For winter break we were all about play. With a week in my hometown of sunny Los Angeles, we caught the city somewhere between fires and mudslides and so our time there was peaceful. Actually, it was downright idyllic. Parenting seemed effortless simply because we didn’t need to bundle up in snow pants and long underwear. Best of all, grandparents were on hand to help out and make the normally mundane routines, silly. Merriment was the name of the game and the agenda focused around playgrounds, playdates and just general play.
Needless-to-say, it was a shock to the system to arrive back in Brooklyn and be blasted with reality and winter. We soldier on with our routines: Getting to and from school in slushy downpours, making sure meals are made, bedtime is (vaguely) adhered to, and the cold weather doesn’t make screen time junkies of us all. But somehow the joy of the vacation time has (largely!) stayed with us. It hasn’t been without effort, in fact there is a kind of mega-consciousness that has helped us through the last few cold weeks.
My resolution helps: To inject more play into my parenting – especially the hard moments. It is part experiment, part game-plan, and so far, so good (although we are only just half-way through January). Unlike a diet, or going off wine (no thanks!), this kind of new years resolution has been proving pretty pleasurable.
I’m finding that the often onerous work of just getting by, has become frothy and sillier. Positive discipline actually works best in tandem with these strategies for play. Along the way there is parent-child bonding, and whether or not we actually get dressed in the morning faster, well, the jury is still out, but by using play to get there, the journey is certainly more pleasurable.
Disclaimer: There is no pressure or obligation to play. These are just suggestions for the parent toolkit for the moments when nagging feels unhelpful. While these games actually increase executive function skills and social-emotional development, we actually play them just to get the job done!
It seems more effortful at first to find the little game, story or role-play that will help you accomplish what you need to. That said, once you come up with the playful routines that work for your family (and the suggestions below aim to help), what you need to get your kid to do, whether it is teeth brushing or getting dressed, will invariably go smoother and be more pleasurable.
Use Story to get through the Challenging Moments
Children love stories, and why shouldn’t they? However, a story’s function goes beyond just entertainment, they help children engage with and understand their own reality. In short, stories help children make sense of their world and foster empathy. Canadian psychologists and researchers, Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley found that…
“Engaging in the simulative experiences of fiction literature can facilitate the understanding of others who are different from ourselves and can augment our capacity for empathy and social inference.”
How to do Brush Teeth with More Play
Our pediatric dentist always reminds me that I’m still supposed to be brushing my son’s teeth – although he is 5 and bucking daily for more independence. Kids apparently lack the fine motor skills (until, gasp, age 11!) to get the more subtle reaches of back molars. So, while we let my son brush in the morning, I’m tasked with brushing at night and what better way to get through it than through story?
Watch this video to see how we use story and play when brushing teeth!
Here’s a template to help use story while you do teeth brushing.
- Find a character your child loves: use animals or characters from books or favorite shows.
- Place the characters somewhere (caves, dens, and tunnels work well since they mimic the mouth) and commence the teeth brushing!
- Move up and down in the mouth and change location, add drama, all while changing the area they are teeth brushing.
- Use gums, tongue, the difference between top and bottom teeth and the rinse-and-spit moment to add drama!
Tips on Story-building
- Lean into the drama. Whether you call it conflict, high stakes, or dramatic tension – it is important that your story have some.
- Use characters that your child loves – from books, shows or nature.
- Ask your child for suggestions of people or settings. Ask: “Who do you want to be the hero?” or “Where should this story take place?” and then let their ideas jumpstart the story. Keep asking for input along the way too.
- Don’t censor yourself. Your story doesn’t have to be great – or even make much sense! Just say yes to your own ideas, and you’ll be modeling how to trust your instincts and your voice.
- Take turns telling the story, or let them take over whenever they like (although not necessarily with a mouth full of toothpaste!).
Other Ways to Use Play in Parenting
No need to feel like this is an everyday way to roll – it certainly isn’t in my house. I just know that, if I feel like digging deep, this is a tool in my parenting toolbox to use to play through these often frustrating moments!
Trim Nails with more Play
Similar to teeth-brushing….make up a story. But this time, use each finger as a different character. Your kid will be attentive and focused, and you likely will not have any pinched skin!
How to Get out of the House with your Kids
Play Follow the Leader
Play Simon Says
Make it a Race – sometimes just being silly, using the classic, “who can win in the get-your-shoes-on-race” (and then letting your child win) is really a great way to go. Here are some more tips on just being silly and saying yes to your ideas.
Play Red Light Green Light.
Even though it can feel counterintuitive to Stop with the “red light” you are going to actually get out of the house faster – or at least with more fun.
How to Make Cleaning Up Fun
Play Sleeping Ogre
Play Super Speed Clean-up
How to Make Your Kid a Better Eater through Play
You can eat in character
Make a Silly Stew when not at the table to educate about delicious and healthy food
How to Help Your Kid Sleep
Use story and song freely
Practice breath techniques to create a calm mind
Play Follow the Leader with Breath
Practice sensory work and deep relaxation, imagine you can hear different sounds
Outsource your Play
Get a Great Babysitter
When we need a babysitter, it is fabulous to know that they come with their own toolkit (ane boundless energy) for playing. One of our Child’s Play NY teachers started up a company: My Sitter Circle that is a great resource for these kinds of creative, warm caregivers for your kids. I’ve used a couple of them and they are great!
Find Kid Classes and Summer Camps that Emphasize Play
After-school classes, especially for the pre-K and K set should be play-based and movement-centric! This way kids will come to you with new tools for playing that you can use at home too! Browse through Child’s Play NY offerings if you are in New York. Whatever class you choose, look for people who are passionate about their craft or profession and who love working with children. It is certainly a plus if the teachers or program know about early childhood education as well!
Make More Playdates
Instead of babysitters, you can opt to have playgroups or playdates. Check out the tools on Child’s Play in Action to help with big group games, if you are hosting a gathering. Even if you set-up one of these games and then let them take over, the structure. This is actually called “Scaffolding Play” – and it a term that developmental psychologists introduced me to, and one that helps me understand why when I offer some support, the playing tends to be more robust and prolonged.
Be an Advocate for Play in your Child’s School
- Fundraise to get open-ended play material such as the Imaginative Playground in the school yard.
- Seek out experiences that augment the academic work through play. Our own Social Emotional Shakespeare Residency is such a program and I encourage you to champion work like this in your own child’s school
Hopefully if you play through these little pain-points of parenting, you find the awesome potential of your family. Chime in below and let me know your favorite tricks for getting through. Thanks for watching and playing along!