We’ve all been there. We’re sitting nose-to-nose with a human much smaller than we are, and we’re simply not connecting. We want x. They want y. And neither of us is budging. We want to be peaceful parents, but it doesn’t always come easily. In moments like these, might playful parenting be the key?
If “play is the work of childhood” (a quote by child psychologist Jean Piaget), then playful parenting is the best way we can work with our children. It’s the absolute key to cooperation. It’s speaking in their own true language; the language of their hearts and minds.
Playful parenting is all about connection.
Children play “rain or shine”—it helps them decrease stress, learn new things, and figure out the world (source). The time we invest in playful parenting helps us connect with our kids, while also helping them feel emotionally safe and understood. That, in turn, makes our job as parents easier.
Playful parenting helps foster cooperation naturally.
We want to enjoy our interactions with our children. If we focus on “getting” them to do things, the relationship becomes about power. Instead, I’d encourage parents to work alongside their children as partners against whatever problems they’re trying to solve.
Playful parenting embodies what positive parenting is all about; working with kids rather than against them. Being a playful parent signals to a child that we’re on their side—we’re in this life together.
We can connect and be close without power struggles.
What does playful parenting look like in action?
These playful parenting tips below work especially well for ages of 2 – 8, but versions of them can continue well beyond these years.
An important note to remember is that playful parenting works best before emotions have escalated. If the initial engagement with your child is positive, it’s the surest way to maintain a sense of peace in your home. As they say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Playful parenting certainly can work retroactively, however. Perhaps our first attempt at talking with our child didn’t go over so well. Make space for the child to become emotionally regulated again, then try a fresh start.
Here are 7 common scenarios where playful parenting can work wonders.
One fun way to accomplish this is to feign total incompetence. As you approach your child with her hairbrush, say, “Open wide! Time to brush your teeth!” Similarly, holding the toothbrush, say, “Oh, this will make your hair so fancy!”
Your child will love the feeling of power and total competence as they point out the error of your ways. You, of course, will be shocked to learn your mistake. With exaggerated hesitation, you will agree to try it their way for a moment.
After a minute (especially if they start to protest), add, “That’s right! I use this on your ARM! Arm, be still.” Use it near your own arm if need be. It’s okay to go back and forth a time or three to get it done.
Try to trust your child’s body and timing here. If they need help remembering to check, however, make it fun. Maybe they’re climbing onto a choo choo train. Perhaps it’s a rocket that’s about to blast off to a new solar system.
Putting on clothes
Do YOU, parent, fit into that 3T sweater? Please try. If your child isn’t keen to get dressed, a bit of laughter clears the air and helps you connect. It’s worth the time to slow down and be silly if it cancels the 45-minute tantrum that might otherwise ensue.
Another great way to accomplish getting your child ready for the day is to involve the stuffed animals. They’re your allies. Can your child dress a doll while you’re putting on his socks? Can your kiddo tell you what his animal friend needs to wear for his rainy day, and what he might need to do to match him? Get your kids outside their heads here. Involve them in care taking.
Cleaning up toys
It’s important to remember that once you have children, it’s normal for your home not to look, well, like it used to. That’s okay.
You might walk into a room and see a mess, but your child sees a world of possibilities. Allowing for some “mess” might be one of the best gifts you can give yourself stress-wise.
When it does start to feel overwhelming, however, cease talking about cleaning and all that “responsibility” rubbish (child view). Your child will inevitably pick up on any anxiety you convey around cleaning. For everyone’s sake, work to make it a peaceful and lighthearted process.
Since this is a common trouble spot, I’ll share several ideas of how you can incorporate playful parenting into this sometimes tricky topic.
The key idea is this: Changing your nomenclature helps tremendously. Use kid terms. Not only enter, but lead, the world of make-believe.
When you see a bunch of toy cars all over the floor, notice the incredible traffic jam. The drivers need help getting back to their proper parking garage (the toy box)! “Drive” them back together. Sound effects help.
Building blocks have somehow scattered across the floor and need to make it back into the bag? No problem! You’re not holding a bag; you’re holding the HUNGRY MONSTER. “Feed me!” it bellows playfully. “Hungry! Must eat blocks! More! More!” On it goes until the mess is gone.
Even for adults, playing this way lightens our moods. Imagine what it does for our kiddos!
Get creative. If something doesn’t have a logical “home” (like cars in a box you call a parking garage), make it silly. “Let’s put all the dolls in the tree house [on the shelf] for the night!” Even a paper bag can be a “tent” for something. Bring toys and their storage spaces to life.
Lastly, remember how incompetent you were at brushing teeth and hair? You’re even worse when it comes to picking up the toys! A ball? It weighs as much as a semi truck! How in the world can you lift it? Can someone save the day? (Many children love to rescue adults.) That giant toy elephant, however, is a breeze for you—it’s light as a feather.
Your superpowers are very confusing—and hilarious.
Getting out the door
Although I often shy away from competition, this is the one time I’ll offer a race. Who can put on shoes the fastest and touch the doorknob? For some kids (particularly highly sensitive children), however, competition can cause anxiety, so use it with caution.
Would anyone like to hop to the door like a bunny? Roll across the rug to get there? Be carried and spun in circles? Sometimes a different mode of transportation is all they need.
Supporting parents with day-to-day responsibilities
If your child can help put away non-breakable items from the dishwasher, for example, let them try. A great question to ask (even if they’ve done it before) is “Do you think you’re strong enough to move these cups from the dishwasher to the counter?”
Children love feeling competent. So much of their existence includes not knowing what to do, so when they feel capable, it’s incredibly empowering for them.
Encouraging positive behavior
If your child is struggling with a particular task that involves his or her body, for example, talk to the body part directly through playful parenting. Let’s say a child is handling the family dog too roughly. One option is to remind the child what to do in simple terms: “Gentle hands, please.” This lighthearted and clear approach often works well.
A playful parenting modification would be, “Excuse me, hands? Yes, all 10 fingers — wiggle your way over here, please.” Rather than looking your child in the eye, look at, speak to, and gently touch your child’s hands as if they, alone, are the offending party.
This works particularly well for sensitive children who might feel embarrassed about what’s transpired, or who have a tough time with correction.
You continue, “Dear hands, I could really use your help here. Our dog needs gentle hands only. Here are some things you CAN do. Would you rather play a game, do some clapping, or wave yourselves up in the air?”
Playful parenting gets the “correction” done in a lighthearted yet still entirely effective way.
What if playful parenting doesn’t come naturally to us as adults?
How does it work, though, for adults who aren’t as naturally playful as kids are? Our brains are wired quite differently from theirs! As we know, kids can have fun playing with parents, friends, and even cardboard boxes. Not all of us have been to comedy school — do we have to be naturally funny?
Not at all. In short, we can meet our kids where they are in their play. Join in and see what they’re doing. Opportunities for playful parenting often present themselves naturally if we enter our children’s world of imagination.
Example: Let’s say your child is busy playing castles and dragons / dress-up. However, it’s time for dinner. Rather than making them disengage from their play, roll out an imaginary red carpet and march to the table together. Or, climb into their invisible chariot that takes them to the banquet hall for the royal feast.
We don’t need to manufacture something new and creative to make playful parenting “work” for our kids. We just need to let our guard down a bit and, to the extent that we can, see life through their lens for a little while.
I’ll speak more about this in an upcoming course (details forthcoming).
Playful parenting is involved parenting.
This is parenting for connection; parenting for the relationship not just for today, but also for the long run. Sure, if you’re new to playful parenting, it might seem to take more time “in the moment.” Ultimately, however, it can spare your family buckets full of tears and be entirely worth the effort.
Oftentimes, after some practice, cooperation happens so easily through play that it’s faster than any other alternative.
As a side bonus, you might be surprised how self-sufficient children can become after they’ve learned how to do all these things in an emotionally safe place with you—and they feel connected. Studies show that secure and healthy attachment actually foster greater independence in the long run (source).
Playful parenting is a wonderful return on your investment. Long-term connection starts when kids are little. It has a compounding effect–it grows over time, decreases conflict, and increases trust.
Being a playful parent is a part of the equation that fosters connection for many years to come. It’s all about relationship.
What are some of your best playful parenting examples? I’d love to hear about them!
Books for Further Reading
- Playful Parenting book by Lawrence J. Cohen
- How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen
- How to Talk So Kids Will Listen
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