Oct 18

What is playful parenting and how will it help my child?

By Emma Wijnberg, Paediatric Occupational Therapist, Parenting Mentor, Speaker and Sleep Consultant.

In this article, I aim to illustrate to you that all the wonderful things you wish for your child do not have to be left to chance, intuition or genetic endowment. Nor does it require hours of extra murals and enrichment activities. Instead, you will discover that, in my experience, the best way in which to raise happy, joyful, kind, well balanced children, is simply through Playful Parenting.

Intentional and incidental play

Playful Parenting means joining children in their world of play, focusing on connection and confidence, giggling and roughhousing, and following your child’s lead.

The developmental and emotional benefits of play are absolutely endless. Play helps children develop intrinsic interests and competencies: learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; learn to regulate their emotions, make friends and learn to get along with others as equal, experience joy, coordinate their bodies and process sensory information.

Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.

The scope for this article is absolutely endless, and I have struggled SO much to narrow it down because I could write for days… and days… play is THAT amazing! I could talk about ANY of the developmental benefits of play, or all of them… and I will… in future articles.

This month, I am going to try and be concise. My aim is to ignite the excitement of play in your hearts. To rekindle your ability to play, and to inspire you to be a playful parent.

As we know, the brain is pliable. Through environment we can make the brain “stronger” or make it “weaker”. I truly believe that, despite all our greatest intentions, we unfortunately remould our children’s brains in the wrong direction. I think a huge contributing factor to many of the difficulties our children face, is lack of play and connection. We are all busy. We are all rushed. There is SO MUCH PRESSURE TO DO that we struggle just to be. Did you know that the right brain develops first? It does so by the time children are 3-4 years of age. The left brain, on the other hand, doesn’t fully come online until children are approximately seven years old, hence the first seven years being recognized as such a critical period in child development. The left brain’s functionality is one of language, numeracy, literacy, analysis and time. It is the logical, calculating, planning, busy-bee part of us that keeps us anchored in the pragmatic world, and in past and future. The right brain, on the other hand, is responsible for empathy, intuition, imagination and creativity. It is where we wonder, dream, connect and come alive. Through the right brain we dwell in the space of no-time, in being absolutely present. While the left brain is more interested in outcomes or product, the right brain cares much more about process—the journey is what matters, not the destination.

Understanding this we can better appreciate why play is so important in child learning and development, and why we need to be extra careful with the pressure we put on our children to DO.

It all sounds amazing in theory, but we all know how difficult it is practically. We as parents, and our children, are under more pressure than ever before. The world has changed, the future has changed and parenting has changed, so it really is no wonder that childhood has changed. Making room for PLAY in our lives is no easy task.

Yes, as painful as it can be to admit, in many cases, WE as parents, are the answer to many of our kids’ struggles! And it’s not necessarily our FAULT; we do our best with what we have. WE are under pressure as well, and we have to make do with what we have left at the end of the day. Days are long, demands are high what energy and resources we realistically have left at the end of the day, to give to our children. The sad reality is very often we have to do the best with what we have left over and as a consequence of this harsh reality, very often, today’s children are being deprived of the fundamentals of a healthy childhood.

Think about the loving gaze of a baby, the uninhibited embrace of a toddler, the intimacy of a shared bedtime story, the silent hand in hand walk. Those beautiful moments of connection that reward us for the hard work that is parenting. All too often this joy, this connection, eludes us. We find ourselves locked in constant battle, instead of together in partnership. We get home from work, we finish a busy day, and the baby is crying inconsolably, the toddler is tantrumming, the 8-year-old is fighting homework, and the 12-year-old is sulking in her room.

Our profound parental love is replaced by resentment, aggravation, and rage. We nag, we punish, we SCREAM, WE ARE AT THE END OF OUR ROPE. We want to reconnect, just as much as our children do, but we don’t know how. We love them so much we want to explode, but the memory of that peaceful infant with the unconditional, loving gaze is blurry…

I truly believe that Playful Parenting can build bridges back to that connection. To that blissful, uncomplicated love that becomes a distant memory in the throes of everyday life. Play is a way to enter the child’s world, on the child’s terms, fostering understanding, closeness, confidence, and connection. Play is a child’s way of self-nurturing. Play is a child’s way of relaxing. Play is a child’s way of learning. Play is the way a child modulates their sensory system. Play is a child’s way of regulating. Play is everything.

Play resolves our battles over getting dressed in the morning, soothes frazzled nerves, restores family harmony, and helps us find creative solutions to soothe prickly problems. When we are exhausted, frazzled, and overwhelmed we feel like we just don’t have the energy to play. Yet, I have found, engaging playfully with our children IS energizing. It’s like standing on the edge of a pool on a warm day. You feel like you can’t face the cold of leaping in, yet when you do, it’s surprisingly lovely.

Parents watch me with their kids in my therapy room, and tell me, “I could never be as fun as you. I can’t play like you can.” Let me let you in on a secret- I have banned my husband from reading the articles I write and attending my talks, because I know very well that it would seem like a very pot, kettle, black situation to him. I play at work because that’s just what I do and I tell parents to play with their kids because telling is easy.

At home with MY barefoot boys, it’s HARD. It’s NOT easy. It’s something I have to work at every single day. Most days it’s a conscious effort. Many days I fail. I’m tired, I’m stressed, it FEELS like I have more important things to do.


What I can tell you is when I get it right, when I manage to play with my boys, with no agenda, when I manage to be totally present in the play, I unwind. I connect with my boys, I have fun. I realise, every time, how important it is to join children where they are at, on their terms, in their world.

I know that playing is hard, but it really is such a rewarding skill, which develops with practice and commitment. When we play with our children, there is often more that we feel than simply being bored by the game, or too tired to engage in play at all. Some parents get angry, responding to children’s play with rigid rules, harsh discipline, and violent outbursts. Some parents are fine, until the child starts crying, makes too much noise, or makes a mess- which of course, is BOUND to happen. Other parents feel competitive, they try to direct play to achieve an aim, teach their child a new skill, or build a taller Lego tower. Others feel helpless, afraid to play rough in case someone gets hurt, or in case THEY get hurt. Children NEED us to make a big effort to overcome all of these very real feelings and play the games they want to play, the way THEY want to play them. If there are ANY adults who can play with children all day without having any of these feelings, I am yet to meet them.

If we want our children to grow into happy and healthy individuals, we have to wake up and go back to the basics. It is still possible! I know this because parents in my practice see positive changes in their children within weeks (and in some cases, even days) of implementing play in the way we parent.

Here are some ideas that will help bring more play into your household:

  • Schedule it in – if play doesn’t come naturally to you, set aside time for it. Tune into what your kids like to play & play with them. If your kids are old enough, they can come up with a list of games you all like to play and write a different one on your calendar each week to ensure you make time to play. Soon enough, their joy of playing with you will also encourage your inner child to join the party!
  • Start your day with play – a quick game, dance around the kitchen or playfully romping will be sure to start your day off great! This is a fun way of connecting early on in your day and sets you all up for a marvellous day going forward.
  • Be dramatic – kids love puppets and dramatic play. Develop some characters that will get your kids laughing.
  • Be SILLY – the sillier the better! Pretend to fall over, goof around, get confused, talk in gobbledygook. Follow your kids’ laughter!
  • Take a walk (or skip) down memory lane – remember the games that YOU loved to play as a child & bring them back into your family. Kids love to hear stories about their parents as children – they will love playing the games you played “back in your day” even more.
  • Use play as a strategy – a strategy for those hard times in parenting. When your day is NOT going the way you planned, have a backup plan filled with playful ideas. A spontaneous pillow fight, a run around the house, pretending to turn into a statue – all these playful ideas (though will be hard to think of in the heat of the moment) can really change the direction of your moods.
  • Observe – take time out in your day just to watch your children play. Even for a moment or two. Do nothing else but simply be amazed at how incredible your child is and how wonderful play is.
  • Make the boring “jobs” fun – if you find it difficult fitting everything into your day, try combining things! Like play & chores. My kids love to help me in the garden, help me in the kitchen, and play with soapy water. Get your kids a bucket of soapy water, and let them wash the non-breakables while you do the dishes. Hang up a mini washing line for the, to hang up the wet socks while you hang up washing. Challenge them to put the socks in pairs. Play music and set a challenge, like to get a particular room tidy, make a bed, pack things away, before the song finishes.
  • Put play to work – use it to help your kids understand your family’s rules & expectations. If you have to remind your kids to clean their rooms AGAIN- do it in a drill sergeant’s voice and ask them to stand to attention and follow your orders! If your child is refusing to get dressed, go over to them, and say in a playful way, “Oh, OK, I can help you with that! I’m REALLY great at dressing people,” then put the clothes on all wrong, undies on their heads, socks on their hands. You’ll be surprised how after some laughter has occurred how much more cooperative your children will be.
  • Prioritise play – not just with your kids but for YOU too. What makes your soul sing? Make a list of things that you love to do & do them.

When we understand that play is a child’s way of thinking, talking and connecting, its potential as a parent’s tool for managing behaviour and helping their child grow comes into focus. Play can be used as a tactic for managing everything from aggression, dependence, lack of communication, separation anxiety, sibling rivalry and discipline to routine events like getting ready for bed and playground injuries.

Whatever the problem is, try and PLAY it out. The aim is laughter, which reduces the tension, not a boring lesson on the right way to behave. To model good manners, for example, display outrageously terrible manners!

  • Follow the children’s lead. Don’t say no too quickly, and don’t over-fuss about the odd breakage or little mess.
  • Take the lead when they need a gentle push, or you need to make contact, or to introduce an avoided subject.
  • Reverse roles. It empowers kids.
  • Look for a game that addresses what’s missing, like follow-the-leader for a five-year-old whose bigger brothers usually leave him bringing up the rear.
  • Play isn’t always fun for adults. It’s okay to recognize that. ‘Fill your own cup’ whenever you can.

With that in mind, next month, I will be looking at some practical strategies and games you can use at home.

Remember: Play is supposed to be joyful and fun. Pre-schoolers apparently laugh an average of 300 times a day. What would happen if we all did that?

Let’s HAVE more fun. Sing goofy songs, fall over, exaggerate, have pillow fights, tell jokes. SING rather than nag. Use silly voices to enforce rules. Try and interact playfully as often as possible.

Be intentional. No matter how hard it gets and how much effort it takes. Never give up. Try hard. Push through. Connect and reconnect. Let the children be children. Let them experience the joy of play. Let them discover what makes them happy. Let the children play, at every opportunity that this demanding world allows.


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