The Therapeutic Power of Playing with Your Kids

The therapeutic power of playing with your kids—and how to get started

Play is children’s primary language and the foundation of effective mental health treatments for kids. As a child and family therapist, I rely on the magic of play to treat kids with a wide range of difficulties, such as anxiety, depression, behavioral issues, insecure attachment, post-traumatic stress, and grief. Like many evidence-based treatments to support children’s mental health, play therapy is more effective when parents or caregivers get involved.

Engaging children in child-centered play benefits children who come to see a therapist; it can also help every child thrive. Child-centered play can help children process life events, understand themselves and others better, develop greater emotional intelligence, increase self-esteem, foster connection with caregivers, and build emotional self-regulation skills.

Parents, relatives, and caregivers also have much to gain from child-centered play. Playing strengthens the caregiver-child connection. Child-centered play is a form of mindfulness—a well-known stress reducer among adults—in which adults strive to bring their thoughts and attention to the present rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. In addition, child-centered play with your child may involve physical touch, which releases oxytocin and promotes well-being. It’s good for both parties.

With my own three kids, I find that a dose of special child-centered time with each kid at least once a week strengthens our connection, reduces sibling rivalry, enhances my patience as a parent, increases my children’s likelihood of following my leadership, and keeps our family running more smoothly. Here are some tips to get started:

  1. Leave your cares behind: Put away your phone, take a few deep belly breaths, and prepare yourself to be fully present and immersed in your child’s play. Child-centered play works best when the focus is on just one child at a time, so organize a playdate or childcare for any other siblings in the home or send them out with a partner or another relative if one is available.
  2. Set a timer: Consider the amount of time you comfortably have—30-60 minutes is excellent, but even 10-15 minutes is beneficial—so you don’t have to watch the clock or worry about other responsibilities. Set a timer for the end time and one and five minutes before the end so that you can give your child two warnings before ending your special playtime.
  3. Follow your child: Let your child know that during their special play, they can do almost anything they want, and assure them that if there’s something they can’t do, you will let them know. Then, watch your child and even “sportscast” out loud what they are doing. If they want you to role-play a part and you are comfortable doing it, go for it! This will allow them to express themselves more freely and connect with you in a special moment.
  4. Be permissive within reason: Unless it is unsafe, likely to damage property, uncomfortable for you, or involves items that are off limits (e.g., screens), allow your child to lead the play session. Play can be a powerful way to enable children to safely and productively express big feelings such as anger, sadness, frustration, and worry—feelings they need to know are okay to have and express as long as they are expressed appropriately. 
  5. Lean into empathy: Reflect out loud the feelings they express through their play, their characters’ emotions, and their desires and intentions in the play. It’s okay to get it wrong sometimes, as long as you are willing to accept corrections. This reinforces that all feelings are okay and helps them learn to talk about feelings rather than bottle them up or act out. 
  6. Be kind and firm in setting limits: If the play becomes dangerous or uncomfortable to you, set a limit. An “empathy sandwich” is a great tool to “connect and correct.” First, reflect on what they want to do in a positive and understanding way. Next, tell them they may not do the behavior. Finally, reflect on their reaction to being told they can’t. For example, if your child is trying to jump on you, say, “You think it would be really fun to jump on me! One thing that you may not do is jump on me. Oh, you’re disappointed you can’t jump on me.” If your child continues the behavior, let them know (still using an empathy sandwich) that you will have to end special playtime if they continue. If the child continues, you can kindly and firmly end the play time using an empathy sandwich. Try not to get discouraged if this happens—it’s part of the learning process for kids to test limits. It will be a helpful lesson in forgiveness and the enduring nature of parental love when you try again another day.
  7. Delight in your child’s world: Child-centered play is a great way to spend quality time with your child and learn about their inner world. At times, you may notice that some of the themes of their play relate to events happening in your family or at school. At other times, they may give you a glimpse of interests, events, and feelings you were unaware of. Whatever the case, delighting in your child during special times can strengthen your bond and enhance your connection throughout the week.

I’ve provided a series of tips, but I’ll be the first to acknowledge there is no right way to play. The most important thing is to enjoy time with your child—so schedule a time, try it, and reap the benefits of play!

-Posted by Jamie Rosen

*Note: Many of these tips are adapted from concepts in filial family therapy, as taught through professional workshops by the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement.”

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