at playing with children. Accept where you are, knowing that while it’s maybe not where you want to be, but that you’re gonna grow in this area.
For more on influential parenting, check out Nestor and Dina Lima’s Beyond Parenting. It’s must-read for any parent who wants to have an all-out vision for parenting that supercedes your day-to-day.
What are some things you like to do with your kids? Or how have you seen play positively impact your relationship? Comment below!