Since I’ve had my girls, I’ve worked in two different daycare centers – one as a teacher and one as a director. Working in childcare and being a parent is burning the candle at both ends. And often times, it gets very easy to lose sight of how to be a good parent or child care provider when it feels like all you’re doing is redirecting behaviors all day, scrambling to stick to a licensing approved schedule, being moved to another room to cover low staffing issues and having no real consistency in your work environment.
I remember one such day at the first center I was working at. The children were constantly arguing, there was one melt down after another after another, no one cared to do the project I’d laid out for them and it was general chaos. So I took the children outside to the bigger playground. We all needed a break.
I stood vigilant for a while, making sure everyone was playing nicely and no one was inadvertently putting themselves in danger.
I took a moment to reflect on my day of failures. I was defeated. I didn’t know how I was going to possibly make it through the next several hours before I went to retrieve my daughter from her room, make the short trek home and settle into our nightly routine.
And then I looked over. There, on the swing set, playing on her own, was a little girl. She was swinging, completely carefree, a wide smile on her cherubic face. I could remember swinging like that, trying to touch the clouds with my toes, thinking I could fly. I missed that.
In that moment, that little girl reminded me of who I used to be. I decided I didn’t have to miss that. Not if I didn’t want to.
So I meandered across the playground, offered her a smile, and sat in the swing next to her.
She gave me an odd, curious look. And then she asked me, “What are you doing?”
My reply was simple. “I’m going to swing.”
And I did. For a good fifteen minutes I told the grownup in me to go away with all her stress and responsibilities, and I remembered what it was like to be a kid again, to try to touch the clouds with my toes, to think I could fly.
And that little girl…she laughed at me. Before I knew it, we were in a competition to see who could go higher. The rest of the day flew by.
I still loose sight of that child in me every once and a while. Probably more often now than I should since we’re trying to get rid of a house and I’m back in the unemployment pool once again. The stress these days is very hard to shove off and ignore.
But as a parent, it’s important that we remember the kids we used to be, tap into our inner child and participate in our children’s daily activities. And here’s why.
It’s not just about being a kid again or giving the middle finger to your grown up responsibilities. It’s about enhancing your children’s communication skills, building trust and nurturing the bond between yourselves.
And there are so many simple ways to do it, ways that you might not even realize you’re using in your daily life already. Below are some tips and things to remember when your children are playing and what you can do to enhance that play.
1. Respond to children with more than just “that’s pretty” or “oh that’s great honey!”
When your child is showing you a project that they’ve done, a tower that they’ve built or anything they take pride in, point out something that you really enjoy about their work. For example, telling them you like how they chose to paint the bear purple instead of brown or asking them what made them decide to build their tower so high. This opens up the opportunity for them to discuss their project with you, to feel a greater sense of accomplishment in what they’ve done and to think more deeply about what they’re doing. It also teaches them the basics of conversing with another person and really builds on those communication tools they’ll need as they grow.
2. Play with your children
When your child is playing with blocks or puzzles, or coloring books, sidewalk chalk (love sidewalk chalk!!)…heck, even barbies if you can take it, join in. Kids love it when adults join them in activities. They start talking to them right away, mimicking the way you compliment them by complimenting you, voicing suggestions. With younger children this can broaden their scope of play from parallel play to associative play, especially if you’re engaging them in conversation the entire time which is extremely important to their social/emotional and cognitive development. This can be as simple as telling them what you’re doing, why you picked a certain color. As an added bonus, it fortifies the foundations of trust.
3. Lead by example
I see a lot of parents and providers, sometimes even seasoned providers, telling children not to do something. And usually there is no reason for giving the command. Just telling them, “no, don’t do that” because they don’t like it.
One example I can think of is when I walked into a classroom one day and there were two boys playing with cars, cruising them up a ramp they’d created and flinging them into the wall. The teacher immediately told them to stop or they would have to leave the area if they couldn’t play with the cars the right way. Well, what’s the right way? Because in the children’s minds…that probably was the right way. I went into the car area and sat with them, observing them for a while. When one made a move to throw the car again I said, “Hold on…have you ever watched Cars?”
Of course, the mention of Cars got full attention. A grown up that watched kid movies!? Hazaah!! We talked about how, when Lightning McQueen flew through the air in the beginning of the movie, he did it in slow motion. I suggested they do the same thing and demonstrated. They watched, laughing when I slowed it down (complete with commentary), then started doing the same thing. I led by example, and gave them a method of playing that was a little more appropriate for the room they were in. This also kept other children playing nearby out of the path of enthusiastically released projectiles. Bonus!
If you’re not entirely okay with the way your children are playing and you’re afraid that they’ll hurt themselves or others, then give them an example of how you expect them to play while still allowing them to play, just with a few modifications.
4. Do not stifle creativity
To adults a bucket is a bucket for sand, a shovel is for digging and bikes are for riding. To kids, buckets are drums, or hats. A shovel is a drumstick, a bike is a horse. My bike’s name when I was younger was Glory and she was a magnificent unicorn that could make Rainbow Bright’s horse Starlight look like a fair pony.
Don’t tell them that it’s not or correct the way they’re playing with something. One of the most frustrating things for kids to hear sometimes is “that’s not how you’re supposed to play with that.”
Encourage them to use their imaginations. We live in a world where creativity and unique ideas are at the forefront of some of the largest accomplishments. Your kids could be the ones making those accomplishments some day. On top of that, it will hopefully prevent them from talking repeatedly about how they’re “so bored!!!”
5. Turn play into an opportunity for education
There are small opportunities for educating your children all around you – how a rainbow works, why animals have whiskers, why bees are attracted to flowers. A teacher and good friend of mine saw her students playing in the dirt and digging holes. They were looking for worms. Instead of telling them to stop because it was dirty, she got down there with them and started digging, asking if they knew why worms stayed in dirt. She turned it into an educational experience using what knowledge she had on the topic of worms. Listen to your children talk, watch them discover and give them some insight to your knowledge on the topics they’re discussing. You might be surprised about how much they actually know.
6. Make play beneficial to you
It’s okay to be a selfish parent when it comes to playing with your kids sometimes. Win a couple rounds of Connect 4. It’s not going to crush them, I promise you. Just…don’t gloat about it. If you’ve never seen the inside of a spa or can’t remember the last time you were at the salon, let your kiddos pamper you. My girls love to brush my hair and although there are some wince-worthy moments, for the most part they’re both really gentle and love to put makeup on mommy. You’re not even directly playing with them then…you’re just enjoying some much needed pampering.
My daughter was making a calendar for Christmas as a present for me and the Hubs when she was three. Each month used hand prints to form something like a snowflake, flower or Leprechaun. As a result of this, every night she wanted to paint my hands to make something. I was pregnant and exhausted, so I would lay on the couch while she “painted” my hand with a paintbrush and pressed it against my not-so-horribly-enormous-yet belly. Not going to lie, it felt amazing…and all I had to do was lie there, ask her what she was making and what color it was, little open-ended questions to keep conversation going. It was a lot of fun for her and super relaxing for me!
So there’s just a few things that kind of point out the importance of playing with your kids and give you some ways and ideas on how to do it.
Playing with your kiddos doesn’t have to be an all day event, either. Sometimes (probably more often than not) they will tire of you after a few minutes but even for that short amount of time that you did interact with them, the benefits are immense.
Go forth, build forts, play with playdoh and sidewalk chalk, allow them to give you spa treatments….remember what it was like to be their age and know that when you’re doing that, you’re doing a world of good for you children, even if you don’t realize you’re doing it.