Often referred to as the work of children, play helps children learn about their world and navigate through it. Especially in today’s world of uncertainty, it lets them develop in a safe and controlled environment. Play helps children become independent learners and pick up skills to deal with challenging situations and solve problems. It has also been linked to long-term wellbeing and achievement.
There’s no doubt that parents/carers are crucial for a child, especially in the early years. But why, exactly, are they important? Research indicates that children learn most through interactions with others, particularly their main caregivers. As key figures in the early years, parents can support their child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. With schools and childcare being closed during the pandemic, more children and carers are now at home together than ever before.
This piece focuses on the contributions of parents, but we know that families have many different structures. Having more than one trusted play partner can increase the range of play experiences children have and these play partners can take different forms.
This is a time of adjustment for most families. I hope through this piece, to shed light on some of the everyday ways parents can spend time playfully with their children. Some aspects of parent behaviour are particularly crucial for children: warmth, scaffolding, and an encouragement to explore.
Parental warmth provides children with love and affection – ranging from a simple hug, to providing emotional support to your child. Parents can encourage independence and build confidence through scaffolding, i.e. providing just enough assistance to complete a task their child might not have been able to do on their own – including placing necessary tools within your child’s reach, as well as being a sounding board for your child to solve a problem themselves. By encouraging exploration, parents give young children in particular increased confidence to try new things and learn about their world by interacting with it.
All these behaviours can occur in play, suggesting that play can strengthen parent-child bonds and unlock the full potential of parenting. Research suggests that parent play can aid children’s prosocial behaviour, language skills, and cognitive development, and may reduce challenging behaviour. Parents can encourage prosocial behaviour like empathy and sharing as well as a willingness to take risks through play.
Parents hold the key to their child’s play. At the moment especially, they are providing most, if not all, of their child’s play experiences and opportunities. Parents’ culture and beliefs around play, as well as their own experiences, can influence how they play with their child and the types of play they promote. For example, some parents might encourage independent and adventurous play outdoors from an early age, while others might emphasise reading together or doing arts and crafts. Some parents might prefer structured play activities, while others may encourage free play. All these approaches can be great ways of engaging children!
Whatever form it takes, it’s best for parents to try to provide their children with as many opportunities for play as possible, to bring out the true power of play.
It’s not just children that benefit from play! Apart from being a source of fun, play can help parents understand and communicate with their children better. It might also reduce parents’ stress levels, improve their relationship with their partners, and increase overall wellbeing.
What can you do, as a parent or carer?
First, you probably know best what your child needs from you at this time – some jumping or dancing to let off steam, maybe arts and crafts to help focus, some real-world math problems they can solve with you in the kitchen, pretend play to help them express their thoughts and ideas, or perhaps quiet reading time. If you’re unsure, you could offer a few options and let your child choose.
Next, try to play with your child in a range of different ways. There will naturally be parts of play you’re more comfortable with, whether it’s singing songs together, messy play, running around in the garden, or building a city from blocks. But playing across a few different activities can provide children with a well-rounded play experience, maximising the enjoyment and fun for you both! Children may have extended family members or siblings at home, who can take the role of play partner too.
While playing, it is important that you follow your child’s lead and respond in a sensitive manner. This means picking up on cues that they may be giving you and helping them take an experience just a little further. You might end up making the same silly sound on repeat as you pick a spoon off the floor because your child is enjoying that more than anything else. Or it may mean noticing that your shy child is really keen on trying a new activity, and you join the activity to help ease your child in. Or you may realise that your child has a fantastic knack for numbers, and you provide them with opportunities to play with numbers and pick up math skills.
Parents often ask me for tips for playing with their child. Several have also shared their uneasiness at playing with very young children – “I don’t know what to say to them!” The truth is that you probably know your child better than any “expert” might. So, play to your strengths and follow your instinct.
I do, however, have one parting word of wisdom: fun. Focus on having fun with your child and you will find opportunities for play not just during playtime, but also when bathing your child, while reading with them, while putting your dinner together, while out for a walk, and during screen time, whether for talking to family and friends, for learning, or to watch a show together. If you’re not sure of what might work best, try a few things out and your child will make sure you know what they enjoy the most.
University of Cambridge PhD Student