It may sound completely off to you, having to ask this question – but then you’re sitting with your toddler, at the end of a long day, and the thought of playing [insert your least favorite toddler game here] is sending shivers down your spine. What to do?
This is a summary of my own thinking on this topic and some guidance I found online or while talking with others about this topic.
First of all, like many parental questions which seem off at first, it seems that you are not out of the ordinary if this is the case for you. Probably it’s hard to find anyone who is enthusiastic about playing with their kids all the time. Here’s what I found:
Separate your work and play
This one was especially big for me during the Covid-19 pandemic. Working from home, you get to experience the wonders of stepping out of your office and right into the playground of your kid(s), with your spouse going through either the same thing or looking desperately forward to you taking over. And it’s exactly this one step that’s the separation between those two worlds. Stressed about a delivery that’s due the next day at work? Got some troubles with a coworker or your boss? Didn’t manage to get to the bottom of your task list? Your kid will have no interest or understanding for any of these topics, and is looking forward to playing with you. What to do? Here’s some options:
- Find some separator – walk around the block, watch a video, listen to music, do a fake commute, anything that gives you some breathing space between those two worlds
- Involve your partner to arrange for this – of course it’s a bit more time but it’s time well spent if everyone is feeling better for having taken it
- Rather take a few minutes away from work if you need them for your separator and follow up on those on the next day
- Get everything out of your head – write it down, make a plan how to tackle it at the end of the work day, then let it rest
Get into it full force
There’s something disappointing for everyone involved if the adult(s) in the play relationship are only hovering on the sides of the “magic circle” and don’t fully commit to play. This is when you drift off to do the dishes, check your phone, stare at the wall, acknowledge things your kid says without really looking at them, …
I have the feeling it’s better to try getting into play right away. If you need time to do any of these other things, you can try if your kid is willing to play alone for a while after you’ve got some quality play time. Here’s two ideas:
- Do a specific action or overall an effort to get into it. Do something over the top to get you out of your adult thinking and into kid’s play. Make a theatrical entrance with light show, sound effects, … Invent a story that you start playing out right away.
- If you feel unable to muster any play motivation at all, set up a timer for a set amount of time (e.g. 10 minutes) and commit to give it your best play during this time. Agree that it’s ok to slack off a bit after this time, but make this time really great play time. (The thinking is similar to my 5 minute madness – it gets you into the right mindset and could lead to a much longer good play session than the initially set time).
Get some motivation
Think about the reasons why you want to play with your kid. One is that play comes naturally to kids and is a great way for them to learn new skills and make new experiences. Otherwise, also consider the saying “The days are long, but the years are short”. Even if the days seem endless, they are not. Eventually, your kid will grow up more and eventually will transition to other kinds of play and to preferring to play with others. Imagine this future: How would it feel like if your kid did not want to play with you? How would it feel if they were out of the house? You would probably miss every second of it – imagine this and enjoy it while it lasts.
Do funny/weird things
One thing that separates the play of older kids or adults and toddlers is that it’s much more free-flowing and much less serious. You as an adult will have a hard time getting into the right mindset – if you can’t wait to start playing a “normal” board game with your kid, this is a symptom of exactly that sentiment I believe. So, to get into the fantasy-based, slightly random/weird play by toddlers, jump right into it!
Remember “Hook”. Robin William’s Peter Pan was stuck in the adult ways until he “got it”. He got on top of the game with the lost boys when he started a food fight with imaginary food – going over the top on the concept. Do the same. Put something funky on your head, pretend you’re something or someone you’re not, be over the top – it gets you into the right mindset you will need for playing. A friend of mine has this covered fully and squarely – an image of him was one of the first things that came to my mind thinking about this point, him walking around robot-style, exclaiming loudly “I’m a robot” and a bunch of toddlers running away screaming excitedly.
Look at what other adults are doing
Sometimes you will see other parents or adults sharing a pained look with you – not enjoying what they’re doing. But other times, you will see someone who seems like they are in their element fully, they are enjoying themselves and the kids are enjoying themselves in their company. Observe what and how they are doing it and, if possible, ask them what their thoughts on play are. For example, I was amazed seeing a mom who just made a game out of herself sitting on the floor (smart first move there already) and making a barrier with her arm for kids riding around on mini-cars, bikes etc. The kids loved it and all she had to do was lift her arm when a kid approached.
Another maybe surprising source for this are play videos on youtube. There’s a good amount of videos where adults or kids are playing with toys, inventing stories with them, some just bare-bones while others are with a lot of effects etc. It can get you new ideas on what might be fun to do with the toys you already have around. One thing I learned from this kind of video is that sometimes inventing something that’s an obstacle can add some fun. Say for example a toy figurine is driving a car – you can add the twist that the car breaks down and you have to get it to a garage – but then you first have to build the garage – then the garage needs to have the right parts – and so on.
Improvise on where the play is going – “Yes, and…”
This is a concept I already fell in love when I did an impro theater workshop (which is great for a lot of areas of life and work – do it if you have the chance!). Impro theater lives from the openness of the actors. One actor could have the idea that they are a talking duck striving to find El Dorado. If the other actor insists they are the reborn Margaret Thatcher, and none of them wavers from their standpoint, it’s going to be a very strained and unenjoyable impro theater play. It’s not always conscious – sometimes we don’t realize how stubborn we are. The same can happen in play – if your kid wants to play something a certain way and you insist on your way, no one will really enjoy themselves.
The “yes, and…” exercise works like this: Several people start telling a tale, with everyone adding a new sentence. The ground rule is that you have to accept everything that the people before you have added, and you have to build upon it. So your sentences may never start with “But… “or “Yet…” and neither should their content invalidate what has come before. Instead, you have to start each sentence with “Yes, and…” and build upon what the others brought in before you.
Note: This is in general a good idea to cultivate with kids. There are some things that will never be ok – running across a busy street without checking for cars, playing next to an unsecured slope, … – but others will only seem to not be ok in the first place. Why not eat cucumber with marmalade? Why not wear the pajama shirt to the kindergarten? If your kid is not put into danger by allowing it, why not allow it?
Another cool tip I found is the following: You should consider what you enjoy playing, or also what you yourself enjoyed playing as a kid. For example, I remember I was inspired by Battlestar Galactica or also Wing Commander back in the day to construct a fleet of small space fighters (paper planes) as well as some star carriers (little boxes with landing pads in front of them). I could play this for hours on end. Hence, when I have the chance to influence the play with my kid a bit, I will try to introduce this element of building small things.
This might sound a bit obvious, but sometimes switching play from one kind of play to another can be the right thing. Why not interrupt play with a surprise session of tickling and physical play? For me, hearing my kid laugh out loud while tickling is one of the best sounds in the world, and when that part of physical play peters out, it’s usually easier to get into other kinds of play together.
As adults, especially in this day and age, we have the intense desire to get a lot of stuff done. Fear of missing out (FOMO) anyone? We might bring the same attitude to our family play – do five minutes of the board game, then do some drawing, paint a card for grandma’s birthday, … However, your kid’s idea might be to put all dolls in a straight line – and when that’s done, do it right over again. And 20 times again after this.
And that’s fine, since this is what your kid enjoys playing at that moment. In the “yes, and..”-style, embrace this. If it bugs you, try if you can adjust a bit and bring a bit of variation into it. Maybe even initiate a repeat yourself and see what happens.
Note: The reverse can also be the case. Your kid could try to go through 10 toys in 5 minutes. There’s the obvious cleanliness factor: this short amount of time probably does not include putting the toy back, so you will have a floor cluttered with 10 toys. What can you do? One option is roll with it, go to the new toy. Another option is to try engaging with one of the toys more and see if that helps the kid stay there and calm down a bit.
Narrating the play
Can’t muster any strength to play? One method to at least be there for your kid is to show them that you see and notice what they are playing. If all you’re able to do is sit and watch, try seeing what they are doing and commenting on it. “Hey, I see that you’re putting Peppa on the swing – is she having fun?”
Just start with something you enjoy
One thing I’ve seen work out in practice is just starting out with something you enjoy doing, e.g. painting something or doing a puzzle. Many times, your kid will also enjoy you playing alongside them, not necessarily engaging in a shared play session with a common game. It gets you into a more playful state of mind, and your kid could become engaged in your activity as well and want to join in with you.
Here is some additional reading if you want to get some more ideas. I’ll add notes on key points and when of my points above were inspired by the articles.
Key insight: Choose something that you enjoy playing, since it’s about who they are playing with and not what
Key insights: Doing something you like as well, be interested, copy what they are doing
Key insights: Committing to a time, find something you like as well, remember your own childhood play favorites
A great article, a lot of the inspiration for this post came from it. For example doing weird things, setting times, and the reminder of the “Yes, and…” exercise in the context of kid’s play
Key insights: Set time limit where focus is 100%, include in own activities or chores, try something you like or liked as a kid