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Save Time for Play
The other day in evening traffic I found myself behind a bumper sticker urging parents, "Read To Your Children." As one who has worked for many years in early childhood development, I applaud that advice, whether it comes from the back of a car or the mouth of First Lady and literacy advocate, Laura Bush. But I want to suggest another bumper sticker, one that would read, "Play With Your Children."

Simple, joyful play is as important parenting activity as any carefully orchestrated "teaching" session, reading time, or planned activity. Little children love to have a parent get down on the floor and participate in their play. A parent's attention to a child's play is an official endorsement that what the child is doing is OK. Among other benefits, shared play gives children a sense of power and authority. A mother who puts a truck on a make-believe road while her young son plays with his cars is likely to hear something like, "No. That's for the cement mixer. Put yours over there." How often does a child get to say that and get away with it?

The way adults use the word "play," it's almost an oxymoron. I "play" tennis after years of lessons and practice sessions designed to improve my skills. It would be far more correct to say that I work tennis. And how about golf? It's hardly a carefree activity for anyone. But children love to play in the true sense of the word—doing something they're not obliged to do, being free to make up rules as they go along, and using materials differently than they were intended to be used.

If you asked any 4-year-old what he or she most likes to do, you would probably get the answer, "Play." If you ask why, the answer is sure to be, "Because it's fun." So when you play with your child, a first rule is: Don't take the fun out of it.

Here are some other guidelines for this type of play:
  • It must be stress-free, at least insofar as this is possible. Thus, trying to hit low baskets in the driveway wouldn't count; in that situation it's too easy to note hits and misses and, either openly or silently, keep score. (Shooting baskets or throwing and catching balls is a wonderful type of activity, incidentally. It just doesn't qualify as the kind of play I'm talking about.)
  • Skill development must not be the primary aim. If there is a hidden developmental goal for relaxed parent-child play, it's fostering a child's creativity. In play a child can let his or her imagination soar. It's also a chance to rehearse and refine things that have been previously, and perhaps precariously, learned during more structured teaching sessions.
  • The child should choose the activity. Rather than saying, "Let's go play with your toys," approach a child who is already involved in an ongoing activity, asking, "May I play with you for a while?" Your role is rather like that of a musician who asks to "sit in" with a combo; you're going to offer some improvisations, but you're probably not going to perform solo. Of course, you can make suggestions if your child has difficulty getting started in an activity or staying with one. But you shouldn't try to call all the shots all the time.
Examples of Parent-Child Play

It should be easier to appreciate the sort of play I'm advocating by giving a few examples:
  • Role-playing. Young children love to role-play—to pretend they're someone else, often an older person with more power and authority. Fostering this kind of imaginative play is a major goal of early childhood programs; toys in these settings often represent a role likely to be meaningful to a young child, such as mothers and fathers, babies and children, community workers, wild and domestic animals, etc. But children love to do role-play at home, too. For example, let's say your son is pushing a fire truck around the house. As you join in the play, call out, "Help, my house is on fire! Can you rescue me?" Then ad-lib as needed while the fireman puts out the fire. Without trying to take the initiative, you can make little comments that will vastly enrich the level of play: "Oh, dear, there's no fire hydrant near my house. What can you do?"
  • Dancing and singing. If she's listening to a tape and moving around, ask, "May I have this dance?" and join the activity. If she's singing, sing along with her.
  • Block-building. If you sit in on a block-building session, it will last longer and be more complex than if the child plays alone. Comment on emerging structures, but be careful not to give instructions. Ask what she would like you to add to what's being built.
Still, there are some activities in which it's probably not a good idea for you to participate as another player. A good example is working with clay. Even if you only make a snake, your child is likely to try to copy you, which would cut short his own creativity. Watch out for this in any type of participatory activity. You don't want what you do or make to be clearly superior to what she or he does. If you see signs that your involvement might be raising the stress level for your child, say something like, "I'm getting too old to sit on the floor so long," and excuse yourself.

These examples should give you ideas of the many ways in which a "just play" session can be a wonderful experience for both you and your child. But please don't get the idea that I'm suggesting this is the only way your child should play. He or she needs to spend some time playing alone as well as with other children. And certainly you want to continue finding time to participate in more organized play activities that don't meet the requirements I outlined above. Also, don't refrain from occasionally giving help when a child becomes frustrated in attempts to do something with a particular toy. But in the play I have been describing, your behavior will resemble that of another child more than that of a parent. You're a supporting actor, and your child is both the writer and director—not to mention the star—of the show.

So, the next time you spend half an hour down on the floor pushing cars around, drinking make-believe coffee, or taking off and putting on doll clothes, don't berate yourself for wasting time. This is time well spent. Although you might not have been teaching, your little boy or girl has been learning, and learning through a method tailor-made for children in all societies across the millennia: Play.

Finally, let me suggest that you enjoy this time while you can. All too soon, your child's friends will become his or her chosen playmates, and you may be relegated to the post of observer. But now, in these precious early years, you are wanted, appreciated—and needed.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education