Playing with children - without it, parenthood just isn't the same

Play can take various forms: coloring, climbing trees, or even playing word games on the way to the local bakery can not only enrich a child’s development but also help them build a quality relationship with their caregiver. So why should playing with children – regardless of their age – become a daily priority for us? Here’s why!

Play, what is it?

Play is a term used so loosely that by trying to fit it into norms and rules, it’s easy to forget its original and basic meaning. In reality, it refers to any activity performed for pleasure – regardless of its end result. Thus, forcing our little ones to play, guided only by its beneficial aspects, completely misses the point: after all, the lack of voluntariness means that the development of individual abilities in the child will not only not occur but will even be inhibited.

So, what should every play look like? Among its flagship features, we can include:

  • Creativity and imagination
  • Voluntary participation
  • Joy from performing the activity
  • Learning new values
  • Exploring the world
  • Satisfying basic human needs

What benefits does playing with children bring?

Firstly, the formation of one’s own, uninhibited “self”. Through play, children learn to release their emotions, express themselves, their fears, joys, and uncertainties. In psychology, it is often said that play is a form of self-therapy, through which the youngest can freely assume the role chosen by themselves and release all the signals associated with it – both positive and alarming. They are extraordinary support for the child’s caregivers, who can respond to all its needs at the moment when the child itself cannot yet express them.

Secondly, stimulation of development. Free play supports the development of fine and gross motor skills, helps the child find its bearings in the surrounding space, and builds its curiosity and interest in the world. Cognitive processes such as attention, thinking, speech, or memory are reliably supported during play – even such that does not use fancy gadgets and expensive trinkets from colorful advertisements.

Thirdly, socialization. Not only direct role-playing but also learning patience, cooperation, or conflict resolution are skills that we all acquire during the first years of our life. Time spent together with other people teaches the child to establish valuable relationships, the desire to talk, and interest in another person. The general development of empathy in the earliest years translates into a higher level of emotional intelligence, which in turn – significantly facilitates the child’s future interpersonal contacts.

Fourthly, movement is health. Literally! As soon as the child grows up, it’s worth going for walks, to the park, the garden, playgrounds, and the pool with them. All other movement games that take place within four walls (and even the crib!) are also welcome. Why? Practically unconsciously and without effort, they support the development of muscles and the nervous system, motor coordination, spatial awareness, balance, independent body balancing, movement planning, and risk assessment.

Fifthly, a pinch of fantasy. Every day, children learn something new – whether it’s tying shoes, geometry, or getting the spoon into the mouth. Even if it seems absurd to us: all this requires incredible focus and energy expenditure from them! That’s why we should encourage them daily to play, which not only teaches them something but also allows them to unleash their fantasy and creativity. Inventing roles, painting with hands, creating comics, or unrestricted drawing of imagined characters will allow them to let their imagination run wild, and these – through the imagination of smells, tastes, colors, and textures – will reliably stimulate their sensory development.

Does playing with an infant make sense at all?

The answer to this question is extremely simple: yes! From the first moments of life, children seek contact and interest from the parent, follow the caregiver with their gaze, observe smiles, and try to mimic their movements. Learning to catch a rattle, throwing a pacifier out of the crib, or biting one’s own foot is also a form of play for the infant. Moreover, it has been proven that mere eye contact, listening to a voice, reading, and smiling at the newborn supports its development by creating an individual attachment style, which will affect its interpersonal relationships in adult life.

Moreover, rhythmic, uniform, and relaxing swaying stimulates the vestibular system of the brain – part of the nervous system responsible, among other things, for the sense of balance, supports sensory development, and teaches proper response to stimuli. It’s worth bearing this in mind, because quality time spent with the child is not always dependent on its age, but on the willingness of caregivers and parents.

How to play with children in preschool age?

The preschool period is a specific time for every child: it usually involves preparations for starting school learning and developing communication skills with a group. It’s the perfect moment to introduce games that will support them in the next stages of their life: painting, coloring, constructing buildings, playing with blocks, or cutting will improve writing grip, develop fine motor skills, and prepare the child for learning to write. Reading fairy tales or drawing illustrations will awaken their interest in books, and the colorful stories and tales used will allow them to develop their imagination and creativity.

Equally important for every preschooler is… just talking! Even the most sophisticated toys will not develop speech skills as well as daily conversations. Inventing stories together, word games appropriate to the age, and even the shortest walks filled with genuine interest from the parent will break the child into expressing themselves freely and allow them to build what is most important to them: an irreplaceable relationship with an adult.

Welcome to school, welcome to play!

While play with preschoolers often takes on a free character, similar activities at school age are associated with training concentration and following norms established within the institution. At this stage, the child learns independence, so it should be able to decide for itself which game it wants to spend time with parents. As long as it does not violate the good and wishes of third parties, we should appreciate these manifestations of planning their own actions, as they will bring positive effects in the near future: risk assessment, time planning, and activities will support the student in his further school adventure.

In addition to educational games, parents and caregivers should remember about the beneficial release of emotions and stimulation of creativity. Games do not have to be long, it’s important that they are conducted with the full engagement of adults – it’s better to dedicate 15 minutes of sincere contact to the child than 2 hours of sitting with it with one eye on the phone screen.

Is a parent necessary in play?

A parent is not essential in play – most children naturally find a way to release emotions without the participation of adults. However, is their presence recommended? Absolutely! Through joint play, parents and caregivers, regardless of their age, have a chance to build something unique: a relationship with the child. It can be built at any stage of the child’s life, but the earlier we start, the more we support its and our development in this beautiful, yet challenging, parental adventure.

So, how to establish a quality emotional relationship with the child? By joining in the play they are currently engaged in! This excludes using social media, checking email, watching TV news, or focusing on other external distracting stimuli. Actively following the child, being attentive and engaged are the basis for building a strong, sincere parental bond. Participating in an activity that is enjoyable for them will make them start to direct their attention to you. What emotions are you experiencing at that moment? What does your facial expression say? Are you nervously looking at the phone or gently smiling at the child? Experiencing joint play creates a new bond free from demands, commands, moralizing, and warning, through which your child will not only learn general norms and rules of being among people but above all, being a good, empathetic, and attentive person to others.

Is it normal not to want to play with the child?

Of course! After all, adult parents may have already outgrown stories about ponies, playing hide and seek for the third hour in a row, and coloring the thousandth coloring page with a picture of the sun. And still with the child’s same favorite color! There’s nothing wrong with that. Interesting games with children are not only those that captivate adults – they are also those that allow their attention to linger on them for longer.

It’s worth choosing joint activities that also bring as much pleasure to parents and caregivers as possible, helping them awaken their inner child. If you like puzzles, walks, puzzles, excursions, tickles, or swimming in the lake – use it!

Moreover, if the parent is not in the mood to play with the child at that moment, they should… simply communicate it. Headache, malaise, work problems, or just a bad day can make invisible tea or jumping rope currently outside the parental comfort zone. Adequately and sensitively informing the child about one’s needs teaches them to do the same in relation to others: and assertiveness, both in the lives of the younger and the older, will never go out of fashion.

Until when to play with children?

Ideally, never stop: appropriately chosen puzzles can be assembled both in kindergarten and in college, so take advantage of every opportunity to spend time with your own child. The main indicator for saying “stop” here should be desire: ours or the child’s. Even a small child will clearly communicate to us that, at the moment, they do not want to be with the parent and such a decision should also be respected and give them the space they are currently seeking.

Contrary to popular belief, children do not need sophisticated gadgets to have fun; what they need is parental attention and interest, and play is a great opportunity to provide all of this in a pleasant and creative way.