Play time!

A few nights ago, my 3-year-old daughter said, “Mommy, you know my best present for Christmas? Being with you.” A few nights before that, my 7-year-old daughter grabbed me, gave me a hug and said, “I love you;” something she never does. It has been a peaceful, happy, relaxed household the past couple of weeks. Minor conflicts but lots of cuddles, laughter and overall love. An overall shift in our way of being as a whole.

Thinking about how amazing the past two weeks have been with my girls, I realized that it has had everything to do with the fact that my husband and I were spending a lot more expectation-free time with them (it has also helped that I have done minimal work, and none while they were awake, which helped to drastically decrease my stress and reactivity levels). We have played together, sang together, read together, coloured together, cuddled together for family movies, and have just overall been together. And wow, the connection we have has developed beautifully. So much so that my usually withdrawn-preteen-daughter-who-is-often-embarrassed-by-my-hugs-and-kisses-and-pushes-away-with-an-eye-roll has even initiated her own hugs and words of sentiments.

Spending non-directive, expectation-free time with our children is so critical for deepening our connections with them and, to be honest, is a key factor to help parents with behaviour management. In fact, my number one homework assignment I give to parents who are struggling with their child’s behaviours is to implement daily play sessions with their children for 10 minutes a day (30 is better). I understand how busy parents are, so even a few minutes a day can make all the difference in the world. Here are some guidelines I offer parents to set up their play sessions:

  1. Allow your child to have complete freedom in how the time will be spent. He/she leads, you follow. Personally, I won’t even grab a toy until my daughter has told me what I can play with and then follow her directions.
  2. Your primary task is to empathize with your child, to understand the intent of his/her actions, thoughts and feelings.
  3. Communicate understanding to your child, particularly through the reflection of feeling (e.g., you are very happy doing that).
  4. When limits are necessary, they are to be few and firm. Some important limits are on the time, not breaking toys, and not physically hurting anyone.
  5. Avoid criticizing and/or teaching during this time. This is intended to strengthen your relationship and to allow your child to feel comfortable expressing his or her feelings to you. Teaching about sharing and cooperating, for example, are for another time.
  6. Here are some general do’s and don’ts to help guide your playtime:
Play Do’s Play Don’ts
  •  Set the stage by conveying the freedom of playtime (“During our special play time, you can play with the toys in the ways you would like to.”)
  • Allow your child to lead the play. (“Show me what you want me to do/to play with.”)
  • Track and follow your child’s play. It’s easiest to just comment on exactly what he/she is doing, rather than imposing your own ideas of what is going on. (“You have those all lined up how you want them.”)
  • Reflect your child’s thoughts and feelings. (“You really wish we could play longer.” “That really surprised you.”)
  • Set firm and consistent limits. (“I know you would like to put the water on my clothes, but it is not for my clothes. You can play with it in the sink or the container.”)
  • Salute your child’s power and encourage effort. (“You worked hard on that and you did it.”)
  • Join your child’s play as a follower. (“Now I’m supposed to be asleep until you tell me I can wake up.”
  • Be verbally active throughout, commenting and reflecting based on what your child is doing.
  • Don’t criticize any behaviour
  • Don’t praise/evaluate (i.e., “Great job!)
  • Don’t ask leading questions (I don’t typically ask any questions at all unless it’s clarification about what the child wants me to do).
  • Don’t allow the play time to be interrupted.
  • Don’t give information or teach.
  • Don’t preach.
  • Don’t initiate new behaviour – let your child have control over the play and what happens next.
  • Don’t just jump in and play with toys until your child directs you to do so.
  • Don’t do any “labelling” (e.g., “that dog is sad,” or “that’s a bad guy”) unless your child initiates labels).
  • Don’t be passive.
  • This is not the time to bring up your own agenda. Just play!

Let the playing begin!